Diet may be a key contributor to menstrual cramps in teens, specifically diets high in inflammatory foods and beverages such as meat, oil, sugar, salt, and coffee, according to a poster presentation by Serah Sannoh at the 2022 North American Menopause Society (NAMS) Annual Meeting held October 12 to 15 in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Researching the effects of diet on menstrual pain started as a search to remedy the pain I personally experienced; I wanted to understand the science behind the association. Learning about different foods that increase and decrease inflammation, which subsequently increase or reduce menstrual pain, revealed that diet is one of the many contributors to health outcomes that is often overlooked. I am hopeful that this research can help those who menstruate reduce the pain they experience and shed light on the importance of holistic treatment options,” says Serah Sannoh, lead author of the poster presentation from Rutgers University.

Approximately 90% of adolescent girls experience menstrual pain (dysmenorrhea). Although this pain is the leading cause of school absences for adolescent girls, few seek treatment, according to Sannoh.

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Sannoh conducted a literature review to identify studies that examined dietary patterns linked to menstrual pain.

Key Findings

Sannoh found that diets high in animal meats, oil, sugars, salts, and coffee contribute to an increased risk of dysmenorrhea. The analysis also suggested that diets high in omega-6 fatty acids (commonly found in processed foods and fried foods) promote inflammation and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation (Table). However, there are some healthy sources of omega-6 fatty acids (such as nuts and seeds) and research suggests that balancing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids or having a slightly higher omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio may be best, Sannoh explained.

Table. Foods High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Chia Seeds
Fish oil
Flaxseed oil or flaxseeds
Oily fish (salmon, herring, mackerel, and sardines)
Source: National Institutes of Health.

Research also suggests that a vegan diet is linked to the lowest rates of inflammation on the Dietary Inflammatory Index.

“Since menstrual pain is a leading cause of school absenteeism for adolescent girls, it’s important to explore options that can minimize the pain. Something like diet modification could be a relatively simple solution that could provide substantial relief for them,” said Stephanie S Faubion, MD, MBA, FACP, NCMP, IF.

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Sannoh S. The effects of diet on menstrual pain. Poster presented at: 2022 NAMS Annual Meeting; October 12-15, 2022; Atlanta, GA.