There is a mutual relationship between the food you consume and your menstrual cycle. Your diet can influence the functioning of your reproductive system, while menstruation can affect the need and utilization of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals.
During menarche, or the age at which a person starts menstruating, is an important area of study as it is linked to breast cancer later in life. The average age of menarche has decreased over the last 50 years, and researchers suggest that dietary changes may be a possible reason for this trend. However, studies on the matter are not consistent. Some studies have linked fat, but not protein, to age at menarche, while others have found an association with protein, but not fat. Malnutrition may also affect these relationships. Furthermore, different types of protein, either from animal or plant sources, may have different relationships with age at menarche.
Consumption of sugary drinks, such as soda and fruit drinks, has also been linked to an earlier age at menarche. Studies have found that those who drank at least 1.5 sugar-sweetened beverages per day were more likely to start menstruating than those who drank less than two sugar-sweetened beverages per week. Fruit juice, as opposed to fruit drinks (such as Koolaid), was not associated with age at menarche, while fruit drinks and added sugar were associated.
Caffeine and type of sweetener may also play a role in this relationship. A similar study in young girls found that caffeine and aspartame, an artificial sweetener, intake was associated with menarche before age 11. However, research on age at menarche and diet is still ongoing and scientists are still discussing the best way to conduct research on this topic. For example, some studies have suggested that diet before age 7 may be more important than diet at ages 9 or 10, and scientists are not sure how body mass index (BMI) affects the relationship between diet and menarche.
PMS and calcium
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) has been found to have a relationship with dietary factors. Calcium intake is particularly associated with PMS. Those diagnosed with PMS have found that calcium supplementation can decrease the severity of symptoms such as depression and fatigue. Moreover, studies have also shown that those with high calcium intake may be less likely to develop PMS. Calcium may help prevent and reduce symptoms of PMS because it affects normal cell behavior and serotonin development, which in turn affects mood.
Calcium is also linked to vitamin D absorption and high vitamin D levels have been associated with decreased risk of the development of PMS. However, it is not always clear whether the benefits of supplementation are due to fixing deficiencies or some other underlying mechanism. If you are interested in increasing your calcium and vitamin D intake, consider consuming more dairy products such as milk and cheese, or speak to your healthcare provider about calcium and vitamin D supplementation.
Menstruation and iron
Iron levels in the body can be affected by menstruation. Menstruation can lower the amount of iron in the body, which is a concern for menstruating individuals. Around 30% of premenopausal women are iron deficient and the levels of iron deficiency are much higher in young females as compared to young males. Iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia can develop in menstruating individuals for various reasons such as heavy menstrual flow and vegetarian or vegan diet.
Vegans and vegetarians are at a higher risk of iron deficiency due to the type of iron they consume. Heme iron, found in meat and fish products, is more bioavailable than non-heme iron, found in both plant and animal products. Even if a person consumes the same amount of iron, the bioavailability of the iron may be different depending on the type of food consumed. A study found that women placed on a high vegetable, low meat/fish diet had 32% less serum ferritin (a biomarker for iron in the blood) as compared to women placed on a high meat/fish diet after 20 weeks.
If you’re feeling tired, weak, and/or having trouble concentrating during menstruation or otherwise, you may want to consider speaking with your healthcare provider to see if you are iron deficient. To help prevent iron deficiency during menstruation, consider adding more meat and fish, particularly red meat, to your diet during your period. If you are vegetarian, vegan, or otherwise unable to eat meat or fish, consider speaking with a healthcare provider about alternative dietary approaches, such as adjusting your calcium, soy, and vitamin C levels during your period, to help manage a potential iron deficiency.