We know what it feels like to get crampy… and crabby. It’s just not fun. We know how tempting it can be to fall into the old trap of popping a pill, and while that might be a temporary quick fix, it is also very taxing on your body. So why not get to the bottom of the problem and eliminate them altogether? Our friends Dr. Emily Lipinski ND and Holistic Nutritionist Gabriela Delano-Stephens from Period Makeover are here to help!
In medical terms, severe cramping is referred to as dysmenorrhea, but we will just stick with cramps. During ovulation (mid cycle) a biological chemical substance called Arachidonic acid is released leading to the production of specific prostaglandins (PG). These are naturally made in your body to mediate a myriad of physiologic effects including helping to regulate the contraction of smooth muscle tissue found in the uterus, but unfortunately they can also be responsible for cramping.
This is because there are a number of different types of PGs, and some, such as PG2 and PGF alpha which are pro-inflammatory, stimulate uterine contractions, which cause cramping. With each contraction, oxygen to the muscle tissue of the uterus is cut off as the blood vessels in the area are pinched. When the uterus loses oxygen for a few seconds we feel pain. Note that not all prostaglandins are inflammatory! Some prostaglandins such as PG1 and PG3 are anti-inflammatory and are very beneficial for your cycle. However, the aim is to decrease the production of arachidonic acid leading to the pro-inflammatory prostaglandins.
↑ Arachidonic acid = ↑ and PGF alpha = ↑ uterine contractions = ↓ oxygen = CRAMPS!
Note that, besides excess PG2 and PGF alpha production, there are 3 major causes for cramps.
- First and foremost, is just the mere fact that you are getting your period! Your uterus begins to contract to dispel the uterine lining and blood, and you can feel this process taking place. Most of us would be ok will a dull ache, however severe painful cramping needs to be addressed with diet and lifestyle changes or ruling out another underlying cause.
- Those of you with an IUD likely experience much worse cramps due to the ‘invasive’ device, when your uterus contracts you can feel the device as it is pressed against the uterine walls.
- The third reason can be attributed to endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, or fibroids in which case you would likely experience pain during sex, pain when you have a bowel movement, or experience abnormal vaginal discharge, if this is the case please consult with your doctor.
HOW DO WE STOP THE CRAMPING CYCLE?
So as you can see from the diagram, high arachidonic acid earlier in the cycle can be a major contributing factor to cramps. Thankfully, through diet and supplements we can reduce the production of these compounds leading to less inflammation and cramping. The reason why Tylenol, Advil and other pain relief drugs are so effective at reducing cramping is that they are prostaglandin inhibitors as well as anti-inflammatory (specifically Advil and to a lesser degree Tylenol). However, we have some healthier solutions that are anti-inflammatory and won’t take such a toll on your beautiful body.
Please read on to learn certain foods, supplements, herbs and yoga moves to help decrease those painful monthly cramps!
1. Bananas. You’ve probably heard that you should eat bananas to prevent muscle cramping during exercise. Well, guess what? It works for menstrual cramping as well. Bananas are a rich source of vitamin B6 which as is a powerful anti-cramping nutrient. Avoid banana chips as they contain added fats and sugar.
2. Sunflower Seeds. High in vitamin E and anti-cramping minerals zinc and magnesium, these little seeds are excellent cramp-zappers. In addition to these vitamins and minerals, sunflowers are also very high in vitamin B6, which helps with pain relief due its role in the synthesis of dopamine, a neurotransmitter.
3. Ginger. Ginger has been used for years in several countries for various medical ailments. Recently a study has found to be as effective as Advil (Ibprofen) and mefenamic acid (Ponstel) for treatment of menstrual pain.
4. Pineapple: remember that alcohol is contraindicated for cramps so stay away from the piña coladas! Pineapples contain an enzyme called bromelain that is thought to help relax muscles, thereby relieving cramps.
SUPPLEMENTS & HERBS:
*Please Note that before taking any supplements or herbs it is best to speak to your health care provider. Like any medication, some supplements and herbs can interact with other medications you may be taking. Additionally, just like medicine, supplements and herbs require the proper dosage and duration to achieve the desired effect in your body.
1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory, fish oils contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which inhibits arachadonic acid, the substance that is released during ovulation and eventually converted to PG2 which cause the cramping (remember?).
2. Magnesium. Magnesium is known to decrease muscle cramping in various parts of the body and now some studies have suggested that magnesium supplementation may be very beneficial for menstrual cramps, specifically.
3. Chastetree. Also known as vitex agnus castus, Chastetree has a long history of use as it is known to benefit the reproductive organs. This herb encourages a healthy menstrual cycle and also is known to ease discomfort associated with menstruation.
By practicing relaxation techniques and relieving stress on a regular basis you will relax the lower back and pelvic muscles, and thus reduce excess contractions in the pelvic area.
1. Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-leg standing forward bend) Stand with your feet about 3 feet apart, toes turned slightly towards each other. With your hands on your hips and your back straight, slowly, bending at the hips, take your head towards the floor. Release your hands to the floor. You can stay light this or for a more restorative pose you can place a block under your head to relax the neck muscles.
2. Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle pose). This pose is great for cramps. Sit on your mat and bring the soles of your feet together pulled in closely toward the buttocks. You can use a bolster under the mid-back as you release towards the floor.
A FEW MORE TIPS:
1. Magnesium oil. Although this isn’t actually oil, it feels oily. By rubbing magnesium oil on your skin, particularly your lower abdominal area, the magnesium is absorbed trans-dermally, which will reduce muscle contractions and thus relieve the pain. It can sting a little, which can indicate a magnesium deficiency. After a couple of uses the stinging should go away.
2. Hot water bottle. Placing a heating pad or hot water bottle on your lower back or abdomen can be very soothing to the dull ache of cramps.
3. Exercise. Those who exercise regularly often have less menstrual pain. To help prevent cramps, make exercise a part of your weekly routine. Please note that exercising while on your period may be very draining and tiring for some. Pay attention to your body, if you need a bit more rest during you period-take it.
4. Avoid red meat and dairy products. These foods contain arachidonic acids, which instigate the production of cramp-causing prostaglandins.
- Tori Hudson, N.D., in Women's Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (Keats, 1999).
- Pathogenesis of Primary Dysmenorrhea From: Katz: Comprehensive Gynecology, 5th ed.; Chapter 36 - Primary and Secondary Dysmenorrhea, Premenstrual Syndrome, and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder
- Dysmenohrrea, MDConsult Date accessed: 2012
- Fontana-Klaiber H, Hogg B: Therapeutic effects of magnesium in dysmenorrhea. Schweiz Rundsch Med Pra 79(16):491-494, 1990.