For many women their bleeding time each month can be a painful experience. For thousands of years women have come up for a variety of reasons why this is happening to them, and the pain can vary from woman to woman. For some women the pain is debilitating.
Painful menstruation is known as Dysmenorrhea which literally means “difficult menstruation”. Each month when the uterine lining sheds as menstruation, the uterus must contract. In women with dysmenorrhea the contractions are very painful. The uterus may even spasm. Pain can be localized to the lower abdomen, but it can also be in the lower back, in the vulva, as well as radiating down the thighs. This wave like pain is often accompanied by headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The pain can begin up to 24 hours before menses begins and usually lasts for the first 48 hours once menses begins. In some women the pain may last up to 72 hours once menses begins.
Painful menstruation is one of the leading causes for women to miss work. This type of regular monthly pain also makes painful menstruation one of the leading reasons for regular use of NSAID’s (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).
If you have extremely painful menstruation it is important to talk to your doctor about this. It is important to rule out if what you are experiencing is actual Primary Dysmenorrhea, or Secondary Dysmennorrhea. Primary means that it is the first issue, whereas secondary means there is another health issue causing or contributing to the painful menstruation. For example; Secondary Dysmenorrhea is often caused by endometriosis, ovarian cysts, or uterine fibroids. There may also be other factors that are causing pain that may also need to be ruled out, such as IBS, constipation, UTI, ect. If you know that you have other fertility issues that are the underlying cause of your menstrual pain, it is important to address those issues as well. While it is always easier to treat pain acutely (when it is happening) rather than address the root cause, it is very important to find out what is causing the pain in your body.
What Causes Painful Menstrual Cramps?
In the ‘70’s studies began to come out that showed a link to why women experience painful menstrual cramps. Scientists discovered that women with menstrual cramps had high levels of prostaglandin F2 alpha (PGF2). Prostaglandin F2 alpha is made by the uterus to stop progesterone production when there has been no implantation at the end of the menstrual cycle. Women with Dysmennorhea have been shown to produce 7 times more prostaglandin F2 alpha than women who do not. When the prostaglandin F2 alpha is released into the blood stream in high levels it causes the uterus to spasm. This also creates a state of inflammation because PGF2 is a known inflammatory chemical in the body. Uterine cramping and inflammation is the cause of the pain. Scientists still do not know why the body produces more PGF2 in women with painful menstrual cramps.
Natural Ways to Decrease Menstrual Cramp Pain
I will share with you some natural remedies to help treat menstrual cramping when it is happening, but also remedies and mind/body practices to consider long term to help relieve your menstrual cramp pain forever!
Nutritional Considerations First!
That’s right, getting adequate nutrition every day should be top priority! Considering that Dysmenorrhea is an inflammatory state in the body, it is important to avoid foods that increase inflammation response. High glycemic foods are known to increase levels of inflammatory chemicals in the body, including PGF2. When looked at holistically both doctors, naturopaths and herbalists agree that an anti-inflammatory diet is important.
- Avoid refined carbohydrates. Stick to whole grains like oats, millet, brown rice, quinoa, ect. Eat only 3 servings of grains at most a day.
Eliminate sugary foods and processed sugar. Choose very limited amounts of honey or agave. Choose Stevia as a sweetner when possible.
Consider eliminating dairy. Dairy products are congesting to the body and many doctors have seen a reduction in menstrual cramp pain in women who eliminated dairy products. If you choose dairy, try to purchase organic or organic raw dairy only to avoid added hormones.
Reduce red meat and egg yolk consumption to at most 2-3 times a week. This is because both red meat and egg yolk are high in arachidonic acid (AA). This has been found to increase cellular inflammation in some people. To find out if you are senstive to AA, eliminate red meat and egg yolk for a month. Reintroduce it and see if your symptoms come back. Choose organic free range meats and eggs when possible to avoid added hormones.
Eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables!
Important Nutritional Supplements
- Whole Food Multivitamin
Be sure to take a good whole food prenatal multivitamin. This will help you to maintain adequate nutrition. Many of do not consume enough fresh foods because of our food system, therefore our nutritional levels are lacking what our bodies need each day to function properly.
