I used to have a lot of pain during my menstrual cycle. And when I was younger I remember lots of my girlfriends did too. Then something strange happened. We all grew up and stopped talking about our cycles. Rarely will I hear from a friend that she’s got cramps and this makes me wonder. Are fewer women experiencing menstrual pain?
What the research says
According to all my sources, menstrual cramps affect more than 50% of women, and among these, up to 15% would describe their menstrual cramps as severe.
For some women, the pain doesn’t interfere with their daily routine, but many women experience pain so intense that they struggle with their normal activities for several days, which leaves them unable to work or even leave the house.
Two types of period pain
There are two types of painful periods. Primary dysmenorrhoea is pain that isn't caused by a specific condition and is most common in the first year after your periods start. For many women, the symptoms of primary dysmenorrhoea get better as they get older, or after they have children. Secondary dysmenorrhoea is pain caused by a specific condition, such as endometriosis or fibroids. Secondary dysmenorrhoea usually affects women between the ages of 30 and 45.
What the doctors say
The medical literature says period pain is caused by high levels of the hormone prostaglandin (PGF2 alpha) in the menstrual blood. When this hormone is released into the bloodstream as the endometrial lining breaks down, the uterus goes into spasm, resulting in cramping pain.
The question to ask: If too many prostaglandins in the uterus = a painful cycle of cramps, bleeding and uterine contractions how do we interrupt this feedback loop?
The answer: Don’t mix stress and sugar
If you’re eating too many refined foods (known as high-glycemic-index foods which raise your blood sugar levels too quickly) your body will react by producing a wide variety of inflammatory chemicals including prostaglandins. And if you also have a lot of stress in your life, when you consume these sugar-rich foods they mix with the high levels of circulating stress hormones to produce even more inflammatory chemicals in your body.
Menstrual cramps are just one of the manifestations of this vicious cycle. Others include fluid retention, headaches, insomnia, and muscle aches and pains. In fact, all of the symptoms of PMS are caused, in part, by cellular inflammation from the over-production of inflammatory chemicals.
Help ease the pain through food
Your food choices can either hurt or heal you. These 8 dietary changes are recommended as part of Dr. Christiane Northrup's Master Program for Optimal Hormonal Balance and Pelvic Health. Follow your intuition and make at least one change this month. And give yourself a high 5 from me as you start to heal your relationship with your female body.
- Eat a low-glycemic-index diet which means a low sugar diet to stabilize hormone levels. How? Eliminate or greatly reduce refined carbohydrates from your diet such as cookies, cake, chips, crackers and so on, especially after ovulation.
- Decrease grain products to no more than 2 – 3 servings per day. Why? Because most of our cereals have way too much sugar to justify their fibre content. The alternative is to eat oatmeal or shredded wheat or an unsweetened cereal.
- Stop dairy foods, especially ice cream, cottage cheese, and yogurt – even low-fat versions of these products – or eat ONLY organically produced dairy foods. Both hormone and antibiotic residues in non-organic dairy products are suspected to stimulate the female hormonal system in a negative way.
- Limit red meat and egg yolks to no more than 2 servings per week, or eliminate them. If you do eat red meat, use cuts from grass-fed animals. The arachidonic acid (AA) and saturated fats in red meat and eggs can also increase cellular inflammation and uterine cramps in those who are sensitive.
- Eliminate partially hydrogenated fats (trans fats) whenever possible.
- Eliminate or limit caffeine.
- Eat a nutrient-rich, whole food diet. If you’re eating too much of the above, modify your diet to include mostly fresh vegetable and fruits along with lean protein such as chicken, fish, eggs and legumes (organic is best).
- Specifically, eat more cruciferous vegetables like kale, collard greens, mustard greens, broccoli, cabbage and turnips which have been shown to adjust estrogen levels (helpful for endometriosis and fibroids).
Reduce stress by addressing the mind-body disconnect
Since women’s cycles are at the core of being a woman I hope you're asking yourself, why would the most natural process of a woman’s body cause her so much pain? I believe the stress that comes from being out of the flow with our body's natural rhythms plays a very big role. Dr. Christiane Northrup feels the reason a majority of women in our culture suffer from menstrual cramps is because we have lost a vital connection with our relationship to our female bodies – what she calls our ‘menstrual wisdom.’ Reclaiming this connection with our cycles is at the heart of my work through Yoga Goddess and through the Moon Goddess teachings.