At least 80% of women experience period pain at some point in their lives. For some, it is nearly every other month. For this reason, a lot of women dread this time of the month. Although this condition is common, it is definitely not normal! As a naturopath, I would like to uncover the causes behind period pain, and help educate women on how to care for themselves during this time of their monthly cycle. Implementing diet, herbs and lifestyle practices can help women manage and/or prevent period pain.
A woman’s menstrual cycle is considered her sixth most vital sign. Like taking one’s pulse or body temperature, for example, it is one of the most powerful indicators of the state of a woman’s health. The scientific term for period pain is dysmenorrhea. There are two types of dysmenorrhea: primary and secondary. Inflammatory chemicals called prostaglandins cause primary dysmenorrhea, the condition I am discussing today. It is the most common condition women experience. Secondary dysmenorrhea is often associated with identifiable conditions such as endometriosis and uterine fibroids. See your practitioner if you’re experiencing excruciating abnormal pain during your cycle, to identify whether you have the following condition.
Understanding The Causes Of Period Pain
During the menstrual cycle, which can last between 1-7 days, hormones such as estrogen and progesterone drop down to their lowest and the uterus lining is shed. The inflammatory chemicals, prostaglandins, are released during a woman’s menstrual cycle, causing the uterus to contract itself in order to shed the uterus lining. The thicker the lining of the uterus, the more work it takes for the uterus to expel it, which can sometimes lead to heavy periods, pain, and/or cramping. Overproduction of prostaglandins is due to high levels of estrogen circulating in a woman’s bloodstream. This can be due to endocrine disruptors found in our environment, such as household products, cleaning detergents, and beauty products. It may also be due to foods that are heavily sprayed with harmful chemicals, coupled with poor elimination from the liver and digestive system.
Here are naturopathic protocols to implement to alleviate period pain.
6 Dietary Recommendations To Help Manage Period Pain
1. Go organic whenever possible
This is especially important when it comes to meat, dairy products, eggs, and fruits & vegetables listed on the “dirty dozen” list. These are fruits and vegetables which tend to receive a heavy spraying of toxic chemicals, antibiotics & unwanted hormones.
2. Address gut function
A healthy gut equals healthy normal hormones circulating in our bloodstream. Addressing the gut function means focusing on adequate fibre intake to promote elimination from the digestive system. Aim for at least 25g daily. Most fibre sources are found in prebiotic-rich foods, such as legumes, asparagus, artichokes, and apples. Food that feeds your friendly gut bacteria are known as probiotics. Incorporate probiotic-rich foods, such as sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, miso and coconut yoghurt, daily with your meals.
3. Address liver function
Poor liver function means more chances of excess hormones circulating in the bloodstream. Address liver function by incorporating bitter leafy green vegetables in your diet. Examples include kale, collards, and herbs like dandelion and burdock root. Include foods that promote liver function and health, such as apples, avocadoes, green tea, and beetroot.
4. Focus on anti-inflammatory foods and a primarily plant-based diet
Fruits and vegetables contain phytonutrients which protect our body from harmful environment toxins, thereby reducing inflammation and helping to manage period pain. Think rainbow-coloured fruits and vegetables, such as bell peppers, sweet potatoes, dark leafy green vegetables, and pumpkins.
5. Consuming omega-3 fatty acids reduces and prevents inflammation
These are found naturally in foods like wild salmon, mackerel, and sardines. Vegan sources include nuts and seeds, such as walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseed.
6. Remove processed sugars and flours, refined oils and alcohol
When consumed, simple sugars found in such foods immediately turn to sugar in our bloodstream, which causes a spike in our insulin levels. These groups of foods are major causes of inflammation in the body. Not only that, they can induce acne, which some women experience a few days before their period. Choose whole foods instead of simple sugars, such as brown rice over white rice, and high-quality oils, such as olive oil instead of vegetable oils
Eating During The Luteal And Menstrual Phase Of Your Cycle
In the luteal phase (14 days before your period, when you start experiencing low mood, energy levels, and other PMS symptoms): Make a batch of roasted vegetables with carbohydrate rich foods, such as sweet potatoes, pumpkins, beetroot, and carrots. Complex carbohydrates help to regulate serotonin levels, our happy hormones. This can prevent symptoms such as low mood that occur a few days leading up to your cycle. Include cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower, as they contain sulphur. Sulphur helps to detox excess hormones, preventing breast tenderness, and bloating. Also include iron-rich foods like dark leafy green vegetables, such as kale and spinach, and dark chocolate. Key nutrients to focus on: iron, zinc, complex carbs, vitamin B6, and magnesium.
