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Nutrition and Menstruation

This article discusses the dietary implications of menstruation.

Nutrition and Menstruation

The menstrual cycle in a woman is a delicate interaction of hormones and physiological responses. The menstrual cycle is the body's way of preparing itself every month for a possible pregnancy. As women of childbearing age go through menstruation, overall nutrition is an important issue.

Boosting Iron
During a woman's years of menstruation, iron needs are a special nutritional concern. On average, women lose about ¼ cup of blood at each menstrual cycle; women with a heavier flow may even lose more. Since iron travels through the blood, some of it is lost with the loss of blood.

Women of childbearing age have an RDA of 15 mg per day for iron, which doubles with pregnancy. Women over fifty-one have a lower RDA of 10 mg per day, because most of them have reached menopause and are no longer losing blood (and therefore iron) each month.

It is common for women of childbearing age to become iron deficient. A deficiency of iron can cause symptoms that include fatigue and weakness. Deficiency can also lead to anemia. The combination of iron lost through the menstrual cycle, a low dietary intake of iron, frequent dieting, and a low intake of vitamin C all contribute to the problem of iron deficiency.

It is helpful not only to eat iron-rich foods, but also to take a multivitamin supplement that contains iron. Many supplements contain iron and are designed for women with that in mind. However, it is a good idea to check your supplement to make sure it contains iron.

ALERT! If you take both an iron and a calcium supplement, take them separately, at different times of the day. They will both be better absorbed if taken on their own.

Iron can be found in both animal products and plant sources, but the iron from meat is better absorbed than that in plant foods. Certain nutrients, such as vitamin C, can help enhance the absorption of iron from plant sources. So you can increase the amount of iron the body can use from iron-containing plant foods by, for example, drinking a glass of orange juice. Good sources of iron include meat, poultry, fish, fortified cereal, enriched rice, and legumes.

Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)
Premenstrual Syndrome, or PMS, is a condition that afflicts many women. This condition can have several symptoms and varying degrees of severity from woman to woman. The exact cause of PMS is not completely understood, though experts do believe that hormones such as progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone are probably involved. A change in the level of serotonin in the brain is also believed to be related to the occurrence of PMS. For most women the symptoms of PMS seem to appear after ovulation, or about fourteen days into the cycle, and disappear two weeks later, as the menstrual period starts. PMS is closely tied with mood swings, bloating from water retention, tender breasts, headaches, temporary weight gain, and food cravings. Avoiding certain foods can help. Some of the following foods may exacerbate your symptoms: caffeine, simple sugars, salt or sodium, fats, and alcohol.

Even though food cravings and other symptoms may be a predictable part of PMS, some things can be done to help relieve some symptoms. Foods that may help to relieve some symptoms include complex carbohydrates and high-calcium foods. Stick to a diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole-grain products, non-fat dairy products, lean fish, and poultry; also drink plenty of water. Besides a healthy diet, be sure to exercise regularly. Exercise can help release tension and anxiety, and it promotes the release of endorphins, which naturally sedate you.

There are many supplements as well as claims about certain vitamins that supposedly help to relieve the effects of PMS. At one time vitamin B6 was believed to help relieve PMS symptoms, but solid evidence was never found, and taking too much B6 was harming many women. To get the possible benefits of B6, consume foods rich in the vitamin, including fish, chicken, soy foods, broccoli, bananas, cantaloupe, and spinach. Until more is known, your best bet in helping relieve PMS symptoms is to follow some general guidelines. Eat an overall healthy diet, lead an active lifestyle, get plenty of sleep, and consult your doctor if needed.

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