How to Treat Period Cramps Naturally: Food as Medicine
Painful period cramps are one of the most common complaints I treat in my naturopathic women’s health practice (along with bothersome PMS). I’ve had a lot of success in helping women reduce or completely eliminate their menstrual cramps using only natural medicine, and I want to share that knowledge with you. Some of my patients experience annoying cramps that distract them from work, while others have debilitating, all consuming lower belly and back pain that requires painkillers just to get through the day. If either of these cases sound like you, I’d like to share my natural medicine treatments that you can utilize to minimize or get rid of your period cramps within as little as 3 months. This article covers food and diet for hormone health; I’ll cover herbs and supplements in another article.
Who gets painful periods, and what causes them?
Menstrual cramps, formally known as “dysmenorrhea”, are very common, affecting more than 50% of menstruating women. If you’re reading this article, you likely already know exactly what I’m talking about. Symptoms can include:
- Cramping, throbbing or aching pain in the lower belly that may radiate to the back or down the legs,
- Malaise, fatigue (85%)
- Nausea and vomiting (89%)
- Diarrhea (60%)
- Lower backache (60%)
- Headache (45%)
- Dizziness, nervousness, and even collapse are also associated with dysmenorrhea.
Dysmenorrhea is divided into two types: primary, and secondary.
Secondary dysmenorrhea means that the cramps are due to some sort of identifiable problem in the uterus (such as fibroids, infections, cysts, or endometriosis). This type of pain usually starts in the 20s or 30s, after years of having painless periods. It often comes with heavy bleeding or irregular periods, and can be associated with vaginal discharge, difficulties conceiving, pain during sex, and isn’t well controlled with the birth control pill or advil. The cause of the pain can be identified with testing, imaging or during a pelvic examination.
Primary dysmenorrhea, on the other hand, is defined as menstrual pain WITHOUT any identifiable underlying uterine problem. Primary dysmenorrhea usually starts within 6 months of your first period as an adolescent, begins just before your period, feels like cramping pain in the lower belly that can radiate to the back or down the legs. Some women also get nausea or vomiting with the pain. There are no abnormal findings on testing or during a pelvic examination.
It’s important for women to speak to their health care providers about the pain they experience and to seek testing to ensure that there isn’t some other problem within the uterus that is causing the pain. In this article, I will discuss natural treatments for PRIMARY dysmenorrhea. If you aren’t sure if that’s you, book in for a consult with me and let’s discuss some ways we can explore the root cause of your pain.
What exactly causes the cramping?
Painful period cramps are thought be caused by an increased production of pro-inflammatory and pro-spasmodic chemicals in the muscular lining of the uterus. These chemicals are known as “prostaglandins” (specifically, PGE2 and PGF2 alpha) and “leukotrienes”. In the second half of a woman’s menstrual cycle, these inflammatory chemicals increase three-fold, and then increase yet again when bleeding starts. These chemicals cause the uterine muscles to contract, creating the cramping sensation. Further, leukotrienes appear to increase a women’s sensitivity to pain in the uterine area.
Diet and foods for pain-free periods
I always include ‘food as medicine’ as part of my treatment plan for women. I want my patients to leave my office feeling empowered knowing that they have the ability to control and change their hormone health. Below are some of my suggestions for using food to help reduce the severity or frequency of cramps.
Eat breakfast daily. One study showed that women who ate breakfast every day had less severe menstrual pain than women who ate breakfast less frequently. Have a protein-rich breakfast that includes some healthy fats. For example:
- A green smoothie with a scoop of your favourite vegan protein powder and a large handful of greens
- Oatmeal with a handful of nuts and seeds, and a generous scoop of cinnamon
- Sauteed kale or greens with a poached egg, drizzled with olive oil
- Chia seed pudding with dark berries, full-fat coconut milk and a handful of gluten-free granola
- Squirrely bread, toasted with sliced avocado and smoked salmon
Increase anti-inflammatory foods in your diet. Our goal is to decrease the circulate inflammatory chemicals in your body that contribute to menstrual pain. A few tips:
- Incorporate ginger into your diet generously: in smoothies, ginger tea, sauteed ginger in stir fry, turmeric/ginger tea lattes
- Incorporate turmeric into your diet generously: also in smoothies (1-2 tsp), incorporate spicy indian dishes into your weekly routine, drink turmeric lattes
- Keep a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil on the kitchen table and add generously on top of salads or grains prior to eating
- Have wild-caught salmon or fish several times a week
- Replace processed food with green and colourful vegetables
- Eliminate junk food and deep fried food
Decrease inflammatory foods in the diet. The other side of the anti-inflammatory coin.
- Decrease your intake of red meat and incorporate more plant-based protein in your diet, such as beans and lentils
- Eliminate trans fats. See below for more details
- Reduce caffeine. Switch to green tea, then herbal teas
- Reduce sugar. It’s everywhere. Look for low-sugar recipes or reduce sugar in baking by half
- Use milk alternatives more frequently than cow milk
- Replace all white refined flour/baked goods with whole grains and seedy breads.
