I used to avoid eating dietary fats, in fear that they would make me fat.
Can you relate? I’d take the yolk out of eggs, skip the olive oil, avoid the avocado, I NEVER ate nuts and I would wonder why my moods were all over the place, my skin would breakout and why my periods were painful, heavy and irregular…
Ohh how I wish younger Nikki knew just how IMPORTANT eating healthy fats were.
Healthy fats are important because they are used by the body to actually MAKE hormones, plus they help to reduce inflammation which is at the root cause of any and all period problems.
So, even just changing the type and amount of fat you eat is one simple step towards improving your hormonal health & periods, no matter the condition or painful symptom you have.
Healthy fats are essential for balanced moods, consistent energy, regular periods, fertility, skin health, brain function and are a game-changer when it comes to period pain relief.
How do dietary fats reduce or cause period pain?
Period pain is a prime symptom of inflammation and healthy fats that contain omega-3 fatty acids work in similar fashion to NSAIDs like Ibuprofen, Advil and Tylenol when it comes to reducing inflammation on a cellular level.
However, long term & consistent use of NSAIDs aren’t without their side effects, which is just one reason why I’m so passionate about empowering you to use food as medicine. When it comes to healthy fats - they will naturally help to prevent period pain for the long-term.
There are also fats that make period pain worse which is why the TYPES of fats you eat can make or break menstrual cramps. We'll get to these later.
As always when it comes to making any improvements to your diet for better hormonal health, it’s not just about WHAT you should eat, but WHY!
It’s important that we understand the reason “why” so that we truly feel empowered to make the changes, and stick with the changes.
So let’s break this all down further when it comes to how fats can either make period pain better or worse.
What causes period pain?
The activity of your uterus is controlled by three different prostaglandins which are chemical messengers that control uterine contraction and relaxation.
There are two prostaglandins (PGE1 + PGE3) that control uterine relaxation as they are anti-inflammatory & anti-spasmodic (meaning they are natural painkillers). Then there is only one type of prostaglandin (PGE2) that controls contraction, it’s pro-inflammatory and can cause pain.
The more PgE2 you make, the more cramps you experience. They also play a part in the vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches which are common symptoms too.
In a nutshell, we want more PGE1 & PGE3 for pain-free periods.
The anti-inflammatory PGE1 & PGE3 prostaglandins are the end-products of Omega-3 fatty acids, while the pain causing pro-inflammatory PGE2 prostaglandins are derived from Omega-6 fatty acids.
Why do so many people suffer from cramps? We are eating the wrong types of fats that jack up the production of inflammatory pain-causing PGE2.
Humans evolved eating a diet that had a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids which would result in a balance between the production of all prostaglandins.
However, today's western diet (high in processed, fried, packaged foods) has an average omega-6:omega-3 ratio of 15:1. CRAZY I know!
This imbalance leads to a higher production of the inflammatory PGE2, with less anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving PGE1 & PGE3. The end result? Period pain!
Change the fat you’re consuming and this simple change can bring you big results with period pain relief when you focus on consuming MORE omega-3 fatty acids to boost your PGE1 & PGE3.
Important Side Note:
Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are considered “essential fatty acids” or EFAS meaning your body cannot make these fatty acids from other substances on its own and they must be consumed through your diet.
The fatty acids you consume through your diet end up becoming part of your cell membranes, which determine the type of “prostaglandins,” or cell signaling molecules your body produces.
Prostaglandins are essential to the body, as they assist in the healing process by either promoting (pro-inflammatory prostaglandins) or reducing (anti-inflammatory prostaglandins) your inflammation levels.
Not all inflammation is bad, since acute swelling, redness, and more is required to heal an injury, for example. When inflammation becomes chronic, however, is how chronic illness arises.
Fats to eat more of for period pain relief:
In short, the fats to help lower those pesky prostaglandins include omega-3 and ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid) fatty acids such as:
- Oily fish: wild caught salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel
- Eggs, olives & olive oil
- Freshly ground flaxseeds
- Hemp seeds & chia seeds found in Earth Seeds.
An easy way to boost healthy fats in each meal is to sprinkle 2 tablespoons of Earth Seeds over salads, in your smoothies, soups, breakfast bowls etc. We've made it simple for you!
- ALA from leafy greens, algae, walnuts, and flaxseed can also be converted into EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid), but only at a rate of about 10% of total intake.
