Hey, my period started yesterday! Raise your hand if we're syncing – and raise your hand if these first sentences of this post has embarrassed you.
There is so much stigma related to our periods, but all healthy women experience menstruation in their reproductive years – that's half the human population! This is why I have no problem talking about it and by doing so I hope I can spread more acceptance of these very natural, interesting and sometimes challenging periods of our lives (no pun intended).
Some women find this monthly event not only embarassing, but also an ordeal due to pains such as lower back pain and cramps, ovarian pain, mood swings and fatigue.
Knowing what the body needs during this crucial time can help alleviate some of the discomfort and also help the body regenerate more quickly after a period.
What are the key nutrients that a woman needs during her cycle?
Firstly, there is an obvious but very important item on the list: water.
We always hear that we should be drinking more water and this is usually true for all of us, but especially true for women who are loosing a lot of liquid while on their period.
The European Food Safety Authority has recommended at least 2 litres of water per day under regular circumstances, so being on your cycle is a great excuse to start getting used to a bigger water intake to keep things literally flowing.
Because of the blood loss, women are more susceptible to iron deficiency anaemia than men.
This occurs when red blood cells and haemoglobin levels are at a low point.
Haemoglobin is an iron-containing transport molecule for oxygen in red blood cells and without it oxygen transport through the body fails and will make us feel tired, nauseous and weak. The biggest and easiest source of iron for omnivores are meat, but there are also some great options for vegetarians:
- Dark leafy greens: Almost all common leafy greens, but especially spinach, arugula, watercress, beet greens, kale and chard contain a lot of iron. Chard also has a very high vitamin C content and is therefore the perfect match with other iron rich greens because vitamin C aids the uptake of iron – more about that later.
- Sea vegetables: Use your monthly as an excuse to explore the fabulous world or flavourful sea vegetables! Nori, kelp and other sea weeds are highly alkaline, naturally salty and contain plenty of iron.
- Iron rich supplements: Wheatgrass and spirulina are great natural supplements to add to your diet on a regular basis, but their high levels of iron are especially crucial during your period.
- Fresh herbs: Many fresh herbs has a very high content of iron. For instance, 10 grams of fresh oregano contains 50% of your recommended daily intake of iron. Other herbals sources for iron are nettles, flat leaf parsley and basil.
- Blackstrap molasses: Blackstrap molasses is a third-extraction-syrup from unrefined sugar cane. It has a low GI score and a very high mineral content, notably of iron but also including selenium, manganese, potassium, copper and zinc. (B5, B6)
- Tofu: Tofu is a versatile protein source for vegetarians and contains a fair amount of iron, about 30 % RDI per 100 g.
- Currants: currants are delicious as a sweet snack and also incredibly rich in iron as well as being one of the most vitamin C rich foods on the planet.
Meanwhile, vitamin C is needed to facilitate the body’s uptake of iron as well as it helps energise the body and relieve fatigue.
Some greens with a high iron content, such as chard, broccoli, watercress as well as flat leaf parsley, are also high in vitamin C.
Another way to facilitate iron uptake is to drink a little lemon water or use lemon or lime in whatever sauce or dressing you are making for your iron rich foods.
Another important vitamin to take into account is vitamin K.
Vitamin K supports the bones and the body’s ability to heal and deficiency in this vitamin can mean excessive bleeding, heavy periods, nose bleeds and bruisability.
Two vitamin K all stars are the already mentioned flat leaf parsley and kale. 10 grams of parsley will provide you with over 100% of your recommended daily vitamin K intake and along with a high iron and vitamin C content, this makes parsley an excellent addition to your diet during your cycle.
Other wonderful vegetarian sources for vitamin K are:
- Dark leafy greens: collards, chard, spinach, mustard greens, beet greens, broccoli.
- Fresh herbs: Coriander, basil, nettles and oregano.
- Vegetables: Endive, radicchio, garden cress, watercress, chicory, asparagus and leeks.
Speaking of dark greens, let’s talk about chlorophyll!
Chlorophyll is found in all plants and is a green biomolecule that allows plants to convert sunlight into energy.
It is referred to as plant blood and the comparison is not by chance: chlorophyll is actually molecularly structured in a very similar way to haemoglobin. The only difference between the chlorophyll and haemoglobin molecules is the central atom – chlorophyll’s is magnesium, while haemoglobin’s is iron.
In this peculiar and beautiful way we are connected to the plants and can use plant blood in order to help build our own blood, which is especially important during a menstrual cycle.
Dark leafy greens, the darker the better, are fantastic sources of chlorophyll, as is spirulina and wheatgrass. You can even grow your own powerful chlorophyll-hit on your windowsill!
As a vegetarian, my vitamin B-12 consumption is something that I keep an especially watchful eye on as it is a vitamin that is mostly found in meat and eggs.
B-12 is necessary during your period to keep your energy level up, protect the body from megaloblastic anaemia and aid the formation of red blood cells.
Many vegetarians swear by B12 supplements, but I myself prefer to eat the whole food rather that a fortified product or a vitamin capsule and I am getting my B12 fix from whole, natural sources such as:
- Kale: Again, kale makes it to the list – the ultimate menstrual cycle food! Kale is one of the few greens containing vitamin B12, so here is yet another reason to be excited about kale.
- Nutritional yeast: The vegan’s secret weapon. Nutritional yeast is inactive test which makes anything take kind of cheesy. I drizzle it over baked kale in order to make the perfectly salty PMS snack,and it can be used in sauces or dressings for a creamy, cheesy flavour.
