Sugar 102: Sugar, Inflammation, and Painful Periods

Yes, sugar is yummy. It provides a short-term rush of energy, good feelings, and even an emotional fix at times (oh, hello post-breakup Ben & Jerry’s). But long-term, sugar is not our bestie. Many women who suffer from painful menstrual cycles, also known as dysmenorrhea, find relief when they ditch the doughnuts. Of course, it can be a lot more complex than cleaning up your sugar act, but minimizing your Cookie Monster tendencies can be a good place to start.

What is Going On When We Eat Sugar?

All carbohydrates (complex or refined) are sugar. Remember that carbohydrates include not just bready and sugary products, but also vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. And sugar from these foods converts to energy in the body (read more).

When we consume sugary delights (such as that double fudge brownie I’m always drooling over), we get a rush of sugar straight to the blood. In order for the sugar to get into the cells to be used for energy, the pancreas needs to release insulin into the blood. Insulin’s job is to take sugar from the bloodstream and escort it into the cells (learn more about blood sugar balance).

A double fudge brownie is a nice treat once in a while. But when we have an imbalanced ratio of double fudge brownies to nutrient-dense carbohydrates like veggies, our cells get tired of insulin constantly knocking on the door. So, our cells can eventually stop answering. Next thing we know, we’ve got way too much sugar and insulin in our blood and our body is not converting it to energy, meaning that we feel fatigued, hungry, and more likely to crave sugar. This is known as insulin resistance, which is only one way in which sugar can cause harm to the body.

What is Inflammation?

Inflammation is a word that gets tossed around like a baby kitten. But what does it really mean? Inflammation is a natural response to a bodily injury. Acute or temporary inflammation is good because it triggers healing to the afflicted site by promoting blood flow to that area. Blood brings along defense cells – the body is calling its troupes into action to address that surprisingly painful paper cut, which is why the cut gets red and swollen.

Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, has been linked to exhaustion, skin issues, anxiety, obesity, and heart disease. And with our modern-day diet, we tend to be eating more of the foods that exacerbate inflammation (cough, sugar, cough) and less of the foods that alleviate it.

How Does Inflammation Affect Our Menstrual Cycles?

Inflammation could be one of the factors that contribute to irregular and painful menstrual cycles. A diet high in refined sugars (and other inflammatory foods like dairy) can trigger the inflammatory response, which may in turn lead to pain.

An inflamed gut has also been linked to hormonal imbalance, irregular and painful periods (1). When we have gut dysbiosis (commonly caused by a diet high in refined sugars, alcohol, dairy, and gluten-containing carbohydrates), we may be exacerbating the issue in that particular region during that time of the month. Thus, trying an anti-inflammatory diet under the guidance of a healthcare practitioner could be the answer to your prayers when it comes to painful menstrual cramps.

How Sugar Disrupts the Natural Flow

It’s a lot more complex than declaring that sugar causes irregular menstruation. Rather, a high-sugar diet promotes inflammation (2) as well as a cascade of hormonal imbalances which can throw off our menstrual cycles and/or increase menstrual cramping. Here’s just one strand of this cascade: too much sugar in the blood causes high levels of circulating insulin. Insulin, being inflammatory, triggers a release of cortisol, which is anti-inflammatory. Cortisol in turn inhibits progesterone by stealing its receptors. And guess what progesterone does? It stimulates the growth of the uterine lining, helps with sleep, and is an anti-anxiety hormone. Low progesterone could lead to irregular menstruation and conditions like PMS, endometriosis, PCOS, and more.

The Bottom Line

Under normal circumstances, when a women has her period, chemicals called prostaglandins are released, triggering an inflammatory response. When you throw a sugary diet and/or a compromised gut into the mix, inflammation on top of inflammation is a recipe for painful and irregular periods. Minimizing sugar is great but definitely not the whole story. Adding in omega-3 rich foods such as fresh water fish, walnuts, and flaxseed as well as magnesium rich foods like dark leafy greens, avocados, bananas, and cacao will help fight inflammation in the body and alleviate painful cramps (3).

In addition, limiting alcohol, eating plenty of vegetables, and implementing practices that improve circulation such as castor oil packs can also help. Maybe next time a break-up has you running for the ice-cream aisle, try a relaxing Epsom salt bath and some high quality dark chocolate instead.


Have you ever experienced painful cramps? I’d love to hear your comments on what has helped you alleviate pain.

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