By Quilla Watt, Integrative Naturopath
As someone who has suffered their fair share of period pain, I know how debilitating it can be. I know that feeling of dread in the days leading up to your period as you anticipate the pain.
As a young adult, my period meant missing a day of school or work, curling up in bed with a packet of Nurofen as my companion, and praying for that feeling of relief when the cramping finally stops.
If you have had period pain since adolescence, chances are you have primary dysmenorrhoea. Which means period pain without an underlying pathology. This is the most common type, affecting around 50% of women. For 15% of women, the pain can be severe.
If you have started getting painful periods in your thirties or forties then it’s more likely to be secondary dysmenorrhoea, which is painful periods because of something like endometriosis, fibroids, or pelvic inflammatory disease, and it’s important to see your GP to investigate these.
In primary dysmenorrhoea, the cramping is caused by inflammatory factors called prostaglandins causing the uterus to spasm excessively.
Women with period pain can produce seven times more prostaglandins that women who don’t get period pain. These prostaglandins are mostly released in the first 48 hours of your period, which is why days one and two are usually the worst.
Period pain is one of the reasons women choose to go on the pill. Between the pill and painkillers, many women get by. But there are many natural strategies that can help manage period pain.
What you can do…
Make sure you eat a minimally processed diet with loads of fresh vegetables and fruit. A diet low in fruit and veg, with more processed foods and refined sugars is very inflammatory. The worst my period pain ever got was when we were travelling outback Australia and fresh fruit and veg was virtually non-existent! Some women find they do better off dairy and gluten too, as these can both be inflammatory.
Eat fish twice weekly, or take a good fish oil supplement. The Omega-3 fats in fish and fish oils lower the amount of inflammatory prostaglandins your body produces. What with over fishing and mercury concerns, I suggest you get small local fish from your fish co-op. For a vegan option, algae oil is a great way to get those good fats in.
Take Magnesium- it’s fantastic for helping to balance hormones, and to ease the cramping. Try 300mg per day throughout your cycle, and increase to 600mg during your period if cramping is bad.
Stop caffeine – especially in the week before your period. It’s not going to be the cause of your pain, but it can certainly make it worse.
De-stress with exercise, yoga, and mindfulness. Stress has a major impact on your hormones. Stress can make many things worse, and period pain is one of them.
What your naturopath can do…
While there’s a lot you can do at home, seeing a naturopath about your period pain can be a big help.
Your naturopath can check for hormonal imbalances. The classic things I see in period pain are high oestrogen, low progesterone, or both. We then work towards bringing hormone levels back to balance, while helping the period pain with some symptomatic management. This is where herbs come in. Some of my favourite for period pain are black cohosh, cramp bark, wild yam and ginger. I get women to start taking them about 5 days before their period, and to continue until their period has finished.
If oestrogen is high, you may need some liver support. The liver is so important for making sure you are eliminating excess oestrogen. Broccoli sprout powder is fantastic to help support the liver in eliminating oestrogen.
While I think diet is the cornerstone of every prescription, sometimes it is helpful to bring in anti-inflammatory supplements in the short term. Things like turmeric, ginger and fish oils are fantastic to help get the prostaglandin levels under control.
What to expect…
Don’t give up to soon. Hormonal things are slow to change. You may need to follow three months of an anti-inflammatory diet and using herbal strategies before you notice real results.