Painful periods (dysmenorrhea), are not fun in the slightest, and whilst a little bit of pain may be common, we definitely shouldn’t brush it under the carpet and label it as normal. Our bodies are extremely clever and pain is its way of telling us that something just isn’t quite right. By taking pain medication we can eliminate the symptom, but it’s not getting to the root cause of why the pain is there in the first place.
There are two main categories of dysmenorrhea: primary, in which the uterine muscle is healthy but not functioning optimally; and secondary dysmenorrhea, in which the pain is caused by an underlying disorder such as in pelvic inflammatory disease or endometriosis.
Symptoms of pain, especially when accompanied with spotting, should always be checked with a doctor. This isn’t anything to fear, it just may help direct treatment and determine if there is any observable cause. However, if nothing can be found and the pain still persists, there are things you can do to feel great again.
Primary dysmenorrhea can occur because the contractions in the uterus are too strong and the muscle doesn’t relax between each one.
What Can Cause Dysmenorrhea?
The most common cause is an imbalance in prostaglandins, which are hormone-like substances involved in clotting, muscle activity and inflammation. There are different types of prostaglandins, and whilst some can regulate hormones and reduce inflammation, others can be pro-inflammatory and cause muscle spasms. These prostaglandins tend to balance each other out, but if there is existing inflammation, excess oestrogen, low progesterone, infections, allergies or a poor diet, the pro-inflammatory types can dominate.
Consuming the right fats
Getting the balance between omega 3 and omega 6 is essential in determining which prostaglandins are dominant, and omega 3 is vital for inflammation in general. Omega 3 sources from cold water fish create DHA and EPA, which produce the anti-inflammatory prostaglandin series. Whilst vegan sources like flaxseed, walnuts and chia may be looked upon as beneficial, actually a lot of the time they don’t convert down the chain to form the DHA and EPA that we need. Consuming too much omega 6 in the form of nuts and seeds can compete with omega 3 pathways, and meat, egg yolks and liver can also lead to the pro-inflammatory series when not in balance. For those with severe pain, supplementing with high doses of omega 3 at around 1000 – 3000mg may be useful.
The liver is involved in removing excess oestrogen from the body. If the liver is already congested and sluggish from processing too many toxins, oestrogen can re-circulate and create higher levels than normal. Reducing your toxic load by minimising chemical exposure, reducing stress, removing processed foods and internal toxins like bacteria and yeasts. Supplementing with calcium- d- glucarate may help remove excess oestrogen and toxins in general.
When our brain senses stress, it can activate a whole cascade of hormones and lead to imbalances in oestrogen and progesterone. More often than not, it is the progesterone levels that decrease, which in turn lead to having an imbalance of oestrogen and therefore oestrogen dominant health conditions arise, such as PCOS, endometriosis and fibroids, which all may lead to pain. Therefore balancing the stress response is really important in healing our hormones. We have to remember though, stress is not just emotional but physical too; intense exercise, allergies, intolerances or infections can all raise cortisol in the body.
Supporting digestive function
An imbalance in gut flora or the presence of pathogens, not only leads to higher circulating toxins and inflammation in the body, but it can also cause constipation. If the bowels are not moving effectively, oestrogen can once again recirculate as it’s not being eliminated from the body, leading to higher levels. I always recommend exploring what is actually going on in your gut before supplementing, but probiotics can be beneficial for a vast majority of people.
Other than omega 3, calcium-d-glucarate and probiotics, there are few other nutrients and herbs that you can incorporate to help reduce pains:
Magnesium: Used in so many enzyme reactions in the human body, magnesium can be a life- saver! It’s a natural muscle relaxant so it can help reduce cramping and ease tension, as well as buffer the stress response.
Agnus Castus: This herb has been used to balance hormones by increasing progesterone and therefore helping to bring down the high levels of oestrogen. Taking 5ml first thing in the morning before, but not during your period, can be hugely beneficial.
Ginger and Turmeric: These spices are both natural anti-inflammatories and used in Ayurvedic medicine to increase blood flow through the uterus. Consider making ginger tea or turmeric lattes in the days leading up to your period.
Adaptogens: Adaptogenic herbs work on bringing down the stress response and balancing your body. This includes Rhodiola, Ashwaganda, Maca, Reishi, and Siberian Ginseng among others
Up your Leafy Greens: vegetables from the brassica family contain diindolylmethane (DIM) and indole- 3- carbinol, which can aid the liver in detoxification and reduce the circulating oestrogen.
I also am a massive fan of acupuncture to use alongside my nutrition practice. Sometimes pain is a result of stagnant energy, and acupuncture can really help to get everything flowing again.
The good news is, there’s so much we can do to look after our body, and it’s really important that we address any underling pains, as they really are trying to tell us something!