What causes period cramps and why are they painful?
Prostaglandins are hormone-like chemicals that are released in large amounts when the uterus contracts. Although the release of prostaglandins before a period begins is a natural part of a menstrual cycle, too much of them cause period pain (ouch). Excessive prostaglandin production has been associated with increased Stress and the restriction of blood supply to the uterus tissues (ischemia). Also, women who have endometriosis or severe menstrual pain have higher levels of prostaglandins.
Is period pain normal?
Whilst period pain is incredibly common, it’s not normal to experience debilitating pain every month or pain that affects your ability to function normally in day-to-day activities. Often, period pain is a symptom of an underlying issue and our body’s way of signalling that there’s a hormonal imbalance or something just not quite right.
What do period cramps feel like?
Period cramps can feel a dull, constant aching or throbbing pain in your lower abdomen. Prostaglandins may travel into the bloodstream from the uterus and cause this pain to radiate or expand to your lower back and thighs. Typically, the pain will start a few days before or during your cycle and are the most severe in the first 24 hours of your period. Some individuals find their menstrual pain to be so painful that they will faint or vomit from the pain.
Why do I have cramps but no period?
Some individuals will find in the middle of their cycle (during their ‘ovulation’ phase) that they feel a twinge or dull cramping sensation in one side of their abdomen. This occurs when an egg is released from the ovary (“ovulation pain”). Usually, this pain is manageable and usually not harmful.
Period pain may also be caused by medical conditions including endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, adenomyosis, fibroids and urinary disorders. Hence, it’s important to seek out professional help when if you’re experiencing severe menstrual pain.
Often doctors will ask you on your symptoms and menstrual cycle such as the severity of the pain, the length of your cycle and whether you have a family history of painful periods. A pelvic exam will then be performed where your reproductive organs will be examined. Any abnormalities will be followed up with further testing such as an ultrasound or laparoscopy.
How do I treat my period pain?
To treat any symptom, we must address the underlying cause. Often, painful periods are caused by hormonal imbalance and elevated inflammation in the body. Hence, methods to relieve period cramps include lowering inflammation, reducing the levels of prostaglandins and increasing uterine flow.
- Dietary changes
Our diet can play a huge role in how we experience period pain and studies have shown certain nutrients can reduce period pain. Women who consume a diet low in magnesium, vitamin D, calcium, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids are more likely to experience painful periods.
Calcium and magnesium acts as muscle relaxants to prevent the muscle spasms that cause period pain. Antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and hence reduce the elevated levels of inflammatory prostaglandins that are associated with painful periods. Vitamin D is essential to produce progesterone and one of the symptoms of low progesterone is premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
As inflammation is the main driver of prostaglandin production (chemicals that cause painful periods), incorporating more anti-inflammatory foods should be a priority. Focus on eating the ‘rainbow’ such as red, orange, yellow, green and purple fruits and vegetables as these are packed full of antioxidants and hormone supporting nutrients. Omega-3 rich foods can also reduce inflammation and foods rich in omega-3 include flaxseeds, chia seeds, fresh walnuts and oily fish. Sprinkling in a tablespoon or two of “Earth Seeds” and/or “Luna’s Gold” make it easy to add an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory boost to your meals.
Foods that are inflammatory and have been associated with increased risk for painful periods include coffee, red meat, processed foods, alcohol, refined carbohydrate and sugar. Reduce these in the week leading up to your period. I’ve been loving using “Luna’s Lover” like a hot chocolate in the evening when I’m craving a sweet treat and replacing coffee with “Luna’s Matcha“ in the week leading up to and during my period.
2. Lifestyle changes
- Reduce stress.
I know, you’ve heard it all before but stress affects more than just your mind! Individuals who report high-stress levels are twice as more likely to experience painful periods. Stress increases our pain sensitivity and increases prostaglandin production. Additionally, women who experience painful periods may feel stressed and anxious leading up to their periods, resulting in a bidirectional relationship between stress and painful periods.
Often, we may want to just stay curled up on the couch and watch reruns of Bridget Jones for the entire day when we’re hit with bad period pain. however, exercise has shown to have amazing benefits in reducing period pain and other premenstrual related symptoms such as fatigue, and breast tenderness and bloating. Thankfully, we don’t have to do marathons either to reap the benefits, one study found women who practised yoga for 35 minutes for 2 days of the week had significant reductions in period pain after 12 weeks.
- Turn up the heat
Continuously placing a heat pack or water bottle on your lower abdomen where you feel pain can help reduce period pain. Heat relaxes the abdominal muscles and lowers muscle tension to stop the muscular spasms that cause pain. Heat also improves blood flow in the pelvic region to prevent nerve compression. When our nerves are compressed or squeezed, this often causes pain, numbness and muscle weakness (ouch). One 2012 study published by BMC Women’s Health found heat patches to have similar pain-relieving effects to pain killers, suggesting their use for dysmenorrhea (painful periods).
As previously mentioned, period pain may be common but it’s not a normal or inevitable part of your cycle. The most effective treatment for cramps is a holistic approach, that involves addressing dietary & lifestyle foundations mentioned in this blog combined with the products available to you in our Cramps Moonbox which have been specifically formulated to help you experience more enjoyable and less painful periods.
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Wang, L., Wang, X., Chen, C., Ronnennberg, A., Guang, W., & Fang, Z. et al. (2004). Stress and dysmenorrhoea: a population based prospective study. Occupational And Environmental Medicine, 61(12), 1021-1026. doi: 10.1136/oem.2003.012302