Be sure to get enough Vit. A through a natural whole food source (cod liver oil) or beta-carotein (carrots). This will help to keep estrogen levels regulated.
Magnesium helps to relax smooth muscle tissue. It has been shown to reduce menstrual cramping greatly. Magnesium deficiency is a leading cause of menstrual cramps.
Are you getting enough Omega-6 fatty acid? Both Borage oil and Evening Primrose Oil are high in Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 fats can assist fertility by improving reproductive cell structure, decrease risk of inflammation and improve the condition of organs in the body. Borage and EPO tone the uterus. Honestly it is best to take a complete essential fatty acid supplement. This will help you to get a wide variety of EFA’s!
Herbal Support for Dysmennorhea
When considering using herbs for painful menstrual cramps we have to consider how herbs work in the body. As an herbalist I use different herbs for different actions and/or outcomes. You have to consider the therapeutic goal of the treatment. Menstrual cramps have more to do with than just pain. While some women have heavy bleeding with their painful period, others have a sense of stagnation, a boggy uterus with a very scant period; yet both of these can fall under a diagnosis of Dysmennorhea. You must also consider hormonal balance, nutrition, digestion, mental/emotional state, and pain level. Below I have broken the herbs up into sub-groups so that you can see herbs that are specific for important actions when experiencing painful menstruation.
If you are considering a more natural approach to reducing menstrual cramps please consider talking to a naturopathic doctor or herbalist in your area to see which herbal formulations are right for you.
Pain Relief & Cramp Relaxing Herbs
Note: none of these herbs should be used during pregnancy, unless directed to do so under the care of a qualified health care practitioner skilled in the use of herbal remedies.
Cramp Bark & Black Haw: These are probably the most effective herbs for reducing uterine spasm and cramping. These sister herbs bring relief of pain and muscle spasm in the uterus. Cramp bark and Black haw have been shown safe for use for several days prior to onset on menses in anticipation and prevention of painful cramps. I can attest to these plants wonderful pain relieving action. I personally feel these herbs are one of the best herbs to have on hand at all times for any sort of menstrual pain, I prefer it over NSAID’s. There is also no risk of liver damage from this herb like there are with NSAID use.
Black Cohosh: This plant is very anti-inflammatory and wonderful at reducing spasm in both the smooth muscles, but also the skeletal muscles associated with pain that radiates to the lower back and down the thighs.
Dong Quai: Dong Quai is popular for women with absent period, but it has other beneficial actions. It helps to reduce menstrual cramps in women with a boggy, heavy feeling uterus due to stagnation, poor circulation and scant blood flow during menstruation. Dong Quai acts on the circulatory system and lymphatic system reducing tissue congestion. It has both analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. It is also very relaxing to the nervous system, which may be helpful to those with anxiety or tension during PMS and menstruation. Interestingly this herb has been shown to first stimulate the uterus and then go on to relax it. Dong Quai is also a wonderful hormonal balancing herb, used since the 16ht century for the female reproductive system. Note: This herb is best not used during menstruation for women with heavy bleeding.
Wild Yam: Wild Yam has a wonderful action on smooth muscle tissue, reducing muscle spasm of the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries, aiding in painful menstruation and chronic pelvic pain. Wild Yam helps the uterus to work more efficiently during menses. This uterine support allows for proper function of the uterus while working to prevent uterine cramping or spasm. This herb has a wonderful action on the ovaries, toning them and aiding in ovarian cyst pain.
Digestive Upset with Inflammation
Ginger: If you experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhea due to painful cramping and hormonal changes, ginger is one of the best herbs to soothe the stomach. It is also anti-inflammatory. Also see Chamomile.
Anxiety, Nervous Tension, Irritability with Menstrual Cramps
Chamomile: This sweet little flower is both anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic. It is also helpful for women with digestive constipation contributing to pain. Because this herb is also a nervine and mild sedative it may help to reduce stress, relax the nervous system and induce a restful state in the body. This can be very useful when experiencing menstrual cramping accompanied by anxiety and irritability. Chamomile is best sipped as a tea during menstruation.
