Hopeless, bent over in pain with a heat pack across your stomach and wondering if you should give in and take an Advil, or worse questioning how many Advil are safe to take before you get a stomach ulcer? You do not need to settle for suffering – there is a LOT that we can do to manage our menstrual cramps. Many lifestyle and natural treatments and listening to your body are very effective for reducing pain during our periods and can give women back the vitality they need to live their best life.
So what are we going to do about it, ladies? With everything science has taught us about the human body I’m not satisfied with how our culture neglects applying that wisdom to women’s cycles – and I don’t want you to either! I want us to live our amazing lives, every damn day of the month. Below I’ve not only given you my top-ten lifestyle modifications for managing period cramps, but I go on to explain why you’re getting painful periods in the first place. Knowledge is power so let’s get started.
Lifestyle for Painful Periods
Studies have given us more insight into the physiology of painful periods and what factors affect it most. A number of factors contribute to painful periods – women who eat more sugar, junk food, fast food and saturated fats tend to have more painful periods. Women who exercise regularly (not just during their periods) tend to have less menstrual cramps. Using tampons can make menstrual cramps worse, as can constipation or food sensitivities.
Let’s cut to the chase with my top-ten lifestyle recommendations
Cut the sugar
No judgment here, but you know you should have already done this by now. It’s hard, I get it, but it’s not making anything better – including your period cramps. Sugar interferes with the body’s ability to absorb and use B vitamins and minerals, both of which can worsen muscle tension and increase the force of uterus cramps. So for the sake of those awful cramps and the rest of your health just quit already.
By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the connection between inflammation and dairy. Let me tell you why this connection is wreaking havoc and causing your period cramps. Well prostaglandins, the same molecules that are produced by our uterus and cause pain, are made by arachidonic acid. Where do we find arachidonic acid you may ask? It comes mostly from our diet, in particular dairy products (although poultry is also a high source of arachidonic acid). Reducing or eliminating dairy is a great idea for women who get period pain – and it has been suggested that eliminating dairy may provide a significant benefit (with no other treatments) for up to one-third of women with painful periods! Next time you’re buckling over in pain with cramps, maybe you’ll decide it’s time to break up with dairy for good.
Ladies, I get it. The urge to have a lovely glass of wine to dull the cramping and misery, and really, you just want it. But I’m a teller of truths – alcohol is a no-go for painful periods. I want you to think of two things that make periods better: muscle-relaxants and balanced hormones. Alcohol messes with both of these things. Alcohol is well known to deplete B vitamins as well as muscle-relaxing minerals such as magnesium. Not only that – it interferes with the liver’s ability to metabolize hormones. All of these contribute to more cramping and heavier periods (which lead to more clots, which trigger more uterine spasms, which causes more pain…)
Skip the salt
Just because you’re not adding salt to your dishes doesn’t mean you’re not getting it from other sources. Salt is sneaky and unknowingly sneaks into everything. Don’t get me wrong, I like a bit of salt on my edamame, but that little sprinkle of added salt isn’t the problem. Surprisingly, the primary source of salt is in processed or packaged foods. Salt can increase fluid retention, which can worsen bloating, discomfort, and period pain. My favourite trick for skipping the salt is to season with spices instead.
Load up on the legumes, nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are excellent sources of minerals like magnesium and calcium – both of which can lessen muscle tension and reduce the pain of menstrual cramps. Additionally, eating a diet higher in plant proteins and lower in animal proteins has been found to reduce the incidence of dysmenorrhea. So skip the chicken and have some chickpeas and cashews instead.
Eat your veggies
The greatest debate in the health world always revolves around what the best diet is. Although confusing at times, the one key takeaway is that every diet includes vegetables. Really, is there anything vegetables CAN’T do? They are the most important component of the human diet, and eating more of them cures just about everything – including period cramps. Women who eat more fruits and vegetables have the lowest rates of painful periods. Vegetables are excellent sources of minerals, like calcium and magnesium, as well as fiber to reduce bloating, discomfort, and balance hormone levels.
Understand your food sensitivities
Wait, what? Food sensitivities? What do those have to do with my period cramps?
It turns out, quite a lot!
Food sensitivities can damage the lining of the digestive tract, altering the absorption of B vitamins and minerals, resulting in more cramping. Additionally, food sensitivities can cause increased production of inflammatory molecules, leading to more inflammation (and more pain) when period time rolls around. Add to the mix the irregular bowel movements that can result from food sensitivities and you have the perfect storm for period pain. So if you’ve ever wondered if you have food sensitivities and you get painful periods, I’d considering having the food sensitivity test. It may be just what you need.
Going back to the most debated topic in the health world (the best diet), we can also throw the best exercise in there too. When it comes to painful periods the key message is to get moving regularly in whatever way works for you and not just during your period. Consistency is key as most studies have shown that women who exercise regularly have less painful periods than those who don’t.