Fats to eat less of to reduce to prevent cramps:
At a basic level, the omega-6 fats you want to reduce in your diet in order to support hormone health & reduce period pain via prostaglandin modulation are:
Omega-6 oils such as..
- Hydrogenated oils such as sunflower, corn, soy, & canola oil
Be aware that most packaged foods contain these oils plus restaurants cook and fry their food in these oils.
I personally either ask the waiter if they can use coconut oil, or olive oil for my meal and if not possible, they can use a different cooking method like steaming or roasting.
All in all cooking at home is always best so you know exactly what’s in your food and you have control over the cooking oils you use!
Furthermore, high levels of insulin convert omega-6 fatty acids into inflammatory prostaglandins, so balancing blood sugar with fiber and protein with each meal is important as well.
What about red meat you ask?
I don’t advocate for any specific diet other than the one that works to best nourish YOU and your unique biochemical needs. Every person responds to every food differently.
PGE2 is a prominent molecule derived from the omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid (AA), found abundantly in meat and dairy. This doesn’t mean that cutting out meat & dairy is the answer to period pain, because everyone is different.
Rather avoid excessive consumption and tune in to how these foods specifically impact you. As mentioned earlier, omega-6 fatty acids like arachidonic acid are still considered essential fatty acids, and those found in meat and dairy can be better balanced with more Omega-3s when you address sourcing.
For example, conventional livestock, poultry and farmed fish are fed cornmeal and soy-based feed, which raises the Omega-6 content of factory farmed animal products. When animals are raised on grass, worms or other natural diets, their tissues are naturally higher in Omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, grass-fed cattle can contain up to 4% omega-3 fatty acids, while corn-fed cattle typically contain 0.5% (O’Sullivan et al., 2002).
For many women, avoiding dairy can bring huge improvement to period pain, so I invite you to experiment and find what works for you.
If you eat red meat, I recommend balancing red meat consumption with fish, and consume ALA-rich vegetables and plant foods like hemp seeds and leafy greens.
Furthermore, include legumes in your diet, such as pressure cooked beans, as research shows peptides derived from legume proteins can regulate and reduce inflammatory PGE2 markers.
The key is balance, and the goal is not to completely demonize any one type of fat, but rather to reduce and balance certain fats in order to support a healthier ratio of the prostaglandins we produce on a consistent basis.
By reducing overconsumption of Omega-6 fats and increasing consumption of more Omega-3s, we support higher levels of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins that decrease period cramps, and reduce our sensitivity to pain.
This optimizes hormone health, better circulation, and easier periods, especially if you are someone who experiences digestive challenges or chronic pain around your cycle - all driven by excess inflammation.
Cramps are not a normal, or inevitable part of having a period!
Making small improvements to your diet such as eating more omega-3 fats, can bring huge benefits. Consistency is key, and it may take a minimum of 3 months of better habits to experience a reduction in symptoms, as it takes time for inflammation to cool in the body.
Just remember, a holistic approach to reducing period pain is key which incorporates improvements in both your dietary & lifestyle habits.
If you want to empower yourself with more knowledge & strategies about how to upgrade your hormonal health for better periods come join my 4 week live course Master Your Cycle.
Supplementing omega-3 fatty acids for period pain relief
Whilst diet is important, it can be challenging to get enough omega-3 fatty acids from food alone, especially if you don’t eat fish!
The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, in their International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, noted a study in which women, following 3 months of Omega-3 treatments, found that they needed less pain medication than those without the Omega-3 treatments during their period.
This study also shows that fish oil may be more effective than ibuprofen on treatment of severe pain in primary dysmenorrhea.
I personally take an omega 3 fatty acid supplement daily as part of my daily routine to support my hormones. For a fish oil, make sure it's 3rd party tested - I recommend Nordic Natural or Health By Design, or for a vegan option I recommend an algae supplement.
- Linus Pauling Institute. (2014). Retrieved from Essential Fatty Acids.
- Tokuyama, S., & Nakamoto, K. (2011). Unsaturated fatty acids and pain. Biol Pharm Bull, Feb; 34(8): 1174-1178.
- Rahbar, N., Asgharzadeh, N, & Ghorbani, R. (2012). Effect of omega-3 fatty acids on intensity of primary dysmenorrhea. Int J Gynaecol Obstet, Apr; 117(1): 45-57.