Menstrual cramps is the most common gynecological problem in young adolescent girls, with some studies reporting anywhere from 16 to 91 percent of girls (1) experiencing cramps that cause missed school days or the need for pain medication each month.

What is not well discussed with parents and teens is the impact that dietary patterns (and choices) can have on adolescent period cramps, and many “teen” lifestyle choices such as dieting and skipping breakfast may be setting young women up for painful periods and future issues with their cycle.
Dr. Jordan Robertson ND

Both dieting (2,3) and skipping breakfast (4,5) are negatively correlated with period cramps in young girls – whether or not they need to lose weight. What this means is that even the act of dieting (even if the young women were overweight) causes more period cramps than eating sufficient calories, and skipping breakfast (even if they make up the calories later in the day) is also associate with more pain medication use and lost school days.

The study of this is relatively new, and so far, no research has dug deeper to figure out why this is likely the case. When we look at food choices instead of dietary patterns, we may find out why our teen girls who diet are struggling. In general, women who consume less healthy fats in their diet have been shown to have more menstrual cramps and clots, than their peers who eat fish(6), and other sources of anti-inflammatory fats. Part of the process that causes menstrual cramps is the release of inflammation into the uterus during the shedding of uterine lining each month. Eating healthy fats actually changes the types of chemicals and mediators in uterine fluid, and overall exerts an anti-inflammatory effect. Often young girls who are dieting will skip out on healthy fats because of their ‘high calorie’ impact on their diet, which may be skewing their diet in favour of more inflammation. Women in general who eat less saturated fat (7), drink less caffeine (8), eat less junk food (9) and who exercise also have less period cramps, which again may be the complete opposite of our dieting teens.

In general the more overweight a teen is the worse her experience of her cycle, so some weight loss (that is medically supervised by your ND) may be the best way to target the root cause of a teen’s period pain. But the plan should be constructed with anti-inflammatory fats included, and simple supplementation that can help lower period pain such as ginger (10–12), omega-3s (13,14) and vitamin D (15).

If your teen is dieting and struggling with her cycle, it would be worth a discussion with one of our doctors to help her understand how to make positive lifestyle choices to support a healthy weight, without worsening her cycle. Adolescent menstrual difficulties predict future problems as adult women (2), and can often be improved in as little as 1-3 cycles with the right treatment plan.

 

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