Easing Menstrual Cramps
Menstrual cramps, or dysmenorrhea, are characterized by cramping pains in the lower abdomen. Typically, they are experienced a few days before and during menstrual periods. The symptoms are wide-ranging from individual to individual as the causes and the internal terrain vary greatly. Some women only experience mild cramps one day before their period, while others have symptoms severe enough to interfere with their everyday activities.
Cramps before and during menstruation occur because the uterus contracts to help slough and expel its lining. Prostaglandins (hormone-like compounds) are responsible for triggering the uterine muscle contractions. They also play an important role in regulating pain and inflammation everywhere else in the body.
Shortly before a period begins, the endometrial cells that form the lining of the uterine wall make large amounts of prostaglandins. When the cells of the uterus break down, the prostaglandins are released. They then constrict the blood vessels in the uterus, making the muscle layer contract, which causes the painful cramps. If prostaglandins enter the bloodstream, it can cause other symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Why do some women experience pain and others do not you may wonder? While there can be various reasons, an overproduction of certain pro-inflammatory prostaglandins may be the culprit for many women. We all have different types of prostaglandins in our bodies; some lower inflammation and some increase inflammation. Naturally, we prefer our bodies to make more of the inflammation lowering prostaglandins. This can be achieved by eating a balanced whole foods diet as the production of prostaglandin types is directly related to our food intake.
Essential Fatty Acids- The prostaglandin production in our bodies can be influenced by our dietary fat intake. A balanced intake of omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids from the right food sources can significantly reduce inflammation in the body. Good sources of omega 6 are borage, evening primrose, walnut and sesame oil. The best absorbable form of omega 3s are fish oils, such as cod liver oil.
Anti-inflammatory Diet - As dysmenorrhea often stems from an inflammatory state in the whole body, reducing inflammatory foods is an essential factor in reducing the symptoms. High glycemic foods increase levels of inflammatory chemicals in the body.
Avoid Refined Carbohydrates- Instead, replace with whole grains, including oats, millet, brown rice, and quinoa. Keep in mind that only three servings of grains should be consumed, at most, a day.
Eliminate Processed Sugar and Sugary Foods- Even “healthy” sweeteners, such as raw honey and real maple syrup, should be limited in the diet. While they contain beneficial nutrients, the high sugar load can further imbalance hormones and cause inflammation.
Eliminate Dairy- Dairy products are congestive to the body and can worsen symptoms. Especially conventional dairy products seem to cause distress to the digestive system in many people.
Reduce Red Meat and Egg Consumption- These foods should only be consumed 2-3 times a week. Red meat and egg yolks have high arachidonic acid (AA) content. Consumed in excess, AAs have been found to increase cellular inflammation, which worsens the inflammation occurring during menstrual cramps. Further, non-organic red meat and eggs can contain synthetic hormones which disrupt a regular menstrual cycle.
High Fiber Diet- An estrogen dominance picture can lead to menstrual cramps. High fiber foods, including vegetables, sprouted beans, fruits, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds and whole grains, help the body eliminate estrogens. Fiber acts like a sponge in the intestinal tract and soaks up the excess estrogen.
Vitamin A Rich foods- Help to regulate estrogen levels. Make sure to obtain it from real food sources and avoid the synthetic form.
Food sources include: squashes, sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, butter, broccoli, spinach.
Multivitamin and Minerals- Look for a whole food supplement to help maintain adequate nutrition. This is needed for optimal organ function.
Magnesium- As a natural muscle relaxant, it has been shown to reduce menstrual cramps. A deficiency can also be the cause of menstrual cramps.
Cramp Bark and Black Haw- Both of these herbs’ primary functions are to reduce uterine spasms and cramping. Cramp Bark and Black Haw are safe to use several days prior to the onset of your period and during your menstruation to prevent painful cramps.
Black Cohosh- This plant has potent anti-inflammatory properties and can reduce spasms in smooth and skeletal muscle. This helps reduce pain in the pelvic area as well as pain that radiates to your lower back and down your thighs.
Dong Quai- Most commonly used by women with irregular or absent periods. It can also reduce menstrual cramps in women with poor circulation and scant blood flow during menstruation. This occurs because Dong Quai acts directly on the circulatory and lymphatic system to reduce tissue congestion. It is also relaxing to the nervous system, which helps to manage and reduce anxiety and tension during PMS and menstruation. Note that this herb has adverse effects on women who have heavy periods.
Wild Yam- This herb acts on smooth muscle tissue, such as that found in the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. It reduces muscle spasms, painful menstruation, and chronic pelvic pain. Wild Yam works most efficiently during menses and can also tone your ovaries to aid in ovarian cyst pain.
Chamomile- An anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic herb that also relaxes the mind. Easy to prepare in tea form. Sip throughout the day.
Aromatherapy - Essential oil massage blends or hot compresses are a form of pain relief for menstrual cramps. German chamomile essential oil can reduce inflammation and pain, calm the nerves, and reduce anger, irritability, and depression. Sweet Marjoram essential oil reduces pain on all levels and is best used in a hot compress on the abdomen when experiencing menstrual cramps. Sweet Fennel helps to regulate the menstrual cycle by reducing hormonal fluctuation. It can also reduce muscle spasms, lowering pain.
Vaginal Steaming- Steaming helps improve stagnation and remove old residue in the vaginal canal and womb space. If blood from the previous menstrual cycle has not been adequately removed and cleansed, the body identifies it as a foreign substance. This activates muscles in the abdomen to attempt to push it out of the body. This muscle contracting action results in painful cramps. Doing vaginal steams can assist the body with cleansing the uterus, speed up blood flow, and improve circulation which enhances the body’s cleansing mechanisms.
Do not steam during your period, after ovulation if you are trying to get pregnant, or if there is excess heat in the body due to fever, hot flashes, or night sweats.
Adding herbs to the process can enhance the effects. Beneficial herbs include lavender, white sage, parsley, witch hazel, chamomile, dandelion, and mugwort.