Gluten-free Diets & Period Pain: What Science Says
- 4 Mins Read
- Health Conditions
- Written by: Dr. Pramod Mane
Monthly periods are a different experience for every woman. For some, menses may be like any other day, or they may be accompanied by mild pain without any debilitating effects. However, several women may also experience severe and annoying menstrual pain and abdominal pain just before and during their menstrual cycle. Dysmenorrhoea is another name for painful menstruation.
It is therefore extremely important that women eat the right foods through her period days, and otherwise. Other than the fact that gluten free diet benefits weight loss, a gluten-free diet is also known to be very beneficial in easing period pain.
Know the reason for the agony
During every menstrual cycle, the uterus contracts to expel the uterine lining. A hormone called prostaglandin triggers muscle contractions in the uterus. It is these contractions that are responsible for all the pain.
The menstrual lining sheds, and as it does, some small blood vessels are torn. The rupturing of these blood vessels is the reason you bleed during your periods. The production of prostaglandins peaks just before the beginning of periods and subsides towards the end. Higher the levels of prostaglandins, the more severe the menstrual cramps.
While painful periods may be caused due to some underlying medical conditions, certain dietary habits like the consumption of food containing gluten may also play a role in worsening symptoms of dysmenorrhoea.
The science behind gluten and painful periods
Gluten is a type of protein found in food grains like wheat, barley and rye. Some gluten-containing foods include pasta, bread, cereals and lots of ready meals and snacks.
Wheat gluten and related proteins can trigger an autoimmune condition, known as celiac disease, in people with genetic susceptibility. Here, the immune system attacks its tissues when gluten is consumed. It can damage the small intestine and lead to the malabsorption of nutrients.
This may further manifest into different symptoms like diarrhea, abdominal pain and excessive bloating. However, gluten intolerance can also take the form of non-celiac gluten intolerance or sensitivity. Some people may have wheat intolerance or wheat allergy. People can be diagnosed with celiac disease using blood tests.
Period pain is said to be affected by wheat or gluten in the diet. It is therefore important to understand on why a gluten-free diet:
- 50 per cent of women with Celiac disease suffer from dysmenorrhea
- 32 per cent of non-celiac women have reported severe menstrual cramps and menstrual pain.
- Infrequent light periods, as well as extremely heavy periods, have been reported in women with celiac disease.
- Another health condition, Endometriosis is commonly observed in celiac women.
- Endometriosis, where the uterine cells grow outside the uterus, also results in chronic pelvic pain and heavy menstrual bleeding.
Not just women with celiac disease, but patients of Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS also experience a similar fate. The symptoms of patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome may change due to the menstrual cycle.
Today, even the development of Type-1 diabetes is associated with high gluten intake. A gluten-free diet is a good option for these patients too.
High-inflammatory diets, with lots of processed foods, caffeine, alcohol, and meat can worsen pain and other cyclical symptoms, while an anti-inflammatory diet can reduce period pain and blood loss.
Gluten-free food categories
A gluten-free diet plan requires careful food selection that provides the right amount of nutrients and substitution of food grains like wheat, barley, rye, triticale(a cross between wheat and rye) which are rich in gluten with gluten-free foods.
Below mentioned are some of the naturally gluten-free food varieties that will give maximum gluten free diet benefits.
Naturally gluten-free foods
Gluten-free foods that can be incorporated as a part of a healthy diet are:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Beans, seeds, legumes and nuts in their natural, unprocessed forms
- Lean, non-processed meats, fish and poultry
- Most low-fat dairy products
Gluten-free grains, starches and flours
Gluten-free grains, starches and flours will ensure the consumption of the right nutrients while avoiding the effects of gluten at the same time. Some of them are mentioned below.
- Corn — cornmeal, grits and polenta labelled gluten-free
- Gluten-free flours — rice, soy, corn, potato and bean flours
- Hominy (corn)
- Rice, including wild rice
- Tapioca (cassava root)
Certain gluten-free bread is made without flour from these ingredients.
Be aware of gluten-free food labels
It’s important to read food labels while buying processed foods from the supermarket. Foods that contain wheat, barley, rye or triticale or an ingredient derived from them are labelled with the name of the grain in the labels content list.
Besides foods that are labelled gluten-free, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules, must have fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten. Foods with these labels may include:
- Naturally gluten-free food
- Prepared food that doesn’t have a gluten-containing ingredient
- Food that has not been cross-contaminated with gluten-containing ingredients during production
- Food with a gluten-containing ingredient that has been processed to remove gluten
Alcoholic beverages made from naturally gluten-free ingredients, such as grapes or juniper berries, are also labelled as gluten-free.
How to start a gluten free diet
It is important to rule out an underlying cause for period pain before switching to a gluten-free diet. However, if one has gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance, the decision about making dietary changes should be made only post consulting their physician and monitoring the results post dietary changes is equally important to see if it helps.
A few tips will make the switch easier for you.
- Get acquainted with the gluten-free section in your local supermarket
- Incorporate naturally gluten-free grains like quinoa and brown rice into your meals
- Whenever you feel the urge to snack, make sure that you have gluten-free fruits and vegetables
- Avoid packages or processed foods that usually contain gluten (check those labels)
- Opt for gluten-free beverages like water, coffee or tea, however, also remember to not overconsume the same.
Incorporating the right diet and healthy food habits into your daily routine can often be the simplest way to get rid of those painful menses triggered by gluten-rich food.
Keep reading to know more about foods that benefit your period health.
- Menstrual cramps – Symptoms and causes Available at https://www.mayoclinic.org
- What is gluten intolerance? Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/312898#symptoms
- Can a gluten-free diet relieve period pain? Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/can-a-gluten-free-diet-relieve-period-pain
- Martinelli D, et al. Reproductive life disorders in Italian celiac women. A case-control study. BMC gastroenterology. 2010 Dec;10(1):1-9.
- Uhde M, et al. Intestinal cell damage and systemic immune activation in individuals reporting sensitivity to wheat in the absence of coeliac disease. Gut. 2016 Dec 1;65(12):1930-7.
- Nutrition and healthy eating Available at https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/gluten-free-diet/art-20048530
- Hogg-Kollars S, Al Dulaimi D, Tait K, Rostami K. Type 1 diabetes mellitus and gluten induced disorders. Gastroenterol Hepatol Bed Bench. 2014 Fall;7(4):189-97.