Menstrual cramps are caused by contractions in the uterus. During each menstrual period, if there is no sperm to fertilize the egg, the uterus contracts to expel its lining. This process is driven by the release of hormone-like substances called prostaglandins.
These uterine contractions cause much of the pain felt during menstrual cramps because the contractions inhibit blood flow to the lining of the uterus. If the uterus contracts too strongly, it can press against nearby blood vessels, cutting off the supply of oxygen to the muscle tissue of the uterus. Pain results when part of a muscle briefly loses its supply of oxygen. (1, 2)
Do a quick search for “menstrual cramp remedies” and you’ll find lots of articles telling you to take ibuprofen at the first sign of menstrual woes. I personally try to avoid ibuprofen and most over-the-counter pain relief medications. They should be a last resort to dealing with pain, and preferably not a monthly addition to your diet.
Why? Well, without going into too much detail, ibuprofen can cause bad side effects in your digestive system, nervous system, and cardiovascular system. Um… that’s a lot of systems! (And pretty essential ones at that.)
Another common suggestion to dealing with intense menstrual cramps and heavy bleeding is to take birth control pills. This makes sense on some level since the latest research suggests that cramps and other menstrual issues start with hormonal imbalances. However, birth control pills are synthetic hormones that override the normal hypothalamus-pituitary-ovarian hormonal axis to prevent ovulation. In other words: very unnatural.
If you take a look at the list of side effects that comes with each package of pills you may feel “less safe” taking them. I know from personal experience that birth control pills were not doing my body good. I had some bad reactions that scared me off for good. But even without immediate reactions, long term use leaves individuals wide open for potentially major problems including infertility, cancer, stroke, blood clots, etc. (3)
The belief that birth control pills are safe comes from more than 40 years of continuous brainwashing by the pharmaceutical industry to both physicians and the public. We are victims of misinformation and dangerous practices. – Erika Schwartz, MD
This is why I try and avoid “conventional” approaches to remedy menstrual cramps. They may take away the pain, but at what cost? I understand that those who suffer from intense menstrual cramps are desperate for relief. But please consider the long term affects before sipping down another pill.
On the “much safer” spectrum of common menstrual cramp remedies are things that ultimately help bring oxygen to the muscles. This is good since cramp pain is due to intense contractions that temporarily cut off oxygen to the surrounding muscles.
The most common natural remedies include:
Heating pad (like this… relaxes the muscles which bring oxygen to them)
These are definitely great things to try if you are in the middle of a painful cycle. They are true “all natural” menstrual cramp remedies. My kind of stuff.
But wouldn’t you like to STOP your menstrual cramps so you don’t need to worry about remedies?
I thought so.
Let’s get to the root of the problem. Most menstrual disorders (cramping, heavy bleeding, etc.) are caused by imbalanced hormones.* Imbalanced hormones are partially caused by nutritional deficiencies. They are also caused by environmental toxins and stress. So while every person is different, taking a serious look at food, digestion, and the environment can provide some real solutions. Let’s briefly look at each of these:
When you think about the standard American diet, it’s easy to see why cramps are such a common issue theses days. Menstrual cramps affect more than 50% of women, and among these, up to 15% would describe their menstrual cramps as severe? (4)
During my teens and early twenties I had plenty of months where I was toppled over in pain because of cramps. On these days I was only able to really function if I took some ibuprofen.
Once I began implementing whole, organic, nutrient-dense real foods into my diet, however, I noticed my cramps went away. It’s been at least three years since I’ve had a period with cramps. My periods are also lighter and I have less PMS symptoms.
Let your food be your medicine, and let your medicine be your food.
Taking the commitment to eat real food is a gradual, long process for most. It is not easy, but it is very simple. When we get our body back to its natural state through real nutrition it functions a whole lot better.
If you still suffer from menstrual cramps and heavy bleeding despite eating a real foods diet chances are that you may have some digestive issues going on.
Odds are pretty great that you will be surprised to learn, in nearly every case of menstrual cramps, it all goes back to digestion… When I talk about digestion, I’m talking about people’s ability to properly break down the food they are eating. – T.C. Hale
If you have food allergies and/or leaky gut, you may have more complex hormonal problems. Your body has to be able to use the food you eat. I have heard of people eliminating cramps by doing GAPS or other temporary healing diets.
The following is not a complete list. It’s simply some suggestions of foods that may be used to help bring balance to your body. Remember, if your body has been dealing with poor diet for many years it will take some time to heal. In my experience you will notice improvement fairly quickly, but full recovery can take years.
Maca Root: (Like this) Maca is a cruciferous root found growing in the high regions of Peru and has been cultivated for about two thousand years. It has been traditionally and is currently used as a food. The Peruvians believe it gives strength and endurance, enhances ones fertility, and supports pregnancies and menstruation. (Learn more)
Magnesium and Calcium: These two minerals reduce muscle soreness. Although it can take time for you to see a noticeable effect. Research also suggest that getting 1,200 milligrams of calcium a day can help lessen many menstrual symptoms. Raw milk is a great source of minerals (and also useful in helping your body absorb minerals, too.) (Where to find quality supplements) (5)
Fatty fish: Fish that contain Omega 3 fatty acids not only help a woman’s heart health it also contains an anti-inflammatory effect that can help with cramps as well as bloating. (6) Also be sure to include Cod Liver Oil: It has the benefits of Omega 3′s AND vitamin D which is essential for mineral absorption. (Where to buy quality FCLO)
Plenty of good fats: Aim for 30 – 50% of your diet, including butter, cream, coconut oil, and whole milk. (where to find quality fats)
Phytoestrogens likes soy
While I believe food is the biggest culprit to menstrual issues, other environmental factors can definitely add to the problem.
Stress (as much as possible. Don’t stress about eliminating stress, okay?)
Toxic cosmetics or cleaning products (Not sure where to start? Check this out.)
Plastics, canned food (most cans are lined with BPA), etc.
Toxic tampons and pads (Many people say their cramps went away after using a menstrual cup, like these.)
Sleep in darkness
Earthing (Both sleeping in darkness and Earthing can help decrease stress and inflammation and lower cortisol levels.)
Get some sunshine (The sun is important for vitamin D which is critical in helping your body absorb minerals… a crucial menstrual cramp remedy).
Get your body moving!
Remember, the goal is to get your body (and your hormones) back to a balanced state. Despite the fact that many assume cramps are just part of life, our bodies are designed to function without pain. Pain is always an indication that something needs attention.