Period pain has plagued women for centuries. A rather unfair tax paid for being life creating creatures! What a lot of women assume is that it is normal. That it is a necessary part of being a menstruating woman that needs to be endured. But it’s not and there are plenty of ways to support your body so that your periods are not a time of dread and pain, but one of rest and replenishment.
There are a couple of different types of period pain
The most normal type is what we call ‘ishemic pain’ which is a fancy way of saying that the blood supply (therefore oxygen) is being restricted to a muscle.
And the womb is a very sophisticated muscle!
When the muscular walls of the uterus contracts to stimulate the lining (blood) to be shed, the blood supply to the actual muscle itself can be restricted. Oxygen is vital for the muscle cells to function, and when they don’t have the amount they like, they send signals to the body that they need help. Unfortunately for us, that signal comes in the form of pain.
To start a period, the body releases inflammatory messengers called ‘prostaglandins’. If the body is told that greater muscle contractions are required – to get the show on the road – more messengers are released.
In very simplistic terms inflammation = pain.
The way many pharmacy medicines for period pain work is by stopping these messages. That’s why they are call anti-inflammatories. The most common in Australia are NSAIDs:
- Ibuprofen (Nurofen)
- Naproxen sodium (Naprogesic)
- Mefenamic acid (Ponstan)
Natural Guidelines to Treat and Prevent Period Pain
If sugar, caffeine, alcohol and/or processed foods are a feature of your daily diet, work on reducing or eliminating them.
Boring news I know, but they are oh so often a culprit! If so, it’s the simplest cure.
Instead, focus on a whole foods diet. The kind your grandmother would approve of. The Mediterranean diet is a wonderful blueprint for an eating style to follow. It’s filled with whole foods, lean meats, legumes, nuts, seeds and plenty of fish. It’s a stealthy way of designing an anti-inflammatory and nutritionally dense diet. (Mediterranean sounds so much better, plus the recipe books are WAY more interesting).
Eating an anti-inflammatory diet means that come period time, your body has far more inflammation quenching compounds at the ready.
Less inflammation = less pain = a happier you.
I’ve written about eating in harmony with your menstrual cycle over here if you would like to go into this in more depth. Or if you would like a little download of kitchen and eating inspiration, I’ve shared some insights on taking a soulful approach.
Getting your body moving and your heart pumping gets your blood moving freely through your body.
As I explained before, one of the major contributing factors to pain is sluggish circulation. You don’t need to go nuts, but working up a sweat 3–4 times a week can make a huge difference.
Yoga, pilates, and barre are all particularly useful at bringing blood flow to the center of the body. Your core. Your womb.
Find a local class and book yourself in. If there are none nearby, YouTube is a classroom open for your perusal.
Heat or Cold
If your period pain is due to inflammation, you’ll find that cold will bring much greater relief than heat. Roll an ice pack (or a packet of peas) in a tea towel or scarf and hold to your lower abdomen for 15–20 minutes. Repeat 2–3 times throughout the day.
A hot water bottle is best for the lack-of-oxygen-pain (fancy word: ischemic). Apply as often as required.
Which is best for you?
You’ll find yourself gravitating instinctively towards one or the other. If not, you can give both a try and see which one feels best. If you’re in an environment where you can’t easily be holding a hot water bottle or ice pack to your womb (like the office or if you’re on your feet all day wrangling work or kids) you can buy stick on heat or cold patches. The heat patches are typically marketed for neck and back pain. The cold ones for headaches. They last for hours and are very discrete. A nice lady hack 😉
Herbs & Nutrition
Magnesium and Calcium
These minerals are ESSENTIAL for proper muscle function. And by essential, I mean, if we didn’t have any our muscles could not work. They enable muscle contraction and relaxation. We’ve established that period pain is a dysfunction of the contraction/relaxation cycle. So providing the body with plenty of the right conduits is a very important step.
The body’s stress response uses magnesium. If stress is a daily feature for you, magnesium may well be in short supply.
Calcium will always be given first preference to the bones over the muscles. So if you’re not getting above what your bones are wanting for the taking, there is a chance it may be in short supply for the rest of the body.
Dietary Sources of Calcium
Include almonds, dark leafy greens, sea vegetables, tinned salmon (with bones), tinned sardines (with bones), yogurt and milk, hard cheese, tofu, legumes, tahini, almonds, parsley, globe artichokes, sprouts, whole grains and blackstrap molasses.
