More than half of women who have a period experience pain. There are two types of dysmenorrhea (painful periods); primary dysmenorrhea is the most common without known pelvic pathology. Secondary dysmenorrhea is due to pelvic pathologies such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, adenomyosis, or ovarian cysts. The solution for dysmenorrhea is birth control in Western medicine, which is good as a bandaid to alleviate pain, but it doesn't help figure out why you have pain in the first place. As an acupuncturist, I investigate the root cause of your issue. The lifestyle changes I outline in this post will help tackle the root of period cramps.
Causes of dysmenorrhea
There are many reasons for painful periods, but most commonly, it stems from
Hormone imbalance: too much estrogen or not enough progesterone
Underlying inflammation: Menstruation is an inflammatory response, so if you already have systemic inflammation, your period is fueling the fire.
Low in nutrients that counterbalance the prostaglandin-induced inflammation (i.e., Vitamin D, essential fatty acids like DHA and EPA found in fish or fish oil). Prostaglandins are a chemical that makes the uterine blood vessels and muscles contract to shed the endometrium. These chemicals increase inflammation and sensitivity to pain and loosen your stool.
Low in nutrients that prevent cramping (i.e., calcium and magnesium).
Other health problems such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, adenomyosis, or ovarian cysts.
Lifestyle changes for period cramps
Remove toxins from your life
One of the most significant forms of inflammatory triggers that disrupt our hormonal balance is endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). These are environmental toxins that enter our bloodstream and mimic our estrogen in the wrong way. In terms of painful periods, excess estrogen in your body makes the uterine lining thicker than usual. Therefore, this means more cramping and pain for your uterus to expel the lining. Here is a partial list of sources of EDCs in our lives:
Residues from herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics, and other pharmaceuticals that end up in our food
Plastics in the form of phthalates and other toxins that leach from food packaging and plastic food storage containers into our foods
Household furnishings and other sources of flame-retardant chemicals
Household cleaners, paints, stains, and other commonly used chemicals
Cosmetics and body products, including lotions, sunscreen, shampoo, conditioner, and more
Here are some lifestyle changes that you can implement to help balance your hormones on your own. This can seem daunting, so I recommend starting with one area and implementing more changes as you feel comfortable.
Choose glass containers for heating and storing food.
Do not drink from plastic water bottles.
If you’re buying something canned or in glass, make sure it is marked BPA-free.
Eat organic and hormone-free foods, especially animal-based products like meat (choose free-range and grass-fed). The EWG website has the Dirty Dozen, a list of products that always should be eaten organic because it uses the most pesticides, and the Clean 15, which can be bought conventional because not as many pesticides are used.
Swap out toxic cleaning products for non-toxic products.
Wash hands well after handling paper receipts because these are coated with BPA.
Check ingredients in skin and hair care products and buy ones labeled paraben-free. Use the EWG skin deep website to check your products; you want to avoid any products high in endocrine disruption.
Movement as medicine
Exercise is a safe and effective lifestyle implementation to combat period pain. Research shows that low-intensity exercises, such as Yoga or Pilates, and high-intensity exercise, such as Zumba or aerobic training, improve menstrual pain intensity compared with no exercise. If you are on your period and the thought of exercising seems terrible, try low-intensity yoga to stretch your pelvis muscles or walk to increase circulation. Exercise can also improve your mood, helps with water retention, and increases energy. Incorporating 30 minutes of exercise a day might be beneficial in alleviating the intensity of your period cramps.
Exercise helps to maintain healthy levels of blood glucose in the body. Every time we eat, the pancreas secretes insulin to remove glucose from the blood into your muscles, liver, and adipose tissue cells. Exercise helps move sugar into muscles for storage and promotes increased insulin sensitivity for up to 48 hours after working out. It is beneficial to combine aerobic and resistance training to improve insulin sensitivity.
Eat real food, and avoid processed foods such as sugary drinks, cookies, some crackers, chips, breakfast cereals, some frozen dinners, and lunch meats because these can create more inflammation in the body.
Add more cruciferous vegetables to your diet (like cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, and bok choy) because the compounds found in these vegetables can support excess hormone detoxification.
Eat foods to support Liver detoxification, such as bitter foods and leafy greens (broccoli rabe, dandelion greens, mustard greens, radicchio, spinach, kale, Swiss chard), asparagus, nettle, herbs such as (parsley, cilantro, and basil).
Incorporate more seeds into your diet, such as flax, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds, to help regulate your hormones. Throw them into your oatmeal, yogurt, or smoothie.
Keep blood sugar balanced: to regulate your hormones. Eat every 4 hours and always pair a carbohydrate with a protein or fat to reduce blood sugar spikes. Foods high in protein or fat slow the digestion of glucose which helps stabilize blood sugar. Do not skip meals, and don't drink caffeine on an empty stomach, which causes blood sugar spikes.
Castor Oil Packs
A castor oil pack works by stimulating the lymphatic system, the drainage system of our body. Lymph is everywhere; the lymphatic network drains waste and improves our circulation. A castor oil pack is the most effective use to help with menstrual cramps. The oil is absorbed into the gut-associated lymphatic tissue through the skin when the pack is used over the low abdomen. It then circulates, relieving menstrual cramps often caused by congested lymph vessels, and reducing inflammation and swelling.
You can make them yourself or buy these reusable packs. Wrap yourself up and place a hot water bottle or heating pad every other day for one hour. Castor oil packs can also be used over the liver to support detoxification pathways, regulate hormone imbalances, and reduce inflammation and lymphatic drainage.
One of the causes of dysmenorrhea can be a deficiency in nutrients that counterbalance the prostaglandin-induced inflammation, such as Vitamin D and essential fatty acids like DHA and EPA found in fish or fish oil. Prostaglandins are chemicals that make the uterine blood vessels and muscles contract to shed the endometrium. These chemicals increase inflammation and sensitivity to pain and loosen your stool. Another cause could be a nutrient deficiency that prevents cramping, such as magnesium or calcium. I recommend getting the following four nutrients checked by your doctor to see if you are deficient. If you are deficient, you could supplement to see if this helps with your period cramps.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Nervous System Support
The nervous system is the captain of our hormones. The signaling starts in the brain, our central nervous system. The hypothalamus is a structure in the brain that controls the pituitary gland, which stimulates other hormone-producing body parts, such as the ovaries, to prepare your body for your cycle. Since your nervous system regulates your hormones, it’s important to recognize its impact on your cycle, your flow, and your PMS symptoms. Incorporating stress-relieving techniques, such as meditation, breathwork, walking outside, yoga, and getting good quality sleep, helps to reduce your nervous system's fight or flight response.
If you've made all of these lifestyle changes for period pain and still have pain, try acupuncture
Acupuncture and herbal medicine can help regulate your menstrual cycle and hormones, reduce menstrual cramps, and control your stress response. Book an appointment for a free consultation if you suffer from menstrual pain each month and want to try a natural approach to hormone regulation.