Imagine, it’s that dreaded time of the month when Mother Nature comes to visit—or rather, torture—you. First there's PMS: bloating, irritability, overall discomfort. And then even when your period comes, the cramps! Our fertility is beautiful and life-giving, but it sure doesn’t seem that way if it makes you struggle to stand (or sit!) up straight.
The official term for period pain is dysmenorrhea. According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, more than half of women experience some level of menstrual cramps one to two days a month. So why does our period bring on cramps? During menstruation, the uterus contracts, pressing up against surrounding blood vessels. Natural chemicals called prostaglandins that are linked to pain and inflammation cause these contractions, and this compression prevents oxygen from reaching the uterus’ muscle tissue. Cue the menstrual cramps!
Period cramps differ from woman to woman. I struggled through crippling cramps during my teens and still experience pangs now and then. Over-the-counter medication can certainly help relieve period-driven pain, but I've found that often non-medical methods work best to relax you, mind and body, when Flo comes to town. Here are some natural tips for period pain relief.
01. Cardio Kicks Cramps to the Curb
The idea of exercise may seem far-fetched when all you want to do is curl up into a ball, but physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins—which work against prostaglandins—to relieve period pain as your body pumps and circulates blood.
One study analyzing the relationship between exercise and menstrual aching found that active women experienced less pain during their period than women who were sedentary. Aerobic exercises such as swimming, running, walking, or biking are best since they can boost your heart rate quickly to trigger the release of endorphins. Or get outside and walk, it doesn’t have to be intense.
02. Stretch It Out
If cardio isn’t your thing, stretch to soothe your body. Gynecologist Suzanne Trupin recommends yoga since it “incorporates deep breathing, which helps relieve the effects of oxygen deprivation to the tissues, one of the main causes of cramps." Focus on poses that work the areas that are cramping the most, like your pelvis and lower back. Some of the most effective cramp-busting yoga exercises include the seated twist, wind pose, cat pose, bow pose, and reclining angle.
Not flexible? Me neither. A few simple stretches can loosen up your aching areas, too. I’ve found that stretching my arms above my head, lunging one leg forward, and leaning back helps stretch my cramping abs. I also lie on my stomach, push myself up with my arms, and lean back while keeping my legs on the ground (aka, cobra pose).
03. Take the Heat
Studies on heat’s effects on uterine blood flow are inconclusive, but after placing a heating pad on patients' abdomens for four hours, researchers at the University of Cincinnati found, “The percent reduction in pain compared with the start of treatment was 27% at the first hour, 43% at the second hour, and 79% at the end of the fourth hour.”
Whenever I get overwhelming cramps, a heating pad is my go-to. Use a heating pad, a bottle full of hot water, or a warm towel to relieve the pain of cramping muscles. Whatever method you choose, place the warmer on your abdomen or your lower back. A long, warm bath can have similar effects.
04. Keep Calm with Chamomile
Herbal teas, specifically chamomile, are not only tasty and soothing, but also good for cramp prevention. A study released by the American Chemical Society discovered that drinking chamomile tea increases the production of glycine, an amino acid that reduces muscle spasms. The researchers concluded that this calming effect helps lower pain for women experiencing menstrual cramps.
The effects of chamomile tea last longer than one cup, too. The study discovered that glycine levels remained high in participants for up to two weeks after they stopped drinking the tea. Making a habit of drinking chamomile in the weeks leading up to your period can help combat period pain. Better yet, sip some while bathing or using a belly warmer to calm cramps inside and out.
05. Reach for the Vitamin D
Vitamin D helps lessen inflammation by hindering the production of prostaglandins during menstruation. One study discovered that women who took vitamin D supplements reported experiencing fewer cramping symptoms during their period than those who took a placebo. Certain foods can do the trick, too. According to the National Institutes of Health, the best natural food sources of vitamin D are fish liver oils and fatty fish including salmon, tuna, and mackerel. Other foods that contain vitamin D (although less than fish) are cheese, egg yolks, beef liver, and mushrooms. Fortified foods—products that are supplemented with extra nutrients—such as milk, cereal, orange juice, and yogurt are also a good source of vitamin D.
06. Cut Back on Caffeine
You don’t need to fill your mug with decaf every morning, but scaling back on caffeine can prevent further muscle tightening. Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, causing blood vessels to constrict—aka, the last thing you need when your muscles are already tightening up! A study conducted by the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health found that caffeine intake has a negative impact on menstrual functions in general, too. It can make you more tense—an unnecessary aggravator when you’re already dealing with your period. Drink water and other non-caffeinated liquids instead.
07. Consume More Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is known for its natural anti-inflammatory effects. Research conducted by naturopathic doctor Bruce Fife shows that women reported less pain during PMS after adding coconut oil to their diet. After incorporating coconut oil into her diet for two months, one woman shares, “I usually feel like I was hit by a truck when [my period] comes on, very painful or very sore in the lower back, but this time [I had] no pain, only a feeling of tiredness.”
Add coconut oil to your foods as a replacement for butter or other oils while scrambling eggs, sautéing vegetables, baking desserts, spreading on toast, and more.
08. Relax with a Massage
PMS cramps are a great excuse to pamper yourself with a massage—even if it’s a DIY one! A study conducted by the Touch Research Institute and the University of Miami Medical School investigated the effects of 30-minute massages twice a week consisting of relaxing major muscle groups. The results showed that the massages helped lower anxiety in addition to PMS symptoms such as cramps and bloating in the short-and long-term. Using similar massage tactics such as kneading your abdomen and back can help fight off your cramps.
09. Be Kind to Yourself
Last—but certainly not least—be good to yourself! Get enough rest and try to avoid anything that could cause you additional stress leading up to or during your period. Keep in mind that although it may be one of the least pleasant aspects of womanhood, a healthy period means that your body is working as it should. You’re strong and you can power through period pain, but it doesn’t hurt to help your body out in natural, good-for-you ways!
Photo Credit: Belathee Photography