Ah, that time of the month. For some women, their period is an annoyance – a dreadful time filled with pain and discomfort. And yet for others, it’s a celebratory time – a physical sign of fertility and feminine power.
Your period can tell you a lot about what’s going on with your health. As Lara Briden puts it, “Periods are the monthly report card of women’s health.” If you’re stressin’, if your digestion isn’t optimal, if you’re not ovulating, your period will let you know!
Rather than seeing menstruation as an annoyance, we can take it as a cue to listen up to our body’s message. My body was screaming at me every month before I figured out that sugar and stress were causing my periods to be so violent. It took a lot of fine-tuning of my diet and lifestyle to finally experience cramp-free periods (which I didn’t think existed!) and it has made all the difference in my ability to function during my period.
Cause of Menstrual Cramps
Diet and Inflammation
How you nourish your body could be the difference between you owning your period or your period owning you. If we are eating inflammatory foods like sugar, conventional meat, dairy, vegetable oils, artificial sweeteners, and fried foods, we are going to have chronic, low-grade inflammation due to the imbalance of pro-inflammatory fats known as Omega-6 fats. Read more about inflammation and painful periods. The American diet is very rich in these Omega-6’s and not rich enough in omega-3’s, which are anti-inflammatory (1).
Poor Gut Health
Poor gut health and improper digestion can lead to conditions like leaky gut, triggering an inflammatory response that can worsen menstrual cramps and pelvic pain, among other things. Funny enough, menstrual cramps are often addressed with drugs like Ibuprofen, which can actually lead to leaky gut (2). A better way to address gut issues is to address stress.
In addition, if we are experiencing frequent digestive ailments such as diarrhea, we can become depleted in beneficial nutrients that support a healthy menstrual cycle, such as B vitamins and magnesium.
Other conditions can lead to painful menstrual cramps, such as uterine infections, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, fibroids, polyps, and/or contraceptives like IUDs (3).
Tips for Preventing and Easing Menstrual Cramps
In my experience, when digestion is off kilter, it can affect the pain level of our period. To optimize digestion, incorporate fermented foods or a quality probiotic. Get plenty of fiber in the form of cooked and raw organic vegetables. Address any food intolerances/allergies you may have and definitely be conscious of your sugar intake.
I love brewing a cup of peppermint or ginger tea when my gut starts acting up. Both are soothing and can help improve digestion.
Magnesium is involved in over 300 metabolic functions (4), yet 75% of Americans are deficient. Studies show that magnesium supplementation can ease menstrual pains by relaxing the muscles (5).
Magnesium comes in several forms, such as capsules, topical sprays, powders, Epsom salts, or good old-fashioned food form (leafy greens, almonds, beans, bananas, brown rice) (6).
Care should be taken when considering a magnesium supplement as over-supplementing can cause diarrhea and low blood pressure. I recommend working with a healthcare practitioner when considering supplementation of any kind.
As mentioned above, a pro-inflammatory diet can contribute to painful cramps. Packaged and processed foods tend to be generous with their inflammatory ingredients such as sugar and vegetable oils (canola oil, corn oil, peanut oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, grapeseed oil. Kind of a misnomer to call them “vegetable” oils, right?).
Incorporating more produce and omega-3 sources like fresh water fish will help decrease inflammation. In addition, switching from conventional meat to organic, grass-fed meat will help reduce inflammation as well. Take it easy on the sugary delights, alcohol and caffeine, especially as you are approaching your period. I have a major sweet tooth, but for me, the hours of painful cramps are not worth the fleeting sugar high.
Turmeric is an excellent anti-inflammatory and you can make Golden Milk at home for a soothing nightcap.
Castor oil pack
Castor oil packs can help relieve pelvic pain by stimulating circulation, clearing out toxins, and moving old blood. The best use of this is once a week or for a few days leading up to your period. I do not recommend using them during bleeding as it can increase your flow. You can easily make your own castor oil pack at home – it’s wonderfully soothing and offers several health benefits.
Herbal tea provides two-fold support – it warms the tummy, helping to relax those twisting muscles, and it provides medicinal support from the herbs. Several herbs have been studied for their effectiveness at warding off painful cramps. Try sage tea to regulate the cycle, catnip tea to reduce muscle spasms, ginger tea to aid in circulation (7, 8), and cinnamon tea to address nausea and vomiting associated with painful periods (9).
Where to Start
It’s vital to determine the root cause of your menstrual cramps so that you can say adios to pain associated with your period. If your digestion if off, then I recommend cleaning up your gut by getting probiotics on board and incorporating plenty of veggies. If you are deficient in vitamins and minerals, try incorporating foods that have the ones you’re lacking. If you’re not sure where to start, try seeking out the support of a naturopath or a women’s health coach to help guide you on your journey.
Do you have painful menstrual cramps? What helps you ease the pain during your period? Leave me a comment below – I love hearing from you!