- Palmyra palm sugar (palmyra jaggery): I am not kidding when I tell you that a sugar actually can be good for you. The palmyra palm is native to India and Sri Lanka and its sugar has a wonderful caramel flavour, with one tbs containing 133% or your RDI of B12, as well as many other B-complex vitamins and minerals. Palmyra jaggery has a Gi score of 41 and a very low fructose content so it is a descent alternative to satisfy your cravings for sweets. It's still a sugar, so don't go crazy! A little goes a long way.
- Nori: The seaweed nori is flavourful and deliciously salty as well as a B12 provider.
- Tempeh: My favourite bacon substitute! Tempeh fried in coconut oil with a little bit of salt and smoked paprika will make even the most hard core omnivore drool. Soy beans contain no B12 and tempeh owes it’s B12 content due to fermentation.
- Fermented products: B12 does not naturally occur in humans or plants, but is synthesised by bacteria. As the bacteria flora in a fermentation process is never consistent so is the case with the vitamin content in fermented products. Yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles are all made with the lactic bacteria that under certain circumstances produce B12.
Alkaline minerals are important features in our diet at any time in order to balance out the foods we eat, which are often acidic.
During the menstruation period, the alkaline minerals potassium, calcium, and magnesium are especially important.
Potassium can help relieve bloating, tender breasts and promote a more regular digestion for the women who struggle with diarrhoea during their period.
Calcium acts as a muscle relaxant, especially when taken alongside magnesium.
Magnesium help reduce bloating during menstruation and will similarly to calcium release muscle tension which will help on the cramps and discomfort.
- Sources of alkaline minerals: cabbage (potassium – and also high in vitamin C!), blackstrap molasses (potassium, calcium), bananas (potassium, magnesium), coconut water (potassium), avocados (potassium), sweet potatoes (potassium), chia seeds (calcium), milk products (calcium), nettles (calcium, magnesium), collard greens (calcium), kale (calcium, potassium), oats (magnesium), kelp (magnesium), almonds (potassium, magnesium), cocoa and cacao (magnesium and also iron), pumpkin seeds (magnesium), beet greens (calcium, magnesium).
Healthy fats are key components for a healthy hormonal balance and a healthy lifestyle overall.
The production of hormones is a complex process, but one thing we know is that hormones are dependant on fats. If your diet is short on good fats, the body no longer has the building blocks to create hormones.
If the body has a too high content of polyunsaturated fatty acids, meaning margarine and vegetable oils, it will attempt to create hormones out of these wrong building blocks and we get hormonal deficiency.
In addition to this, vegetable oils are chemically extracted and they often contain a high level of toxins which can lead to “mutant oestrogen”.
Build your hormones the way they were meant to using saturated fats from raw butter, raw cheese, unheated olive oil, eggs, avocados, nuts and coconut oil.
The fat content of the body is 97% saturated fats and 3% polyunsaturated fats containing omega-3 and omega-6 in a 1:1 ratio.
Unfortunately the consumption of omega-6 has skyrocketed due to its presence in seed oils such as canola oil and soybean oil which are found in most packaged and manufactured foods.
Therefore, we must steer away from manufactured foods and load up on omega-3.
In addition to this, studies have shown omega-3 to help alleviate menstrual cramps, inflammation and tension during the period.
Omega-3 is found in fatty fish such as salmon and sardines, flax seeds, walnuts, soybeans, tofu and chia seeds and can also be taken as a supplement (look for a DHA and EPA supplement – this is a great guide).
Lastly, there are some superfoods and herbs that have shown to aid hormonal imbalance and relieve uncomfortable PMS symptoms and period pains:
- Maca: Maca is a root in the radish family that has been used in Peru for a very long time. Maca is high in calcium, potassium and iron and is known to balance hormones and can help relieve PMS symptoms, improve skin condition and fertility and act as an aphrodisiac.
- Spirulina: Contains potassium, magnesium and calcium and plenty of protein. Perfect for your morning smoothie.
- Bee pollen: Used in Chinese medicine, bee pollen can help improve digestion, build the blood for iron stores and increase energy.
- Vitex: Vitex is a medicinal herb that can be taken as a tea or a tincture. Vitex is used to treat headaches, problem skin, breast tenderness, fatigue and bloating.
- Lady’s Mantle: Lady’s mantle is a powerfully antioxidant plant that can be taken as a tea or a tincture. Lady’s mantle is used to treat all kinds of female problems including hormonal conditions, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, irregular bleeding and menstrual cramps. Ideally, one should begin drinking the tea or tincture ten days before the period for maximum effect.
A balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle is as we know key to many things in life and a less painful menstruation period is one of them.
Make sure to always buy organic products, especially during such a sensitive time as your moon cycle. Foods like leafy greens, blackstrap molasses, palmyra jaggery and maca are especially dependent on fertile soil in order for them to display their health properties.
Drink lots of water; fill your smoothies, salads and stews with lots of leafy greens and chlorophyll; go heavy on delicious butter and coconut oil; eat a variety of vegetables and fermented foods; experiment with fresh herbs in your cooking; drink lots of warming vitex and lady’s mantle tea and most of all allow yourself to be still and immerse yourself in this powerful week every month.
PS! If you need some entertainment while you are in your monthly fetal position, too crampy to leave the house but still hungry for information about what’s going on inside you, check out these fantastic podcasts on periods and period-related things:
The Period Pride Episode
The Period Tracker Apps Episode
The Menstrual Cups Episode
And do you have questions you don't even dare to ask your doctor? Visit HelloFlo.