Nix insomnia, anxiety, cramps, constipation, and more health woes with these everyday foods you never knew had magical powers.
We talk a lot about the benefits of certain foods — for instance, how berries pack antioxidants or fish provide omega-3s — but that may not mean a whole lot to you on its own. Wouldn’t it be easier to know what foods can help with your most irritating daily health issues?
We thought so too, which is why we’re giving you the rundown on how to beat everything from bloat to mental fog, menstrual cramps, and insomnia with, yep, food. Take it from the nutrition experts when it comes to these lady probs. Good news? There *is* such a thing as food for cramps.
What to eat: A plant-based, high-fiber, low-fat diet; whole-grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and fruits
Why it works: According to Dana Hunnes, Ph.D, R.D., a senior dietitian at RR-UCLA Medical Center, research shows that the prostaglandins (hormone-like chemicals that can induce inflammation and pain) influenced by our estrogen levels are responsible for menstrual cramps. “A high-fiber, low-fat diet that is primarily plant-based decreases estrogen concentrations — since estrogen production increases with dietary fat consumption — and decreases prostaglandin production, ultimately decreasing the amount of pain we feel from menstrual cramps,” she explains.
“As the prostaglandins are released into the tissue, the uterus reacts by going into spasms,” adds Susan Lark, M.D., a women’s health specialist and author of The Menstrual Cramps Cure. One to two teaspoons of flaxseed a day over cereal or salad can be good for cramps, too. Studies show that flaxseed can inhibit the release of certain prostaglandins by providing omega-3s.
What to eat: Yogurt, beans, chia seeds, oats, papaya, water, peppermint tea, fennel seeds, apples, and pears
Why it works: You’re looking for a combination of probiotics to regulate, fiber to help your stools pass easily, and fluids to flush. “The probiotic bacteria in yogurt help regulate digestion, while the fiber in beans, peas, lentils, and chia seeds help move everything along,” says dietitian Jessica Cording, R.D. “Aside from being high in bloat-fighting potassium, papayas also contain an enzyme called papain that aids in digestion.”
Peppermint and fennel both work as antispasmodics to relax bowel muscles. “This helps prevent pain caused by the buildup of gas, which gets stuck in the gastrointestinal tract when the muscles are constricted,” explains Cindy Yoshida, M.D., a gastroenterology specialist in Charlottesville, VA. Try a cup of peppermint tea or eating a half teaspoon of fennel seeds after a meal.
Fiber-rich foods like apples and pears also help the digestive tract function regularly. Produce that has a high water content (such as pears, melons, tomatoes, and grapes) can also help keep things moving. Aim for 20 to 35 grams of fiber daily, which can be met by eating five servings of high-fiber fruits and vegetables. Increase your intake slowly, by just 4 to 5 grams per day, or you may experience stomach discomfort, says Dr. Yoshida. Also, be sure to drink at least two additional glasses of water every day, which will help push the fiber through the digestive tract.
What to eat: Pineapples, oranges, and bananas
Why it works: This eating advice is a bit more specific; reach for one of the above three foods. Hunnes points to a 2013 study in the Journal of Pineal Research, which shows that consuming pineapple, orange, or banana significantly increases the body’s serum concentrations of melatonin, a hormone that helps control sleep-wake cycles. “By eating foods that are known to increase our melatonin levels within two hours of bedtime, we may be able to improve our ability to fall asleep if we have a proclivity towards insomnia,” she says.
Stress and Anxiety
What to eat: Asparagus, fish, blueberries, and healthy carbs
Why it works: Targeting key nutrients may be an effective strategy for overcoming stress. According to one German study, the vitamin C in blueberries helped lower blood pressure and cortisol levels after a nerve-racking situation in which subjects were asked to do some public speaking and tough math problems. “Asparagus is rich in folic acid, which has been identified as a mood-enhancing nutrient,” says Hunnes. “We also shouldn’t overlook the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. Omega-3s help keep cortisol and adrenaline from spiking.” To combine these foods into a zen meal, Hunnes suggests eating a cup of asparagus (containing two-thirds of the folic acid most women need in a day), 4 ounces of salmon, and a cup of blueberries for a sweet kick
Low-fat carbohydrates can also increase production of serotonin in the brain, which helps relax you, says Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., coauthor of The Serotonin Power Diet. Diane Grabowski-Nepa, R.D., a dietitian in Camarillo, CA, suggests having whole-grain toast or oatmeal topped with a teaspoon of honey. Or try snacking on a cup of air-popped popcorn or five small graham crackers.
What to eat: Coffee, black tea, spinach, fatty fish such as trout, sardines, and herring
Why it works: You’ll notice caffeine on the list of ingredients for many drugs. Why? Caffeine seems to help the body absorb pain-relieving medications, so take some sips of black tea or coffee in as you rest with some Advil. In addition, choose a meal with riboflavin-rich spinach. “The B vitamins have been linked to preventing migraines, although the exact mechanism is unknown,” Hunnes says. “High-doses of riboflavin decrease the prevalence of migraine headaches, and so eating foods high in riboflavin may help as well.”
Fatty fish, which are high in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, may also lower the body’s production of prostaglandins. Aim for a 4- to 6-ounce serving two or three times a week.
What to eat: Asparagus, coffee, black or green tea, lemon, cucumber, avocado, banana, and papaya
Why it works: Probiotic yogurt will keep your digestive system humming, while tea and coffee can help with water retention. Look for potassium-rich foods like avocado and banana for system balance, and use lemon as a natural detoxifier. Cording also suggests a couple green veggies to fight bloat. “In addition to being a diuretic food, asparagus also has prebiotic fibers, which promote healthy absorption of nutrients, discouraging gas and bloating,” she says. “Then the silica, caffeic acid, and vitamin C in cucumbers help reduce swelling and prevent water retention.”
Muscle Aches and Joint Pain
What to eat: Banana, avocado, tart cherries, oranges, berries, ginger, turmeric, nuts, leafy greens, broccoli, and sweet potato
Why it works: Cording says the combination of key nutrients like magnesium, potassium and calcium have shown themselves helpful in tackling aches and pains around the body, especially from sore muscles. Add in some foods with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, like ginger and blueberries, and you’ve got yourself an ache-fighting eating regimen. “The potassium and magnesium help soothe muscles,” she says. “Also, the anthocyanins, or pigment, in cherries help relieve inflammation, which may help relieve aches and soreness.”
Vitamin C — which is abundant in strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries — may help slow wear and tear on your joints. Some research finds that high levels of vitamin C could be protective against issues like osteoarthritis. The vitamin’s antioxidant activity may keep free radicals from wreaking havoc. Plus, vitamin C plays an essential role in the formation of collagen, a key component of cartilage and bone. Try to get 120 milligrams daily, which can be provided by two oranges. Other C-rich foods: cantaloupe and broccoli.
Moodiness and Irritability
What to eat: Salmon, avocado, lean protein, yogurt, oats, and dark chocolate
Why it works: Next time you can’t seem to shake your PMS irritability, counteract it with foods that support stable blood sugar, energy, and mood-boosting neurotransmitters. “Dark chocolate has been shown to increase levels of serotonin, which regulates mood,” says Cording. Chocolate is also full of the amino acid L-tryptophan, which can boost the production of serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates mood. (People who suffer from depression often have low serotonin levels.) “Fish is also rich in the amino acid tryptophan, which is key for the production of serotonin, and the protein in fish, meat, and eggs promote stable energy and blood sugar, which in turn helps keep our mood stable.”