Menstrual cycle: Sip on warm tea throughout the day, such as raspberry leaf tea, nettle leaf, and dandelion root tea. Eat a diet rich in iron & zinc. Iron rich foods include leafy green vegetables, legumes, and beets. Add a natural source of vitamin C, such as a squeeze of lime juice on your leafy greens, to increase iron absorption. Zinc-rich foods, including pumpkin seeds, sesame, and flax seeds, support production of estrogen hormone for the next phase of the cycle. Avoiding cold foods at this time will help manage period pain. Instead opt for warm foods, such as oatmeal, soup and lentils
4 Lifestyle Recommendations
1. Stress management
High stress levels can significantly impact our hormones. Manage stress levels through adequate quality sleep. Aim for at least 8 hours of sleep per night. Incorporate practices such as yoga, meditation, dancing, breathwork, or walks in nature. Find time to unwind, especially during the evening times. This can be as simple as creating a ritual with your favourite herbal tea and a book.
2. Regular Epsom salt baths with essential oils
Regular Epsom salt baths with essential oils promote detoxification, relax the muscles, and calm down the nervous system. Some essential oils that can alleviate your pain and mood during this time of the month include rose, geranium, clary sage, and lavender.
3. Cycle tracking
Tracking your cycle helps you build relationships with your moon cycle. Get a moon journal to do this, or a cycle-tracking app such as the Flo app.
4. Incorporate yin activities during your cycle
Women are much more sensitive and reflective during this time. Find some creative outlets, such as gentle movements with yoga or dancing, journaling, or cooking your favourite meal and having a night in instead of a night out.
2 Key Supplements To Help Manage Period Pain
1. Fish oil or seaweed oil
Aim for about 1000 mg EPA and 700 mg DHA daily. mega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory, which reduces pain during your cycle.
2. Magnesium glycinate
As our soil is depleted of magnesium, supplementing is best. Aim for 600 mg/day during the 5 days leading up to your period, and 300 mg/ day after your menstrual cycle. Magnesium not only helps alleviate period pain but assists with calming down the nervous system, therefore managing your stress levels.
5 Herbal Recommendations For Period Pain
1. Cramp bark with ginger
Cramp bark reduces pain from the contraction of the uterus, whereas ginger is warming and anti-inflammatory. There are supplements available which have a combination of these two herbs.
2. Raspberry leaf
It is an astringent, and reduces symptoms associated with period pain. You can take raspberry leaf in the form of tea. Make an infusion tea with raspberry leaf during your cycle
3. Fenugreek seed
Aim for 900 mg of ground fenugreek seed in capsules taken three times daily for the first 2 days of your cycle.
Vitex reduces symptoms of PMS associated with high estrogen levels, such as breast tenderness and hormonal acne. 5-40 ml/week of the liquid is the standard recommendation.
5. Valerian root
Valerian root not only assists with period pain, but promotes a deep restful sleep. Aim for 255 mg/day for the first three days of your period.
To sum this up, manage period pain by eliminating endocrine disruptors from the environment and in your food. Eat according to the four phases of your cycle. Address liver function and elimination from the digestive tract to prevent excess hormones circulating in your body. Keep some of the herbal recommendations in your medicine cabinet to have it on hand. And lastly, build an intimate relationship with your cycle so you look forward to that time of the month. The menstrual phase does not have to be that dreadful time of the month if we learn to manage our conditions with proper implementation of diet, lifestyle and herbs to balance the hormones.