Most women, during most months of the year, experience menstrual cramps. Some—you lucky lasses—have only mild to moderate pain during their periods. The rest of us, though, get waylaid by discomfort on a monthly basis, sometimes to the point where it interrupts our normal lives. Sure, we can take over-the-counter (OTC) medicine, like Midol and Tylenol, and prescription therapies, like birth control pills, help as well, but if you want to know how to relieve menstrual cramps without popping pills, there are plenty of holistic remedies that can help you keep period-related pain to a minimum.
Why Is This Happening to Me?!
I ask myself this question every month, as I’m sure many women do. The answer: you’re female. Sorry.
According to the Mayo Clinic staff, women suffering from menstrual cramps, or dysmenorrhea, experience dull, throbbing, or tightening pain in their lower abdomen, which may radiate to their lower back and thighs as well. Some women also notice nausea and vomiting, loose stools, sweating, or dizziness. This is because the uterus contracts during menstrual periods to help shed its lining. Hormonelike substances called prostaglandins trigger these contractions, and women whose bodies produce higher levels of prostaglandins tend to have more-severe cramps.
Severe period pain can also be a sign of more serious underlying conditions, however. While primary dysmenorrhea, the cramping characteristic of normal ovulatory menstrual cycles, involves no underlying gynecological problem, secondary dysmenorrhea, which tends to involve more-painful cramping, is associated with the following conditions:
- Endometriosis, in which the uterine lining, the endometrial layer, becomes implanted outside the uterus
- Uterine fibroids, noncancerous tumors that grow on the uterine walls
- Adenomyosis, in which the endometrial lining grows into the muscular walls of the uterus
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), an infection of the female reproductive organs caused by sexually transmitted bacteria
- Cervical stenosis, a smaller-than-normal opening of the cervix that impedes menstrual flow, causing painful buildup within the uterus
Women who experience very painful menstrual cramps, or whose cramps have suddenly become more severe, should see their gynecologist to rule out any of these underlying problems.
Cramps are also associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS), the emotional and physical changes that 80 percent of women experience between ovulation and the onset of their period. Many women are unlucky enough to suffer from both PMS and period cramps, which means two weeks of discomfort every month. Fortunately, primary dysmenorrhea tends to lessen with age and often disappears once a woman has given birth, according to the Mayo Clinic staff.
Probably the best medication-free way to ease pain from menstrual cramps is to exercise.
Gina Shaw, writing for WebMD, tells the story of Pam Kelly, who had been suffering from debilitating pain since she got her first period, in only third grade. “I was out of school a couple of days just about every month, the pain was so bad,” Shaw reports Kelly as saying. “The school nurse would give me codeine for the pain, and I was finally put on high-dose birth control pills [to help alleviate pain by maintaining more consistent hormone levels]. Those helped some.”
But when she started junior high school, Kelly found another remedy that was even more effective and required no pill popping: “I joined the basketball team and then the soccer team, and I found that the pain was becoming less and less,” she says. “By ninth grade, I didn’t even need the birth control pills anymore.”
Shaw also reports that as many as 90 percent of young women have severe period pain, making it the leading cause of school and work absences for this demographic. Exercise helps these women because it causes their brains to release internal opioids called beta-endorphins, which Kelly’s doctor, Gustavo Rossi, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Virginia, calls “human morphine.” He explains, “It produces analgesia [pain relief] and helps to burn the prostaglandins … much faster.”
According to Shaw, the best kind of exercise for menstrual pain is aerobic, since an elevated heart rate is what triggers endorphin production. She cites Paula Castano, an assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, who seconds Shaw’s statement by urging women to get aerobic exercise at least three times a week, thirty minutes each time.
Of course, there’s another mode of exercise that’s very effective for relieving painful cramps and actually curtailing menstruation: sex. Though many cultures view sex while a woman has her period as unclean, it’s actually a pretty good idea.
Epigee.com, an online publication focused on women’s sexual health, reports that an orgasm causes the uterus to contract and use up excess prostaglandins. Women who have sex during their periods also notice that their flow gets heavier immediately afterward and then comes to an abrupt halt a day later. This is because all those contractions during orgasm help the uterus to shed its lining more quickly and put a period at the end of that period.
Another perk of period sex: it’s possible, but really, really hard to get pregnant while you’re menstruating, because your body is done ovulating. (You can still get an STD, though, so be careful.) Worried about making a mess? Just stay on your back, lying on a towel.
Pop the Right Pills
Reaching for painkillers during your period? You’d be better off going for some vitamins instead—research shows that zinc and calcium supplements are both effective remedies for menstrual misery.
Try some zinc, for example, as a natural non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). According to a study published in Medical Hypotheses, zinc inhibits the metabolism of prostaglandins, and one to three thirty-milligram doses, taken daily for one to four days prior to menstruation, prevent “essentially all menstrual cramping.” Because of these powerful anti-inflammatory properties, the study recommends an increase in the U.S. recommended daily allowance (RDA) for zinc, which “appears to be too low to optimize women’s health and prevent menstrual cramps.”
Calcium and manganese can also help to relieve menstrual pain. According to MotherNature.com, scientists at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center in North Dakota have found that women whose diets are low in calcium and manganese—a trace mineral in nuts, tea, whole-grain cereals, and dried peas and beans—suffer more from cramps than those whose diets include high levels of these minerals.