Fats For Women: Will They Keep Hormones In Check?

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Guest blog by Vicky Ware

Fats for Women

Could eating more dietary fat keep your hormones in check and PMT to the minimum? Vicky Ware finds out.

If you suffer from premenstrual tension (PMT), you’ll know it’s not a lot of fun. In fact, it’s horrible.

Symptoms often include breast discomfort, mood swings, fluid retention and food cravings which usually ease within two days of a period 1.

Believe it or not, in 2014 there is no consensus on what causes PMT or whether there is a cure. While researching this article, I discovered that we’re a lot better off now than we might have been in the past. In some periods of history sufferers were believed to be possessed by the devil and were at risk of being persecuted and tortured 2 – just what you need after a hard week at work.

Until I started eating virgin coconut oil daily (in my porridge) I thought period pain was one of those things some people were lucky enough not to get – I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it.

I’m now one of the ‘lucky’ ones. While there isn’t evidence in the scientific literature showing that virgin coconut oil itself will stop your period pain, that may well be because no one has ever tested whether it does.

There are studies suggesting other types of fats can help with period pain, and I’ve scoured the research to find anything else which could stop it too (predictably, fibre containing foods and ‘good’ fats).

Many of the fats which have been shown to reduce period pain are thought to do so because they are anti-inflammatory. Is possible that this is why I’m no longer burdened with monthly pain.

Causes?

No one knows for sure what causes PMT.

Considering it affects anywhere from 45-95% of the population 3 there is relatively little research on its causes or potential cures. However, there are a number of studies suggesting that it may be the result of abnormalities in essential fatty acids 1.

Women who suffer from PMT might metabolise omega-6 fatty acids differently to women who don’t suffer. They produce the anti-inflammatory hormones more slowly. This might lead to an imbalance in inflammatory hormones, causing inflammation and period pain 4.

Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 fatty acids are deficient in many of our diets. We eat too many omega-6 fatty acids. Fats are the building blocks of hormones and messenger molecules in our bodies. So the fats you eat affect which hormones your body is able to produce – inflammatory or anti-inflammatory 5.

Omega 3 rich foods: Walnuts, mustard seeds, flaxseed, cauliflower & fish oil supplement
Omega 3 rich foods: Walnuts, mustard seeds, flaxseed, cauliflower & fish oil supplement

Multiple studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids reduce the intensity of period pain and its duration. The ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids an individual was eating had even more of a result, as omega-6 fatty acids are responsible for inflammatory prostaglandins 3, 6.

Eating 1000mg of fish oil every day – which contains omega-3 – has been shown to be more effective in reducing period pain than taking ibuprofen 7. As inflammation is associated with so many chronic diseases, it’s probably also much better for you to be reducing your period pain by reducing overall body inflammation than by taking a pain killer. Cure the cause not the effect.

All types of fish oil reduced PMT significantly in those studied, and this positive effect was increased by more than 50% when the oils were combined with vitamin B12 8.

Fibre

Dietary fibre has also been found to have a positive impact on period pain 9, 10. Fibre is found in foods such as whole grain cereals along with fruits and vegetables.

Ginger

Peeling ginger with a teaspoon to retain nutrients
Peeling ginger with a teaspoon to retain nutrients

Ginger has also been shown to be effective in reducing period pain. In the study girls took 250mg of ginger in powdered form four times a day during the beginning of their period. This was found as effective for pain relief as 400mg of ibuprofen taken at the same times, in different groups of girls 11.

Vitamins and Minerals

100mg of vitamin B1 per day has been shown to be effective in reducing period pain. Magnesium, also, seems to be a promising treatment for period pain – although the dose required is unclear 12.

It has been shown that calcium supplements, at 1200mg per day can reduce symptoms of PMT – above and beyond the placebo effect 13. Taking 200mg of magnesium has also been shown to reduce fluid retention, but not other symptoms of PMT 13. Vitamin B6 and Vitamin E have potential beneficial effects, but the results are mixed 13.

What Not to Do

Research has found that women who have period pain are likely to eat more cheese and eggs than women who don’t get period pain 14. This is interesting when you consider the inflammatory nature of dairy and the fact that inflammatory hormones are associated with period pain.

