Menstrual cramps aren’t only annoying–for many people, they can be debilitating. While you might have reached for an over-the-counter medication in the past to quell the pain, you may want to try a more effective and natural solution: Eating a diet of plant-based foods. 

There is research that shows diet can affect period-related cramping. Food and diet are known to impact hormone issues, and scientists are now finding out that what we put in our mouths affects our estrogen levels, which in turn make cramping worse. “When you cut the fat and boost the plant foods in your diet, your estrogen levels will change,” explains Neal Barnard, M.D., adjunct professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). His book, Your Body in Balance, explores how a plant-based diet can help regulate hormones and alleviate cramps, PCOS, and other hormone-related conditions.

The Link Between Cramps and Diet

Here's how cramps happen: Estrogen levels are constantly rising and falling: When your menstrual cycle starts, you have less or very little estrogen in your bloodstream, but it gradually builds, thickening the uterine lining in anticipation of a pregnancy. If that doesn’t happen, estrogen drops and the uterus sheds that extra layer of blood through your menstrual flow. But as your hormones yoyo, it can release cramp-inducing chemicals called prostaglandins that are the cause of your problem. 

That's where food comes into play. If you’re eating the standard American diet, high in fat (animal products such as red meat and dairy in particular) and low in fiber (which you only get from plants foods like vegetables, leafy greens, fruit, and seeds or nuts), estrogen levels increase, Barnard says, creating an even harsher drop when it happens. More estrogen also means a thicker uterine lining, and heavier periods, which also leads to more cramping.  

As if that’s not bad enough, women often gain weight when they eat the standard American diet, and “fat cells from excess weight also produce estrogen,” Barnard explains. 

So what would happen if you ditched the standard American diet and ate a low-fat, high-fiber diet rich in plant-based foods like vegetables and fruit, nuts and seeds, legumes and greens? Barnard explored that very question in a study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology. The results were significant. Not only did the plant-based diet decrease the severity of pain, after just two months of being plant-based, but it also shortened how many days the study subjects suffered from pain, from 3.9 days to 2.7 days. Some subjects even reporting the complete disappearance of any cramps by day three.“A plant-based diet is a way to balance your estrogen to where it should be, where Mother Nature wanted it before McDonald’s arrived,” Barnard says. Cutting out junk foods, meat, and dairy while you go plant-based is essential to keeping estrogen in check, he added.

What to Eat to Ease Period Cramps

To experience these benefits, you can start a plant-based diet any day of the month, but the key is making sure you’ve adopted this way of eating before the first day of your next period. “You want to hit the ground running with the best diet possible so that when your next period starts, you’ll have a greater likelihood of seeing changes,” Barnard says. Your body, after all, will need time to change, and some may need two to three months to experience differences.

Yet how close to 100 percent plant-based do you have to be? If you want optimal results, you’ve got to go all the way. Barnard compares it to smoking. “If you’re cutting back on smoking, you won’t get the same benefits as if you quit completely,” he says, adding that even small amounts of cramp-causing foods could set you back. That might sound overwhelming if you’re not used to eating plant-based, but here are Barnard's three simple strategies to quell those cramps:

Here's how to use diet to eliminate or reduce period cramps

  • Eliminate all animal products
  • Keep oil intake to a minimum
  • Fill your plate with high-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes
  • Skip added sugar, excess calories and junk foods

To make it easier to figure out what your meals should look like, divide your plate into four quadrants, allowing one quadrant per each of these four food groups: Vegetables, fruits, whole grains (such as quinoa or brown rice), and legumes such as beans.

At first, it can be a little intimidating to think about not eating your favorite foods that you grew up on, which is why Barnard recommends keeping your dietary shift focused on a short-term commitment to going plant-based. “Commit to the plant-based diet for two to three months and then see how you feel,” he suggests. You may feel so good that you don’t want to return to your old way of eating that literally cramped your style.

Bottom Line: Research shows plant-based diets help alleviate period cramping.

To get over the pain and inconvenience of cramping during your period try eliminating all animal products, keep oil to a minimum, and fill your plate with plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables. Skip added sugar, excess calories, and junk foods. Try it for two months.

For more great content about how to live your healthiest and for reasons to eat a more plant-based diet,  check out the Health & Nutrition stories on The Beet.