Dietary Sources of Magnesium
Include millet, whole grains, lima beans, green leafy vegetables, muesli, almonds, cashews, all legumes, buckwheat, corn, avocado, potato with skin, garlic, blackberries, eggplant, tomato, cabbage, grapes, pineapple and mushrooms.
If you would prefer a supplement
- Magnesium 300mg 3 times a day. Look for a diglycinate or amino acid chelate. Stay away from oxide or sulfate forms!!
- Calcium 1000mg/daily. Look for a supplement with either diglycinate or hydroxyapatite.
The reasons for this are the same as for focusing your diet on anti-inflammatory foods.
Taking an oil-based supplement is an easy way to make sure you’re giving your body plenty of omega 3s. Especially if you don’t eat fish or find it difficult to eat it on a regular basis. Look for a fish oil with a high EPA content, you will be needing 1000mg EPA daily.
Please go for good quality. Nordic Naturals and Bioceuticals are trustworthy brands with good ethical practices.
Herbal medicines are incredibly helpful at helping to re-correct the underlying imbalances causing the pain. The ones I’m sharing with you are easy to find and safe to use.
Cramp bark – Viburnum opulus
Cramp bark is a large shrub with beautiful flowers. It is also called ’snowball tree’ (but it is the bark used). It is an antispasmodic herb and gives a lovely marshmallowy feeling when you take it.
Valerian – Valeriana officinalis
Valerian is a valuable sleep remedy, but also a very good muscle relaxant. It is like cramp bark but is at night time when cramps are keeping you awake.
Ginger – Zingiber officinale
Ginger is very warming and helps blood flow to the muscles of the womb, delivering oxygen and nutrients. It is very settling to the stomach and helps when women feel nausea because of the pain. It is just as good as a tea as it is in as an extract. Add a few slices to a cup of chamomile or rooibos tea.
Ginger essential oil is also beautiful when combined with clary sage essential oil and olive oil and massaged into the lower abdomen.
Jamaican dogwood – Piscidia erythrina
This plant is native to the Caribbean, Mexico, and Texas. It is a mild sedative and analgesic and useful for when the pain feels sharp or when pain is causing inability to work or sleep.
It’s not as strong as pharmacy painkillers, yet when combined with other herbs that are addressing other imbalances, it is very effective. 1:2, 10–20 ml per week, or as a simple in 20–30 drop doses.
Suggested Herbal Mix
45 ml Cramp bark or Valerian
45ml Jamaican dogwood
Take 3ml in a little water every 4 hours. Having a consultation with a herbalist or naturopath is a great way of having a mix formulated specifically for you.
Most common pharmacy options:
- Paracetamol – Panadol
- Ibuprofen – Nurophen or Advil
- Paracetamol + codeine – Panadeine
- Ibuprofen + codeine – Nurofen Plus
There is no harm in taking pharmacy medicines with any of the natural recommendations made.
If your usual go to is Nurofen, naprogesic, panadine etc. keep them by your side, but instead of going for your usual dose tune into the pain and assess its quality.
The point is – experiment! Care and tune into your body and see what it needs.
A Soulful Note
I cannot finish this post with a soulful mention.
Ladies, often period pain is telling us something deeper.
Sometimes it’s a sign that something more serious is going on and we’re overdue for a health check. Don’t be afraid to explore what might be going on with a sensitive, well-informed naturopath or doctor. It may also be a sign that you’re pushing yourself too hard and not taking enough time to rest and look after yourself. Listen to what the pain is asking of you. There is a women’s movement occurring in the western world called “the Moonlodge” or “the red tent”. It is reclaiming an old tradition that when women were menstruating, they would gather with the other women or alone and spend 3 days away from the rest of the community.
It was a time for peace, inward reflection and rest. By doing this, the women were more available during the rest of their cycle. You can create your own moon lodge in the form of making sure you don’t schedule any commitments of those first three days of your bleeding. Instead, go to bed early, journal, read, give yourself a spa treatment. Whatever it is that fills you up. Seen in that way, period pain can become a gift. A reminder that we’re not invisible. That we need to take time and tend to our wombs.
Primary period pain is what we’re talking about here. Secondary causes can include conditions such as ectopic pregnancy, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease or dysfunctional uterine bleeding. If you are experiencing intense or unusual bleeding or pain, please seek medical attention.