Alcohol didn’t seem to have an effect on period pain 3. People who smoke, or have ever smoked, are more likely to have PMT 15.  Considering smoking is a massive cause of inflammation in the body, this would fit with the theme we’ve seen so far.

Some studies show that a low fat diet decreases period pain, however people who had a ‘low fat’ diet in the studies were often vegans or vegetarians, who therefore had a low intake of animal fat. Animal fat is a source of omega-6, which as discussed above can be inflammatory if eaten alongside too few omega-3 fatty acids 3. Therefore, it’s likely that the low omega-6 was the cause of the reduced period pain.

Reducing the amount of sugar you eat, along with alcohol and caffeine has also been shown to reduce symptoms 13.

Interestingly, evening primrose oil has been subject to lots of research as it is widely thought to help women with period pain, however in studies it was found to be no better than placebo for treating PMT 13.

Associated Ills

Girls who had PMT were also more likely to have symptoms of anxiety and depression, although it’s not clear whether this is cause or effect 15.

Anxiety might be affecting the body’s production of inflammatory molecules, thereby causing period pain and PMT. On the other hand established inflammatory systems in the body might be leading to anxiety and PMT.

In summary

There is something you can do to try and get rid of that debilitating condition we’re supposed to put up with. Let us know in the comments below if you’ve had any positive effects from eating more fat, and spread the word, #painbegone #fatsforfreedom #alsoginger #calciummayhelp #ideasforwittyhashtags…!

Vicky

Vicky has a degree in Biological Sciences with a focus on biochemistry and immunology and is currently studying for a  MSc in Drug Discovery and Protein Biotechnology.  She is also an endurance athlete.

  1. Budeiri, 1994. Clinical trials of treatments of premenstrual syndrome: entry criteria and scales for measuring treatment outcomes.
  2. Veith, 1965. Hysteria: the history of a disease.
  3. Hansen, 2013. Endometriosis, dysmenorrhoea and diet.
  4. Wu, 2008. Metabolism of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids in women with dysmenorrhea.
  5. Simopoulos, 2002. The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids.
  6. Rahbar, 2011. Effect of omega-3 fatty acids on intensity of primary dysmenorrhea.
  7. Zafari, 2011. Comparison of the effect of fish oil and ibuprofen on treatment of severe pain in primary dysmenorrhea.
  8. Deutch, 2000. Menstrual discomfort in Danish women reduced by dietary supplements of omega-3 PUFA and B12 (fish oil or seal oil capsules).
  9. Balbi, 2000. Influence of menstrual factors and dietary habits on menstrual pain in adolescence age.
  10. Nagata, 2005. Associations of menstrual pain with intakes of soy and dietary fibre in Japanese women.
  11. Ozgoli, 2009. Comparison of effects of giner, megenamic acid, and ibuprofen on pain in women with primary dysmenorrhea.
  12. Proctor, 2001. Herbal and dietary therapies for primary and secondary dysmenorrhoea.
  13. Campagne, 2007. The premenstrual syndrome revisited.
  14. Di Cintio, 1997. Dietary habits, reproductive and menstrual factors and risk of dysmenorrhoea.
  15. Dorn, 2009. Menstrual symptoms in adolescent girls: association with smoking, depressive symptoms, and anxiety.

Extra Reading

  1. Bianco, 2014. Premenstrual syndrome and beyond: lifestyle, nutrition, and personal facts.
  2. Studd, 2014. Personal views: hormones and depression in women.

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  • Christina Benton

    Thank you for this informative read, 2 months ago I started to take an Omega 3 and B1 vitamin supplement as they were lacking in my diet and for no other reason, it wasn’t until reading your article that it occurred to me that since taking Omega 3 & B1 that I haven’t suffered with pmt or period pains

    • Hi Christina, Thanks for taking the time to share this and really pleased you found it so informative. I’ll pass on your comments to the author, Vicky Ware. Wish you well for 2015

  • Christina Benton

    Thank you for this informative read, 2 months ago I started to take an Omega 3 and B1 vitamin supplement as they were lacking in my diet and for no other reason, it wasn’t until reading your article that it occurred to me that since taking Omega 3 & B1 that I haven’t suffered with pmt or period pains

    • Hi Christina, Thanks for taking the time to share this and really pleased you found it so informative. I’ll pass on your comments to the author, Vicky Ware. Wish you well for 2015