In medical speak, painful periods are called dysmenorrhea. Believe it or not, our periods are not supposed to be frankly painful, but if you have them, you aren't alone! Over half of all women experience painful menstrual cramping. During your period, remember to honor your female cycle. If you’d like more info on that, see my blog The Ebb and Flow of the Feminine.
There are two types of dysmenorrhea: primary and secondary.
- Primary Dysmenorrhea has “no identifiable cause”. That is to say that conventional medicine cannot pin the painful periods on another diagnosis.
- Secondary Dysmenorrhea is usually caused by illnesses such as cystic ovaries, adenomyosis, and endometriosis.
The main underpinnings of primary dysmenorrhea are inflammation, hormonal imbalance, lack of bloodflow to the uterus, and psychological factors. Today we are going to go deep into inflammation- what it is, what could be causing it, and most importantly, what you can do!
Inflammation is the body’s mechanism for coping with agents that could damage it. It’s actually a protective response of the body to get rid of agents that could harm cells. When it’s gone overboard, however, it can make you feel terrible and cause MANY problems from painful periods to lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and even cancer. We don’t want to rid the body of inflammation, we just want to adjust it.
Remove the Cause of Inflammation:
First, we need to remove the cause of inflammation. This is the most important step. What could be causing this inflammation in your body?
- Food allergies: when our body reacts to a certain food, it causes inflammation. This is very individual, but the major triggers are dairy, wheat, soy, corn, eggs, and tree nuts. The best way to determine what food allergies you have is an elimination diet. Your local naturopath is a great resource to help you through this.
- Toxins: toxic metals, xenoestrogens, solvents, alcohol, drugs, smoking. There are many toxins in our environment, and some great ways to remove them and detoxify your body. Think about your everyday life. Where do you come across toxins? Your work (metals, beauty and hair products, new construction, paper receipts, etc)? Your home (cleaning products, plastics used to cook in or store food in)? Beauty products (check out my Resource page for the skin deep app!)?
- High Omega 6 fatty acids and low omega 3 fatty acids: The Omega 6:3 fatty acid ratio in western diets is usually 15:1 or 20:1. This is very different than the 1:1 ratio that we evolved eating. We are now seeing that this ratio is very important for inflammation the body. Try and get your Omega 3s up and Omega 6s down.
- Foods that contain high omega 3 fatty acids: Salmon, cod, tuna, linseed, canola oil
- Foods that contain high omega 6 fatty acids: corn oil, peanut oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, margarine, bacon, safflower oil
- Stress: Women who experience high stress are 2x as likely to have painful menstrual cramps the following period! Many of you have probably recognized this pattern in your own life! Major stress and all of the sudden you wake up poorly rested with a puffy face and your digestive pattern is all off, your symptoms flare....
- Digestive Irregularities: problems like hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid), poor digestion, constipation, IBS, and others can cause inflammation in the body.
- Western Diet: The Standard American Diet (SAD) has been shown to be correlated to inflammation. Try and limit things like red meat, sugar, and simple carbohydrates in your diet, and eat a variety of fruits and vegetables.
Next: Treat the inflammation overload:
After we remove the cause of the inflammation, we can assist the body in slowing down its response. It has been on high alert for months, or sometimes years, and there are many supplements and diet or lifestyle adjustments that can be very helpful in getting back to a calm inner balance (here are just a few of my favorites). I do want to stress however, that if we don’t remove the cause, we are just putting a Band-Aid on a wound that will keep festering.
- Fish oil- 1 tablespoon per day or 2 caps per day
- A mostly organic, fruits and vegetable based diet- consider something like the Mediterranean diet. Limit the sugar, carbs, red meats, caffeine, and omega 6 fatty acids.
- Turmeric (Curcumin)- you can cook with the fresh herb, take capsules or cook with turmeric root powder. It has had great benefits in clinical trails for inflammatory conditions. Use liberally!
- Exercise: regular moderate exercise helps to reduce inflammation in many ways! It moves the blood and the lymph, clearing products of inflammation and inflammatory cells. It also helps to reduce obesity, a major cause of inflammation.
- Massage: Swedish massage, lymph massage, deep tissue massage- these will help to move inflammation and agents that cause inflammation out of "stuck" places in the body and bring fresh nutrients to those locations!
- Probiotics: this will help to heal the gut lining. The gut is intimately tied to the immune system, and the healthier the gut, the more appropriate our response to inflammatory agents will be.
- Hydrotherapy: Contrast hydrotherapy is a great way to rid the body of inflammation overload. Contrast just means hot to cold. You can accomplish this by using wet towels, a shower, or a hot tub and cold plunge. Make sure to use water instead of something like a hot pad though- the water affects the body more than dry heat. Apply hot water to your lower abdomen for 3 minutes, then cold for 30 seconds. Do this 3 times in a row, a few times a week.
- Castor Oil Packs: Castor oil helps to modulate inflammation when it is used topically. Soak an old piece of cloth in castor oil, lay it over your abdomen and uterus, and cover it with plastic. Then place a heating pad over the plastic for ½ hour. You can keep the castor oil pack in the fridge and reuse it. Do this a couple times a week.
- Increase water and herbal tea intake and reduce other beverages. Our body is mostly water! To function properly, we need to be hydrated. Additionally, other liquids often are inflammation promoting (juices, sodas, caffeinated beverages, etc).
- Multivitamin: A good multi can be of great assistance if your body is craving a nutrient that you aren’t getting. The best way to get nutrients is of course through a diet high in organic fruits in vegetables. Take a look and make sure that your vitamin has methylcobalmin and methylated folate. These B vitamins are necessary in the methylated form for many people. I also tend to use these as markers for how much research a brand has done on making their multi the best it can be. There is no reason (besides cost!) with the current level of research to not have these two multis in methylated form!
Look back on my blog for information on hormone balancing in the future! And remember, reducing inflammation is good for many more problems than dysmenorrhea and is really good for almost anyone! Feel free to leave comments or questions below and sign up for my blog so you get notified when I send out a new blog!
Handschin C, Spiegelman BM. The role of exercise and PGC1alpha in inflammation and chronic disease. Nature. 2008 Jul 24; 454 (7203): 463-9.
Hudson, T. (2008). Menstrual Cramps. In Women's encyclopedia of natural medicine: Alternative therapies and integrative medicine for total health and wellness (Rev. and updated. ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Jurenka JS. Anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, a major constituent of Curcuma longa: a review of preclinical and clinical research. Altern Med Rev. 2009 Jun; 14 (2): 141-53.
Pizzorno, J., & Katzinger, J. (2012). A Comprehensive Approach to Inflammation. In Clinical pathophysiology: A functional perspective : A systems approach to understanding and reversing disease processes. Coquitlam, BC: Mind Pub.
Smith, R. (2015, March 1). Primary dysmenorrhea in adult women: Clinical features and diagnosis. Retrieved April 7, 2015, from http://www.uptodate.com.buproxy.bastyr.edu:2048/contents/primary-dysmenorrhea-in-adult-women-clinical-features-and-diagnosis?source=search_result&search=dysmenorrhea&selectedTitle=3~150