Does caffeine intake lead to cramps and other PMS symptoms?
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Valeriia Chelpan
Caffeine is the little darling that gives us the boost we feel after our morning coffee or tea. It is considered the world’s favourite and most socially acceptable drug. One that many of us wholeheartedly commit to being addicted to. But how does it impact your period? Does how much caffeine you consume have any impact on reducing or - more alarmingly - actually causing cramps? These questions have a few super interesting layers to explore before we can answer. Let’s understand caffeine and how it impacts your body then discuss if we should reconsider our relationship with caffeine.
How much caffeine is in a coffee?
In general, the advice from the Mayo Clinic is that we should be capping our caffeine intake to a max 400 milligram per day. In the USA, most people drink approximately 165 milligrams a day, this equals 1-2 cups of home drip coffee or three espressos. If you speak in Starbucks, a grande Pike Place roast has about 330 milligrams. While the North American caffeine addiction is real, it’s nothing compared to our European pals in the Netherlands. Holding top place as the biggest coffee consumers in Europe, they drink about 4 cups a day on average which is actually down from where it was 10 years ago.
This 400 milligram number is a guideline and people who are trying to get or are pregnant, as well as those on medications or living with anxiety, should speak with a health practitioner about appropriate dosage. So why is there a max guideline? And what does caffeine do to us biologically?
Caffeine’s impact on our body
In short, caffeine is a stimulant. Within 30 minutes of your favourite bean juice hitting your lips, activity increases in your brain and nervous system. You’ll start to feel more alert and awake, this is that jolt so many of us crave. Alongside the increased alertness, caffeine also increases the amount of acid in your stomach and your need to use the bathroom. Alongside those of us who occasionally drink one brew too many, are those who are more sensitive to caffeine. Symptoms of both sensitivity and over-caffeination can be “the jitters”, headaches (also a withdrawal symptom), feeling nervous, stomach disturbance, and having issues sleeping.
From the science angle, caffeine is actually able to enter our brains and hang out next to a lookalike molecule named “adenosine”. Adenosine’s role in our brain is to help promote sleep over time throughout the day. Caffeine looks so much like adenosine that it actually fits into our brain cell receptors, blocking actual adenosine from nestling in. Hence keeping us from feeling sleepy.
What is the relationship between PMS and caffeine?
Over the years there have been many studies that are trying to tackle this question from different angles with varying results. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), recommends that caffeine should be avoided altogether if you are one of the 15-20% of menstruators who get PMS.
However, this is not as black and white as it may seem. For example, there was a long-term study conducted in the United States in 2016, that explored this guideline further. They found that high and frequent caffeine intake was not associated with increased odds for breast tenderness, irritability and fatigue. While it should be noted that all studies have shortcomings, this one helped shed a bit of light on the other side of the caffeine debate.
Alongside the science, consider the anecdotal evidence of yourself and those around you. What have you and those close to you noticed or felt? Keep an eye on your body and see how you feel. There are several factors that contribute to PMS including foods, sleep patterns, stress, etc. So while the jury is still deciding that caffeine is not related to PMS, there is a definitive tie between fatigue and menstruation. One consideration can be people drink more coffee on or near their period to reduce period brain fog.
Menstrual cycle and fatigue
During the follicular phase of our cycles (before ovulation), those with PMS are typically at the top of their game. If you’re feeling really tired during this phase, it is good to check in on why. Is it a consistent lack of sleep or a one-off? Making sure you are getting enough iron is also an important thing to check on. Being tired and grabbing another coffee is often a solution we turn to when we’re sluggish. Be mindful of your consumption using the milligrams we outlined above.
If you find yourself drinking more coffee in the latter half of your cycle, the luteal phase, you’re in good company. Many of us feel both more irritable and tired post-ovulation as our bodies are adjusting for this month’s grand production. Alongside fatigue and irritability, it has been found that menstruators have a slower response time for cognitive tasks and poorer performance on psychomotor tasks. This information adds more colour to how many menstruators feel the need to turn to caffeine to keep up performances during this time.
Key takeaways about PMS and caffeine
Our uterus contracting, or “tightening up” in the less science-like term, is what we register as period cramps. It happens all the time, but we feel it more when our period is near. At the end of the day, it seems like caffeine consumption and PMS are related mostly to us and our personal experiences. Here are a few caffeine-related takeaways for when your period called:
- You can drink coffee before and during PMS, it is not fully proven that caffeine either causes or reduces cramps
- While it is recommended not to drink over 400 milligrams of caffeine (approximately 4 cups), everyone is different
- Consider drinking teas or kombucha to give a caffeine boost
- Ginseng has no caffeine but is known to boost energy
- A small bit of dark chocolate will do the body and mind wonders
- ACOG. (2021). Premenstrual Syndromes (PMS): Frequently asked questions. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Retrieved 2.10.2011 from https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/premenstrual-syndrome
- Baker, F.C., & Colrain, I.M. (2010). Daytime sleepiness, psychomotor performance, waking EEG spectra and evoked potentials in women with severe premenstrual syndrome. Journal of Sleep Research. Retrieved 29.10.2021 from:https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19840240/
- Hilliard, J. (2021). Caffeine Addiction and Abuse. Addiction Center. Retrieved 29.10.2021 from: https://www.addictioncenter.com/stimulants/caffeine
- Mayo Clinic. (2020). Caffeine: How much is too much?. Mayo Clinic: Nutrition and healthy eating. Retrieved 30.10.2021 from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/caffeine/art-20045678
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2021). The Dutch market potential for coffee. CBI Ministry of Foreign Affairs Europe. Retrieved 30.10.2021 from: https://www.cbi.eu/market-information/coffee/netherlands-0/market-potential
- Mitchell, D.C. & al. (2014). Beverage caffeine intakes in the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Food, chemicals, and toxicology.(63)136-42. Retrieved 30.10.2021 from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24189158/
- Purdue-Smithe, A.C., et al. (2016). A prospective study of caffeine and coffee intake and premenstrual syndrome. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 104(2). p499–507. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4962155/
- Pietrangelo, A. (2018). The Effects of Caffeine on Your Body. Healthline. Retrieved 29.10.2021 from: https://www.healthline.com/health/caffeine-effects-on-body#Reproductive-system
- Rossignol, A.M, & Bonnlander H. (1990). Caffeine-containing beverages, total fluid consumption, and premenstrual syndrome. American Journal of Public Health (80), p.1106–10. Retrieved 29.10.2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1404841/
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