Despite what Midol commercials from the 90s might have told you, super painful, life-altering, sleep-disrupting, nausea-causing menstrual cramps are not the norm when it comes to an ideal cycle.
Yep, you read that right. Painful cramping does NOT have to be part of your monthly cycle.
According to Dr. Cassie Wilder, registered Naturopathic Doctor (NMD) and founder of Minneapolis Integrative Medicine Center, having some sort of sensations during your period can be normal. That means light cramping or pressure in the area of your uterus, or muscle soreness in your low back on the day you start your flow.
What’s not normal is pain that messes with your regular routine. “[The pain] should not be disruptful to your life or prompt you to need medications to control the pain,” says Dr. Wilder. That also goes for the back pain too, she continues: “No medication or time off work [should be] required.”
How can you tell if your period pain is NOT normal?
If you’re sitting there like, “wait, what?!” you’re not alone. The cultural conversation around menstruation is shifting. Even celebs are talking more about their period pain and reproductive health struggles. But is what you’re experiencing on a month to month basis worth investigating?
Maybe. Dr. Wilder says that "moderate to severe cramping of your lower abdomen for any amount of time can be a sign that something might be off. Especially if these sensations have gotten worse over time. Moderate to severe body pain, vaginal pain, or uterine pain should be evaluated.”
Translation: If you’re doubled over in pain or having to miss work or other activities due to your cycle, it’s time to check in with your doctor.
Despite what Midol commercials from the 90s might have told you, painful cramping does NOT have to be part of your monthly cycle.
What causes "abnormal" period pain?
Let’s start at the beginning. Every month, your uterus grows a thick lining so that a fertilized egg could implant and begin a pregnancy. If this doesn’t happen, as is the case for most of us most of the time, your body produces chemical signals that give your uterine muscles the cue to contract and shed that lining—and you get your period.
Those chemicals are called prostaglandins, and varying levels of prostaglandins (plus varying levels of sensitivity to them) can cause different types of pain, says Dr. Wilder. That’s why some women have pain-free periods, and others have debilitating cramps.
If your levels of prostaglandins are too high, she continues, you’re more likely to experience the really painful, sometimes intolerable cramps. If your levels of prostaglandins are balanced, you’re more likely to experience less pain overall.
Other common painful period culprits? Other hormone imbalances (progesterone deficiency, estrogen excess, or poor estrogen metabolism), high inflammation from other conditions, and endometriosis or other anatomical issues (fibroids, etc.).
All of these can be addressed by finding the right provider, one who will listen to all your symptoms and not dismiss your pain and discomfort without investigating.
How can you reduce menstrual cramps?
The long-term solution is what integrative and functional medicine is all about: Finding the root cause. Balancing your hormones is the way to less period pain, but you have to figure out what is imbalanced in the first place, says Dr. Wilder.
“When we're talking about progesterone deficiency, start by working on improving egg quality and ovulation, then adding in herbals to support progesterone such as Chaste Tree Berry (Vitex) during the luteal phase of your cycle. If you're a poor estrogen metabolizer, work on phase 1 and phase 2 liver metabolism by adding in cruciferous veggies, amino acids, and other antioxidants. Making sure you have a healthy microbiome is also important for estrogen metabolism!”
All of these treatments can be led by labwork and a knowledgeable provider who can support lifestyle changes to help balance your hormones. But in the meantime, what can you do to deal with the pain you’re having RIGHT NOW?
8 ways to naturally reduce menstrual cramps
Balancing hormones can be a lengthy process, as they can be impacted by many underlying health issues, says Dr. Wilder. To troubleshoot while you work on your long-term plan with your provider, try these suggestions for reducing menstrual cramps ASAP.
A super effective herb to use for menstrual cramps, it has a special affinity for smooth muscle cramping, which is exactly what your uterus is doing. It is, after all, a muscle. You can try a tincture, or you can buy dried cramp bark and make your own tea. It’s most effective when you take it as soon as you realize it’s that time of the month, and tinctures can work in as little as 10 minutes.
A natural muscle relaxant, magnesium can help those uterine muscles to calm down. It also helps replenish or rebalance depleted minerals in your body, which can alleviate pain all around. Take it internally, or apply magnesium lotion or oil to your areas of pain and layer on a hot water bottle compress.
Speaking of hot water bottles… they’re a great option to soothe menstrual cramps. Or try a reusable rice or corn bag (aren’t these cuddly ones so reminiscent of the stuffies you had on your bed as a kid?!).
Castor oil pack
Created by soaking a cloth in castor oil, a castor oil pack has long been used in traditional medicine for pain. The main component of castor oil, ricinoleic acid, is a type of fatty acid that’s been shown to possess anti-inflammatory properties. When applied topically, especially in conjunction with heat, it can help reduce menstrual cramping, says Dr. Wilder. You can make your own, or purchase a pre-made set.
Replenish your vitamins + minerals
Sometimes, period pain can be related to depleted minerals and vitamins in your system, like potassium, B vitamins and omega 3 fatty acids, says Dr. Wilder. Make sure you’re eating a balanced meal plan that incorporates as many nutrients as possible on a consistent basis, to help prevent cramps in the first place.
But if you find yourself in need of replenishment, period-specific tincture that gives your body a boost of the vitamins and minerals it needs to relax. Dr. Wilder likes Semaine, which you can find at Target, or Cramp Bark Extra.
It may seem like magic, but homeopathy can be a powerful energetic kick your body needs to help stop the pain. You’ll want to pick the remedy that fits your picture, says Dr. Wilder, but these are a few common options:
- Magnesia phosphorica (Mag. Phos): For pain that’s relieved by heat and pressure.
- Nux vomica: Cramps that extend into the whole body, coupled with urge for a bowel movement.
- Colocynthis: For pain that’s relieved by hard pressure to the uterus.
- Chamomilla: For intense cramping with hyper-sensitivity to pain.
- Cycle Cramp: A combo of a few of the above.
Long used to curb nausea (hello, flat ginger ale when you have the stomach flu!), ginger is a powerhouse at increasing gastric tone and motility, which can be a cause of nausea. If your pain is sending you running to the bathroom, consider adding Gin Gins or ginger tea to your regime to support calmer digestion.
We swear by this cocoa-butter based suppository infused with 100mg of broad-spectrum CBD. CBD, one of the most widely researched and best known cannabinoids, is known to parallel and interact with other internal pain control systems, helping to reduce and stave off pain. In fact, in some studies, it’s been shown to be up to 10 times more effective than morphine. Suffice it to say, these suppositories should be in your period pain toolkit.
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