Understanding and Preventing Painful Menstrual Cramps
Menstruation, periods, hormones, cycles, PMS: just a few words that come to mind when I think about my period. For a topic that seems so common, it is still very taboo and not always explained clearly. So let’s break it down simply. Menstruation occurs monthly in women when our ovaries release an egg that travels to our uterus, and if it is not fertilized by sperm, our uterus sheds the lining that a fertilized egg would have begun to develop in. It is a cyclic release of hormones, estrogen and progesterone, that control the monthly cyclic process of menstruation. It is the process that makes pregnancy possible; however, when pregnancy does not occur, as women we are left to deal with periods that bring along cramps, mood changes, and bleeding we have to control. With guided nutrition, natural remedies, exercise and activities, and reduced stress, we can make this monthly experience more enjoyable.
Your diet can help minimize cramping, prevent fatigue, balance your mood, and minimize bloating. How? Here are the main ways our hormones impact our bodies during menstruation. Prostaglandins are released during menstruation to initiate uterine contractions. By minimizing dietary intake of prostaglandins, you can limit the extent of your period cramps and contractions. Fatigue is the most common symptom of iron deficiency anemia. Many women are already impacted by iron deficiency anemia and during your period, the loss of blood can cause or exacerbate this deficiency and symptoms. Therefore, it is important to make sure we are consuming enough iron in our diets. Our mood is greatly affected by estrogen levels and estrogen levels are impacted by insulin and insulin levels fluctuate with what we eat. A consistent diet prevents large fluctuation in insulin, and therefore estrogen, which in turn improves our mood as well. And finally, progesterone augments water retention. So by minimizing large levels of salt in our diet, we can counteract an even greater amount of water retention already occurring during our cycle.
So what foods should we include? Foods with iron and protein, that includes: chicken, fish, beans, tofu, quinoa, and lentils. Green leafy veggies are a great source of Iron and fiber as well. Omega 3’s also often called “healthy fats” include: seafood, nuts and seeds, and/or supplements. Vitamins are also important, and great sources include: yogurt, citrus, vegetables, and ginger. Hydration should also not be forgotten.
Are there any foods to avoid? Red meat because it has a lot of prostaglandins which could cause cramps. Alcohol because it exacerbates symptoms already experienced due to our periods such as dehydration and digestive problems. Finally, processed foods because of the high levels of sugar and salt.
Pain medication always feels like a great option/easy fix; however, medication never comes without potential side effects, whether felt or not. Furthermore, many of the symptoms felt during our periods can be avoided/treated naturally. This is not to say there is never a time for medication, but it can often be a great benefit to try natural remedies when possible.
The first is avoiding dietary prostaglandins aka red meat. This will greatly reduce cramping and contractions. Also, I know it is especially tempting during our periods to want to eat a lot of snacks, a lot of chocolate, and a lot of feel good foods, but this is the time where it is important to redefine what feel good foods are. Foods that can make our body, mind and soul feel good should be prioritized. Eating more protein, less sugar and saturated fats, along with smaller meals throughout the day; we’ll prevent large fluctuations in insulin levels. This will in turn keep our estrogen levels more balanced and will also help with controlling our mood and craving throughout our cycle.
Here are some simple meal ideas I enjoy. The first is rice bowls: rice, add a protein like chicken or tofu or seafood, a veggie or two, and spice it up with coconut aminos or soy sauce overtop. Another great meal is oatmeal, with fruit and nut butter on the top, maybe even a little dark chocolate to satisfy the sweet tooth. My final go-to meal is pasta with a lentil ragú (use lentils instead of beef). And don’t forget, herbs and spices are your friend! They are an easy way to add flavor (and oftentimes nutrients) without adding a bunch of calories, fats, or sugars.
Exercises and Activities
I get it, exercise does not often sound fun, especially during a period when we aren’t feeling our best. But some light exercise can actually alleviate symptoms such as: pain, cramps, bloating, depression, irritability, fatigue, and nausea. Our bodies are made to move. This is evident by the fact exercise is important to prevent and control many chronic conditions. So why would it not also benefit us during a natural monthly process as well. Furthermore, during exercise your body produces many hormones including endorphins that improve your mood.
A heavy workout, or workout in public spaces still might not feel ideal when we aren’t feeling our best during menstruation, but there are plenty of other options. Walking is easy, does not require special equipment, you can do It anywhere; and if the weather is nice, it is often a mood booster to get outside. If you are up for a little more, light cardio/aerobic exercise is always great and you can bump the walk up to a jog, cycling, or maybe even a swim (which are all much more comfortable and hassle free with a menstrual cup rather than worrying about tampon strings). Strength training is also great if you are up for it, but use lighter weights than you normally would. There are great YouTube workouts for this that you can do at home. There are also many YouTube videos you can watch to guide stretching and balancing. This helps with bloating, cramping, pain, and helps your mind and body relax
It is important to listen to your body. Strenuous prolonged exercise can induce inflammation while on your period. If you are feeling unusually fatigued, nauseous or have an increase in pain or discomfort. Rest and relax. Try to get physical activity in, but don’t push yourself past your body's limits.
Stress can impact almost every aspect of our health and there are many studies showing that stress can worsen menstrual symptoms. Women who reported experiencing stress before their cycle often also report severe symptoms. Stress can make you 25 times more likely to experience worse menstrual symptoms like pain, cramping, and bloating. Stress has unfortunately become fairly mainstay in most of our lives, so how do we combat it?
This is where it gets personal. Combating stress looks different for everyone, because we all have different interests and strategies in which we find peace. However, there is common ground in that most of us do not prioritize time to do so. This is important, not only for minimizing period symptoms but also for overall health, as stress impacts a multitude of body systems. I understand that free time is hard to come by, but this is where self reflection comes in. We can all make time for things we really want, so we have to look at our schedules realistically and see where we can prioritize time to de-stress and possibly what things we need to cut out of our schedule to do so.
For me, this began with adding all of my daily activities to my daily planner, not just school or work tasks. Little things like cleaning the kitchen, taking a shower or even “free space” were added so I could get a full picture of my day. This for me already relieves stress because listing everything out helps ease my mind as I see the day as well as certain aspects of the week ahead and I realize that my workload is doable. Once we have a better idea of our schedules, we can add in time to destress. Like I said, do things that work for you. For me personally, getting outside and fresh air is essential, whether that includes a walk, sitting on my porch while drinking tea, or opening my window while responding to emails. Quiet time is another great one. I love being around people, but I do better when I prioritize a little time to myself, to read a book, or reflect on my journal, or just watch YouTube videos for a bit.
Whatever activities help bring you peace, it is Integral—not only to our menstrual health, but our overall well being—to prioritize time for these things in our daily lives. I highly recommend reading the book “The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down” by Haemin Sunim. Reading a few of his bits of wisdom each day is a great way to foster reflection and set goals.