Motherwort: Very effective at reducing uterine muscle spasm, cramping and improving uterine tone. It is also a wonderful mild sedative, aids in insomnia, headache and dizziness. It is a specific remedy for heart palpitations, stress and anxiety associated with pelvic pain.
Dong Quai is also in this category.
Severe Cramping and Pain
Jamaican Dogwood: This herb combines will with Cramp Bark or Black Haw. It is important to seek the guidance of a qualified herbalist, midwife or naturopathic doctor if you are considering this herb for pain. Never self prescribe this herb. This herb is extremely antispasmodic and analgesic. It is traditionally used for all neuralgic and muscular cramps and spasm. This is an herb that is often relied on by herbalists for women who have unrelenting pain disturbing daily life activities; debilitating pain. I wanted all of you to know that there are natural options for extreme dysmenorrhea, Jamaican Dogwood may be a good option for women who have lost all hope, or where other remedies have failed.
Aromatherapy Support for Painful Menstrual Cramps
Essential Oil Massage blends or hot compress are another form of pain relief for menstrual cramps. Below are some of the best essential oils for painful cramps.
German Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla, Matricaria recutita)
German chamomile is best known for its ability to reduce inflammation. This oil is a deep blue in color due to the presence of azulene. It also has some pain reducing effects, promotes calming of the nerves, reduces anger, irritability and depression.
Sweet Marjoram (Origanum marjorana, Marjorana hortensis)
This is a great oil for menstrual cramps. Reduces pain on all levels. Great to use with a hot compress on the abdomen when experiencing menstrual cramps.
Sweet Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare, Foeniculum officinale, Anthum foeniculum)
Helps to regulate the menstrual cycle, may help reduce hormone fluctuation. It is also aids in reducing muscle spasm.
* Do not use if you have epilepsy.
Video: How to Make an Oil Blend for Menstrual Cramps
Menstrual Cramps Essential Oil Blend
*Best used only during painful period, endometriosis, fibroids, ovarian cysts, before ovulation
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Self Fertility Massage and Fertility Yoga
Uterine spasm is sometimes associated with a weak uterus. If the uterine muscles are “out of shape” they are more likely to spasm. Self Fertility Massage may greatly help to strengthen, stimulate, detoxify and support overall uterine health. Self Fertility Massage also increases endorphins which help reduce pain. Another good option is to practice Fertility Yoga. Fertility Yoga uses specific poses to keep the reproductive organs in proper alignment, with adequate circulation.
The Mind & Body Connection to Painful Menstruation
Dr. Christiane Northrup brings this topic up in her wonderful book Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. Is there a connection with our thoughts, past experiences, and social expectation in the role of pain during menstruation? She thinks so. She has been a doctor for over 25 years and has bridged the gap between conventional medicine and holistic practices. Through her years of clinical work she has found there is indeed a relationship with past thoughts of our bodies and menstrual cycles, as well as what we still currently believe about our bodies that contribute to menstrual pain. With up to 60% of the US females having mild to extreme dysmennorhea it is an idea worth mulling over.
If you continue to struggle with painful menstrual cramps it is definitely worth considering what ideas or thoughts about your cycle, your body and your entire life that no longer serve your highest good. Perhaps you have been sexually abused, or even emotionally abused by someone in your life, could this trauma be contributing to your monthly pain? Do you look at your menstrual cycle as a burden or with disgust? Now is the time to go within, change your thoughts on you; love yourself completely. Allowing yourself love. Let yourself know you love you, this may actually be release enough to let go of painful menstruation.
I have actually worked with many clients who have said that by changing how they think about their fertility journey, dealing with past hurt/anger, and shifting how they speak about their bodies to positive, loving words, that they are no longer having painful menstrual cycles. Those ladies faced the truths of who and what they thought they were in this world. The transformation has been lovely and completely inspiring!
May you go forward to heal your pain. Know that you have the power to heal your body.
– Edited by Clayton, L.T., M.D., M.P.H. (1997). Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary; pp. 1573. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: F.A. Davis Company.
– Romm, Aviva. (2010). Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health, St. Louis, Missouri: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier.
– Northrup, Christiane, M.D. (2010). Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. New York, New York: Bantam Books