Well Life Episode 5: What You Need On Your Period

Hey there. This is Johnna. Every week, I’ll be sharing a strategy that will help you love your body, love yourself, and live life well.

One of the questions someone wanted me to answer on this podcast was how to give your body what it wants and needs during your period. I think this is such a great question, because a lot of us don’t actually know this. Mainly because a lot of us don’t even know about the delicate balance that goes on in our bodies during our entire cycle, not just during our period, but that’s a topic for another day. Now there are a lot of different ways to approach this question of what your body needs during your period, but I’m going to do it from a nutritional angle. Hopefully that’s what this person was looking for, but if not feel free to shoot me an email to clarify.

Okay, so the food you eat has a really important relationship on your menstrual cycle. Your diet can affect how your reproductive system functions, and menstruation can affect your need and use of micronutrients (so things like your vitamins and minerals). The three micronutrients I want to discuss in particular today are calcium, iron, and magnesium.

Premenstrual syndrome and calcium

Calcium intake is strongly associated with PMS . And I have four studies I’m drawing from when I’m saying that, so if you’re interested in reading those you can head over to my website to see the transcript for this episode. In women diagnosed with PMS, these studies showed that calcium supplementation decreased the severity of symptoms, such as depression and fatigue. One of those studies even showed that those with high calcium intakes may be less likely to develop PMS. This is because calcium affects normal cell behavior and serotonin development, the latter of which affects mood.

However, it is important to note that calcium is also linked to vitamin D absorption, and high vitamin D levels have been associated with decreased risk of the development of PMS. Given that many people are deficient in either (or both) vitamin D or calcium (and again, there are four studies I’m referencing when I say that if you want to check them out in the episode transcript on my website), it is not always clear if the benefits of calcium supplementation are due to fixing deficiencies or some other underlying mechanism. If you are interested in adding more calcium and vitamin D to your diet, you should consider consuming more dairy products, such as milk and cheese.

Menstruation and iron

Like I said before, your cycle can actually affect the nutrient levels in your body. Specifically, menstruation lowers the amount of iron in your body , which can lead to iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia. Those who experience heavy menstrual flow are at greater risk of iron deficiency, as are those with a vegetarian or vegan diet.

That latter point - vegetarians and vegans are at greater risk of iron deficiency – is because of the type of iron these people consume . There are two forms of dietary iron — heme (or haem) and non-heme (non-haem). Heme iron is found in meat and fish products, whereas non-heme iron is found in both plant and animal products. Heme iron is more bioavailable than non-heme iron, meaning that your body can better use heme iron than non-heme. This means that a person can consume the same amount of iron from food, but depending on the types of food, they may not have as much useable iron in their body . One study found that women placed on a high vegetable, low meat/fish diet had 32% less of the biomarker for iron in their blood as compared to women placed on a high meat/fish diet after 20 weeks. These women consumed the same amount of iron but not the same type, which shows that iron levels in the blood are responsive to iron type, not just amount .

So if you’re feeling tired, weak, and/or having trouble concentrating during your period (or at anytime really), consider adding more meat and fish, particularly red meat, to your diet during your period. If you are vegetarian, vegan, or otherwise unable to eat meat or fish, consider alternative dietary approaches, such as adjusting your calcium, soy and vitamin C levels during your period to help manage a potential iron deficiency.

Magnesium and women’s health

Magnesium calms the nervous system and reduces the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis . The result is less anxiety, less cortisol, and a better capacity to cope with stress. Reduced stress can, in turn, have positive effects on your menstrual cycle and health. According to a recent literature review, magnesium is an evidence-based treatment for PMS. For one thing, magnesium can prevent premenstrual migraines. Magnesium can also prevent menstrual cramps in some people. Some researchers propose that magnesium may work for these symptoms by calming the nervous system and by “normalizing the actions of different hormones (mainly progesterone) on the central nervous system” . And that’s because it relaxes the smooth muscle of the uterus and reduces the prostaglandins that cause period pain .

So some good sources of magnesium are cashews, bananas, and even cocoa powder. Magnesium works best in combination with vitamin B6, which bananas and nuts also contain.

I actually have a recipe for the best smoothie for your period that contains all of those ingredients. That recipe is also packed with iron, so you should definitely check it out. Make it next time you’re on your period and let me know how it makes you feel. Until then, this is Johnna, and here’s to living life well.

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