Most of us have come to accept that painful cramps are a part of the deal when it comes to our menstrual cycle. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine however, we are only meant to experience brief discomfort (if any) for a few hours on our first day of flow, unfortunately, we know that is not often the case.
It is estimated that 8-81% of females experience painful menses. Absenteeism rates range from 34-50% due to menstrual pain, with a projection of up to $600 million work hours lost annually! Cramps can be caused by a variety of health conditions (i.e fibroids, endometriosis, PCOS etc), however, if no underlying pelvic pathology exists the root cause can be difficult to identify. It is likely due to a combination of stress levels, nutritional status, workplace environment, exercise and hormones. Taking a holistic approach to decreasing frequency and intensity of cramps means identifying room for improvement in all of these areas. Additionally, there are natural alternatives to conventional pain medication to help minimize pain throughout your cycle.
Natural Alternatives To Minimize Menstrual Pain
Magnesium: Magnesium functions to provide muscle relaxation and vasodilation (promotes smooth blood flow) . It has also been shown to decrease prostagladin synthesis. Prostaglandins are naturally occurring compounds that promote uterine contractions. A systematic review concluded supplementing with magnesium when compared to placebo reduced the amount of pain medication taken during the cycle.
*Magnesium supplementation may impair the effectiveness of thyroid medication and should be taken 4 hours apart. Contact your primary care provider before beginning to supplement if taking these medications.
Ginger : similar to magnesium ginger acts specifically to reduce synthesis of prostaglandins. It has also been shown to decrease inflammatory markers that increase pain. Studies have found it to be equally as effective at reducing pain when compared to ibuprofen (Advil). It can be taken prophylactically several days before your cycle begins and for the first few days of flow. It is most efficacious when used as a standardized extract capsule.
Castor Oil + Peppermint Oil Compress: Due to its messy and sticky nature castor oil is often overlooked; however, it is a powerful smooth muscle relaxant and helps to promote smooth blood flow. Peppermint oil is a natural anti-spasmodic and anodyne (the cooling sensation overrides the pain signal to the brain !), helping to decrease the intensity of muscle spasms and alleviate pain. Apply a layer of castor oil to the lower abdominal area in the areas of pain and add a couple of drops of peppermint oil. Cover with a clean towel (it does stain so choose a darker colour), adding a hot water bottle or heating pack overtop of the compress will increase the efficacy and absorption of the oil.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids : Omega 3 fatty acids help to decrease inflammatory prostaglandins, helping to minimize the frequency and severity of uterine contractions. Adding three servings of cold water fish (salmon, halibut) per week is one way to achieve adequate amounts of omega 3s through diet. Otherwise a fish oil supplement (algae oil if vegetarian or vegan) can be taken . Quality is important when it comes to supplementing with a fish oil. I prefer to use professional brands that are made in Canada and adhere to good manufacturing practices that ensure their quality, safety, and potency.
Diet + Exercise: Avoiding excessive exercise during menses is important to help decrease inflammation and further mitigation of pain. Gentle exercise to stimulate smooth blood flow and improve pelvic circulation is encouraged (i.e walking, yoga). Diet plays a large role in the inflammatory process, increasing fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and lean protein will all contribute to minimizing inflammation. Eliminating alcohol, refined sugar, refined carbs, red meat, and caffeine is recommended before and during your cycle as the above-listed increase inflammation and have been linked to increased menstrual pain.
As mentioned above the root cause of menstrual cramps and painful periods is likely a combination of various lifestyle factors. However, it is important to rule out any underlying pelvic pathology, if you are experiencing moderate-severe menstrual pain during cycles, or noticing irregularities in your cycle it is important to contact a health care practitioner.
Book now for more information on natural ways to acheive a pain free cycle!
Dennehy CE. The use of herbs and dietary supplements in gynecology: an evidence-based review. J Midwifery Womens Health. 2006;51(6):402-9.
Romm, A (2017) Botanical Medicine for Women's Health. St.Louis, Missouri: Churchill Livingston.