So how does exercise help painful periods? Exercise improves blood flow to, and from, the uterus. It also helps to alter the production of prostaglandins, leading to less pain.
Toss the tampons
Tired of choosing between bulky pads and bleached tampons? I have good news for you ladies – we are entering a new age of period empowerment. There are now so many options for women to comfortably accommodate their periods that we don’t have to choose either of those less-than-desirable options. From the Diva Cup to Thinx period panties, to all natural pads that are thin and comfortable, we can choose what’s best for us and our bodies.
Why are tampons so bad? Women who use tampons have more painful periods than those who don’t, and most of those tampons are full of chemicals that can be absorbed across the mucosal barrier of the vaginal canal – not a good thing! So you heard me – toss em’and join women in the age of period empowerment!
Try a Natural Approach
Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures, which is totally understandable. Instead of managing those painful periods with Midol and Advil, what if I told you that you have more options? There are a number of natural supplements – nutrients and botanical (plant) medicines that can provide amazing relief. And without the side effects of those pain killers as well! Start by reading my article on Natural Treatments for Pain-Free Periods and then work with a Naturopathic Doctor to personalize a treatment plan that can give you relief from your menstrual cramps.
BUT WHY DOES IT HAVE TO BE SO PAINFUL IN THE FIRST PLACE?
Painful periods and menstrual cramps
Now that I’ve divulged all my secrets it’s time to answer the WHY.
Did you know that half of women experience pain during their menstrual cycles (and around 90% of teen girls) and 1 in 10 women have periods that are so painful they are unable to work or function for up to a week each month? Thinking of the women in your life (yourself included), this number is not surprising. The two important takeaways from this are that the pain is not normal and you’re not alone.
Cramps, pain in the lower abdomen to low back, pain/pulling sensation in the inner thighs, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headache and fatigue. No, I’m not describing you during your period. These symptoms encompass the medical term for painful periods – dysmenorrhea. Dysmenorrhea is basically anything miserable during a period that interferes with our ability to function.
There are two different types of dysmenorrhea: primary and secondary.
Primary dysmenorrhea – no underlying cause, just the result of our body’s natural physiology
Secondary dysmenorrhea – occurs as a result of something else – an underlying condition that can lead to pain during periods – endometriosis, ovarian cysts, pelvic inflammatory disease, uterine fibroids, a narrow cervical opening, etc.
If your periods started being painful right from your first period in your teens, then it’s most likely primary dysmenorrhea. If you had years of pain-free periods, then a full workup for secondary dysmenorrhea is highly recommended. Ultimately we need to understand if there is a secondary cause for the painful periods – and treat that. In either case we can apply my top-ten lifestyle list to help you feel better.
Why Are My Periods Painful?
A couple of specific physiological changes occur at the start of our periods that contribute to pain during periods.
Between our periods the lining of the uterus grows for the potential implantation of a fertilized egg. When no implantation occurs there is a drop in progesterone, which causes the shedding of the lining and what we know as our period. In order for the lining of the uterus to be shed each month there is also an increase in the production and release of inflammatory compounds (called prostaglandins) that stimulate uterine contractions. Just before the start of our period flow the blood supply, and thus oxygen delivery, to the uterus is significantly restricted. This combination of low oxygen delivery (called ischemia), inflammatory prostaglandins, and contractions causes the pain associated with our periods.
But Dr. Lisa, not every woman experiences painful periods (lucky b*tches)
Yes, dear reader, this is absolutely true! Some factors need to be considered in those of us who do have painful periods.
Women who have painful periods produce on average 8-13 times more prostaglandins than women who do not experience painful menstrual cramps. Women who do not ovulate during their menstrual cycle also do not have painful periods – the drop in progesterone is what triggers the inflammatory prostaglandin production and painful uterine contractions. As we get older and make less progesterone, we also can experience much less painful periods.
And lifestyle makes a difference for some women too. Women who already have poor oxygen delivery to the uterus – smokers, women who are overweight, women who are sedentary – tend to have cramping that is either more intense, or lasts longer, or both.
Start with the lifestyle changes – you’ll be glad you did. And once you’ve made these changes, check out my article on Natural Treatments for a Pain Free Period. And then when you’re empowered with all that knowledge, book an appointment and we can put together the very best plan for you. Ultimately it can be a trial and error to determine what will be the most effective for you, and working with a Naturopathic Doctor can accelerate your progress.
Dr. Lisa Watson delivers health care that supports balanced and attainable health at all ages and stages of life. Of primary importance is health care that nurtures the body, mind, spirit, family and community. As a Naturopathic Doctor and mother, Lisa believes that health care and a healthy lifestyle are intrinsically linked and that each serves to support the other. Dr. Watson practices at the Integrative Health Institute in Downtown Toronto.
Check out Dr Watson’s blog: www.drlisawatson.com