Focus on a Mediterranean-style diet. This diet has been extensively studied for its positive effects on heart health, blood sugar and diabetes, cholesterol and weight loss. It helps you achieve the anti-inflammatory dietary goals mentioned previously. The Mediterranean diet centres on a high intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy oils (such as olive oil), fish and seafood, and emphasizes plant-based proteins more frequently than animal-based proteins. One study showed that women with dysmenorrhea were more likely to consume less fish, eggs and fruit compared to women without dysmenorrhea. Aiming for a Mediterranean style diet will help you obtain the most anti-inflammatory benefits from your food.
Eat whole foods, mostly plant-based. Eliminate processed foods, refined sugars, packaged goods, pop, and anything with a label containing ingredients you can’t pronounce. Anecdotal evidence suggests that aspartame (a chemical sugar replacement found in pop, processed foods, and as an alternative to raw sugar for your coffees) may be linked to dysmenorrhea; while this requires some trials to confirm, it is prudent to avoid aspartame for your overall health. Further, one study has shown that a low fat, vegan diet significantly reduces menstrual pain duration within 2 months.
- Tip: Explore some vegan cookbooks and recipe blogs for plant-based meal ideas. Incorporate a few “meatless” days into your routine.
Eat colourful fruits and vegetables, especially the dark leafy greens. This has been mentioned several times already, but deserves its’ own paragraph! The yellows, oranges, reds, purples and greens found in the plant kingdom are full of flavenoids, antioxidants, and vitamins that support your health. In particular, flavenoids help to reduce inflammation and pain in the body.
- I like to suggest incorporating a green smoothie into your daily routine. Throw a handful of greens (spinach, kale, mixed baby greens), a cup of frozen berries, half a banana, a splash of almond milk and orange juice, a scoop of protein powder and water as needed.
- Try replacing your side rice/bread/pasta with a green salad, sauteed swiss chard or kale.
- Each time you visit the grocery store, browse the
Eliminate trans fats. Trans fats come from industrially processed fat. They are known to increase the ‘bad’ cholesterol and decrease the ‘good’ cholesterol. Most trans fat comes from partially hydrogenated oils, which can be found in:
- Vegetable oil, margarine
- Commercially prepared baked goods
- Potato and corn products, crackers, microwave popcorn
- Deep fried foods.
Increase omega 3 fatty acids. This family of fatty acids has potent anti-inflammatory effects. The best food source is from fish (salmon, trout, sardines, tuna, fish oils, oysters, mussels, mackerel, herring); other sources include walnuts, flaxseeds, soy and some vegetable oils.
Other suggestions to eliminate period cramps
In my upcoming blog posts, I’ll be discussing the best herbs and the best supplements for period cramps. Until then, here are a few other suggestions for managing your menstrual pain.
Heat and Castor oil packs. Sometimes, cuddling up in bed with a good ol’ heat pack can help provide some relief and comfort. Even better: add topical castor oil to your self-care routine when cramps strike. The castor bean (Ricinus communis) is known primarily as a cathartic (strong laxative). It can also be used much more gently as a pack, applied externally to the lower belly with a hot water bottle. The oil is absorbed through the skin, into the lymphatic system to provide a soothing, detoxifying treatment. Castor oil packs can be applied daily for 30-45 minutes when cramps strike; many of my patients report alleviated pain with these treatments.
Acupuncture. Several studies have demonstrated acupuncture and ‘acupressure’ to be effective for menstrual cramps. Cramps represent ‘stagnation of blood or qi’ along the liver meridian, and often comes along with PMS symptoms such as irritability or low mood. In my clinical experience, I have had a lot of success using my acupuncture protocol alongside ginger, and castor oil packs. Typically I suggest weekly acupuncture for 6 weeks in a row, and then reduce to one treatment every one or two months.
Stress reduction. An overwhelming schedule or feeling stressed seems to worsen the impact of painful periods. What activities can you incorporate into your routine to provide some stress relief? Consider adding a yin yoga class to your routine, a gentle walk in the woods, quiet time with a book and the cell phone off, or even a 10 minute meditation using an app such as Headspace will go far in supporting your hormone health.
In our culture, the menstrual time is often viewed as a nuisance at best, or a major health problem at worst. The mind-body connection, and how you think and talk about your period, can contribute to how severely it affects your life. The next time your period comes around, can you cultivate some space for yourself to relax, create some down time, and turn inwards to gently support your body through this monthly process? A simple daily meditation, a hot bath, a yin yoga class or cuddling a hot water bottle are all gentle ways to practice listening to your body.
If you have been struggling with monthly period pain that’s preventing you from living and functioning at your highest potential, let’s talk. This article contains some starting points for you, I’ll cover herbs and supplements in upcoming articles; scroll to the bottom of the page and subscribe to be notified when they’re published. My goal is to support you in feeling vibrant and energized, no matter what time of the month it is. To learn more about how to get in touch with me, or where to find me, click here. I hope you find this article useful!
Yours in hormone health,
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