When I was in grade six my best friend Nadia and I were obsessed with getting our periods. We’d clutch our abdomens, groaning about having “cramps” – I did not have cramps – convinced that our monthlies were about to arrive at any minute. As a naïve 11 year old, I had no idea what I was wishing for.
Cramps are the most common complaint related to periods, affecting as many as 80% of menstruating women. The official medical term is dysmenorrhea, which also encompasses back pain, nausea and diarrhea associated with menstruation. Health conditions such as endometriosis, fibroids and cysts also cause painful periods and are known as secondary dysmenorrhea, which we’ll talk about another time. For now, we’ll stick to plain old cramps that are not associated with a health condition or IUD.
Common ≠ Normal
And just because cramps are common does not mean that they are just a normal part of the female experience. Your period should be pain-free and cramps and other common PMS symptoms are a signal that something is out of balance.
So what exactly are cramps anyway? Cramps are caused by uterine contractions. The uterus has to contract in order to shed the lining that has built up over the course of the menstrual cycle. These contractions are triggered by prostaglandins, hormone-like chemicals responsible for a number of functions throughout the body including promoting inflammation and pain.
Research has shown that women who experience painful periods have higher levels of prostaglandins in their body. Now think about that for a second. If higher levels of prostaglandins are associated with pain, then the opposite must be true. Reducing the overall amount of prostaglandins and inflammation in your body will help to reduce the pain associated with your period.
The Estrogen Connection
But wait, there’s more! Prostaglandins are influenced by estrogen, the female sex hormone. Excess estrogen is linked to painful periods, heavy bleeding, headaches, backaches and mood swings. More estrogen = more prostaglandins = more pain. Therefore lowering your estrogen levels, if they are high, can help to lower your prostaglandins and give you periods that are easier to deal with.
While curling up with a heating pad and a Costco-sized bottle of Ibuprofen would certainly help you cope with those cramps, a few changes to your eating and lifestyle habits is much more my style as it has the potential not just to reduce your pain, but to eliminate it all together.
However, there is a catch – eating to reduce the pain associated with your period isn’t something you can do for a few days a month; you need to consciously be eating well throughout your entire cycle in order to reap the benefits. Here’s how:
Eat your veggies
Transfats, refined sugar and other junk found in processed foods increase inflammation which in turn can contribute to painful periods. Crowd out junk foods by increasing the amount of whole, unprocessed plant foods – particularly leafy green vegetables that are high in magnesium, a key nutrient for reducing inflammation.
Excess hormones hang out in your lower intestine, waiting to bind with fibre to be eliminated. If you’re not having at least one good quality bowel movement a day those excess hormones are hanging around a little too long and may be contributing to your hormonal imbalance. In other words, not having a good poop every day could be causing your cramps. Increase your fibre intake by eating whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds – particularly flax seeds – and drink enough water each day for proper elimination.
Cut back on animal proteins
Consider cutting back on the amount of animal protein that you consume as it can contribute to a thicker uterine lining. The thicker the lining the stronger your uterus needs to contract in order for it to be shed. This doesn’t mean that you have to go vegan, but avoid eating large quantities of animal protein each day.
Eliminate food sensitivities
Eating foods that you may be sensitive to can contribute to your overall inflammation levels. Gluten, wheat and dairy top the list for common food sensitivities – cut them out for at least one menstrual cycle and see how it impacts your period pain.
Even though I’m a nutritionist I feel like I spend more time talking about stress with clients then I do talking about green smoothies or chia seeds or anything else related to food. Stress messes with your hormones. Imbalanced hormones cause PMS. If you want easier, less painful periods then you need to manage the stress in your life. Start by taking a deep breath and then check out my favourite meditation apps to help manage the stress in your life.
Your period doesn’t have to be a curse. Changing the food that you eat can help to rebalance your hormones, giving you painless, easy periods month after month. As a holistic nutritionist specializing in hormonal and menstrual health, I can help you change the way you eat and transform your lifestyle to make you feel amazing every day of your cycle. Click here to see how we can work together.