Painful cramps around the time of your period, or dysmenorrhea, is so common these days that women think it’s just the way it has to be. Patients often say, “My mom and my aunt both had bad cramps; they just run in the family. I’m expecting them.”
What if cramps weren’t normal?
What if painful cramping were a sign from your body that something isn’t quite right? What if you could figure out the root cause, treat it and incidentally improve many other supposedly unrelated symptoms?
Of course, there are structural reasons for painful periods, such as ovarian cysts, fibroids and passing big blood clots. Let’s save that discussion for another day. Here, I’m referring to the kind that your OB-GYN is so unconcerned about that he just hands you a prescription for some ibuprofen and the pill. These treatments sometimes work, sometimes don’t and sometimes work just for a short time. Unfortunately, a pain pill does nothing to improve the underlying cause of period cramps.
Often, inflammation is the root cause of painful periods.
Moreover, recent medical literature claims inflammation is at the root of most chronic diseases. The biggest source of controllable inflammation is food (or food-like products). Processed foods (which are a far cry from actual, nourishing food) have become commonplace. Preparing a home cooked meal from fresh, locally sourced ingredients seems to be a lost art. Everyone is rushing to get to work or to take their kids to their next lesson, making prepackaged convenience foods quite alluring. Across the board, processed foods are very inflammatory. Many have high fructose corn syrup and other forms of refined sugars as well as inflammatory fats such as corn or soybean oil.
Conventional animal products may harbor the inflammation present in the animal itself from being fed a poor diet and living in stressful conditions. Furthermore, the inflammatory fat profile found in commercially raised meat is much worse than that of pasture-raised organic animal products. Finally, food intolerances unique to individuals may drive inflammation, the most common ones being proteins in gluten and dairy, with soy, eggs and corn close behind.
A relatively easy way to determine the driving force of your inflammation – and therefore menstrual cramps – is an elimination diet. You remove the most common inflammatory foods for about a month, then reintroduce one at a time, and pay close attention to any immediate or delayed symptoms. For further guidance with this, ask your integrative or functional medicine practitioner or read Tom Malterre’s book “The Elimination Diet.”
Don’t get discouraged; it can take a while to get the inflammation from food sources under control.
In the meantime, there are supplements that may help lessen the cramping. Omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in fish oil, have great anti-inflammatory properties. Ginger and turmeric are anti-inflammatory spices you can use in cooking or in supplement form. To directly relax the uterus, consume some extra magnesium. Regrettably, most Americans are deficient in this vital mineral; try a supplement or eat more magnesium rich foods, like dark leafy greens.
In addition to a poor diet, stress is also a source of inflammation, hormonal dysregulation and menstrual symptoms. Epsom salt baths are a great way to get more magnesium while also de-stressing. I’ve never had anyone turn down a prescription for a warm, relaxing bath (and 20 minutes of alone time!). Draw a bath with 1 to 2 cups of salt in fairly warm water a few days before the cramping usually occurs. Repeat for several days. Try these solutions one at a time or all at once to alleviate the pain.
Remember, those painful cramps are the body’s way of communicating that something is wrong. Addressing the root of the problem is crucial to long-term well-being. Following the advice above will help free you from the chains of menstrual cramps.