Period Cramps: The Unwelcome Monthly Visitor
Menstrual cramps, also known clinically as dysmenorrhea, affects millions of women worldwide and it can vary in severity from mild abdominal cramping to debilitating pain requiring loss of time from work and social activities. The pain typically begins a few days prior to the onset of your period and can continue for a few days afterwards. There are many causes associated with menstrual pain including conditions such as uterine fibroids and endometriosis and other causes such as a narrowed cervical opening or pelvic inflammatory disease.
The types of pain experienced with menstrual cramps can be localized to the abdomen; however, it can also radiate to the lower back and thighs. Headache, mood changes, loose stools, nausea and insomnia can also be associated with menstrual pain and can begin after ovulation in the two weeks prior to your period. Collectively these symptoms are known as PMS or premenstrual syndrome.
It’s important to work with your doctor to get the root cause of your menstrual pain. However, there are dietary changes and natural remedies that may help reduce menstrual pain. Let’s explore them here.
Changing your Diet May Help
It is thought that some types of prostaglandins which are hormones that promote uterine contractions and increase inflammation, are higher in women who experience menstrual cramps. Therefore, one way to help reduce the pain is to include foods that are anti-inflammatory in your diet while reducing foods that promote inflammation. Anti-inflammatory foods include raw, unsalted nuts and seeds; fresh unprocessed vegetables and fruit and whole grains. Whereas foods that promote more inflammation include saturated and trans fats, refined sugar, caffeine, alcohol, processed foods and red meat. Adopting a whole foods diet may help reduce your PMS symptoms and cramps over time.
Calcium to Calm Muscle Spasms
Calcium is important for building and maintaining healthy bones and it may tone your uterus and reduce the spasms associated with menstrual cramps. Low blood calcium levels have been associated with increased uterine contractions, muscle spasms and menstrual pain. Foods high in calcium include dairy products, sesame seeds and tahini, sardines and some leafy green vegetables. As a supplement, calcium citrate is the most absorbable form. In one study, supplementation with 500mg of calcium daily for 2 months was found to reduce premenstrual symptoms including breast tenderness and abdominal pain in study participants.
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Gamma Linoleic Acid for Breast Tenderness
Gamma Linoleic acid or GLA is an essential fatty acid found in Borage and Evening Primrose. The oil obtained from the seeds of both these plants contains essential fatty acids that you can only obtain from your food. Gamma linoleic acid (GLA) is the star nutrient here. Supplements containing GLA have been shown in studies to reduce painful menstruation, PMS and breast pain. Once ingested, this omega-6 fatty acid turns into an anti-inflammatory hormone compound known as prostaglandin E1 which works in turn to decrease inflammation and uterine contractions. One side benefit with regular use of this oil is the potential improvement in skin conditions such as eczema.
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Chaste Tree: A Female Fertility Tonic
Vitex agnus-castus which is commonly known as Chaste tree, originates in the Mediterranean region. It is the fruit that is used to treat female complaints such as infertility, irregular menstrual cycles and mild to severe menstrual pain. Medical herbalists have used chaste tree in women with severe dysmenorrhea for centuries. One 2014 study showed that Chaste tree had a beneficial effect similar to synthetic estrogen and progesterone for reducing menstrual pain. It can be taken in a standardized extract or tincture. However, it should be avoided while breastfeeding. Check with your doctor to be sure this herbal remedy is right for you.
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Ginger to Reduce Pain
You’re probably familiar with ginger, a warming spice from the plant family Zingiberaceae that contains the bioactive ingredient gingerol. It has a long history of use as a culinary spice in many cultures around the world; however, modern research has begun to highlight its medicinal benefits for a variety of health conditions. A research study from the journal Pain Medicine which reviewed 29 scientific studies on the use of ginger for painful menstruation showed that 750 mg to 2000 mg of a ginger extract taken during the first 4 days of menstruation can reduce the duration and intensity of pain. For mild menstrual pain, you may benefit from drinking ginger root in a tea. It is also available in tincture and capsule form.
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Menstrual cramps are manageable for some people and debilitating for others. Natural remedies and dietary changes have the potential to ease the pain, regulate your hormones and improve your mood during this time of the month. However, if the pain you experience continues to get worse, check in with your doctor to rule out other conditions that could be the cause of your pain.