Menstruation and nutrition
The principal and best described link between nutrition and menstruation is iron. Iron is an important mineral that helps the body carry out several different functions (including helping our muscles, brain, immune system function). Iron is found in the red blood cells in blood, which means that each month, there is a loss of iron through menstrual blood.
Usually, a balanced diet is enough to keep iron stores high. Women and girls over the age of 11 need 14.8 mg of iron per day. Not all form of iron are absorbed the same: heme-iron, found in meat, is usually better absorbed. Vitamin C may help the absorption of non-heme iron – vitamin C is found in good amount in fruit and vegetables.
Iron content in selected foods:
- Dried apricots, 3 to 4 ~1.2 mg
- Minced beef, stewed, 100g serving ~2.4mg
- Small lean rump steak, 100g ~3.6mg
- One toast, wholemeal bread, 40g ~1.1mg
- Cornflakes (fortified breakfast cereal, 40g serving) ~4.7mg
- Lentil and vegetable curry (200g) ~4.5mg
- Basmati rice, one small serving ~0.7mg
- Lentil soup (200g) ~3.9mg
- One average boiled egg ~1mg
- One can of sardines in tomato sauce ~3.2mg
- Horlick powder (25g serve) ~2.6mg
When blood losses are high, there is a risk that the iron loss is not matched by the iron intake from the diet – this may lead to a decrease in iron stores. The longer term risk is iron deficiency (with or without anaemia), which is linked to tiredness, decreased ability to focus and a lower quality of life. If dietary intake is not enough, supplements may be required, under the supervision of a healthcare professional. Not everyone tolerates iron supplement well, but they can help when iron stores are very low.
There has not been a large amount of high-quality research exploring how diet influences menstruation and period pain. There is some limited evidence indicating that a low-fat vegetarian diet and calcium supplements may help with duration and intensity of period pain, although these findings need to be confirmed in larger population groups.