Home Remedies for Painful Periods
If you are one of the more than 50% of women who suffer from menstrual cramps, have no fear, help is here! There are many home remedies that can help relieve painful periods.
Please note, I am not a medical professional, just a woman who used to suffer from incapacitating cramps and who tried just about every remedy on the face of the planet for relief.
Types of Menstrual Cramps
There are two main types of menstrual cramps: primary dysmenorrhea and secondary dysmenorrhea.
Primary dysmenorrhea is the most common type of menstrual cramps. It is especially common among teenage girls and young women. Up to 90% of teenage girls report having menstrual cramps at some time, and 10% of those report cramps so severe that they regularly cause them to miss school, work, and other activities. Primary dysmenorrhea is caused by excessive production of prostaglandins, the hormones used to contract the uterus and cause it to shed its lining. It often disappears after a woman has her first child, but the reasons for this are not fully understood.
Secondary dysmenorrhea is rarer and more likely to last throughout a woman's life. In fact, it often gets worse as she gets older. This is because secondary dysmenorrhea, unlike primary dysmenorrhea, is caused by an underlying condition such as endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease.
The Medical Approach to Treating Cramps
Once upon a time, if you complained of menstrual pain, you were told it was all in your head and sent on your merry way, with no help or even sympathy. Those bad old days are gone, but medical professionals are still mostly at a loss about how to relieve the pain of menstrual cramps.
The approach of the vast majority of doctors to treating cramps is simply to put you on the pill. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that. If the pill helps you, by all means, take it. I am personally wary of messing with my body chemistry, but the pill has been around long enough and has been tested enough that we have good reason to consider it relatively safe, even for prolonged use.
However, if you have primary dysmenorrhea like me, and find that the pill doesn't help or you don't want to go on it, then maybe you need to find an alternative.
The Natural Way to Relieve Painful Periods
Back when doctors were still patting us on the head and telling us our cramps were imaginary, women were sharing tips and tricks with each other about how to relieve the pain. Some of these were ridiculous, but a lot of them really worked and I'm going to share some of the best and most effective treatments.
Ibuprofen: The Only Drug I'm Going to Recommend
For most women, Ibuprofen is the most effective over-the-counter drug to relieve menstrual pain. It will reduce pain for most women, and make it disappear entirely for some. The trick is to start taking it at the first sign of pain, possibly even before your period starts. The longer you wait, the less good it will do. In fact, when I waited too long to take it, I almost always just threw it back up again immediately, so it did not help whatsoever.
Heat: A Good Way to Start
Hot baths and heat pads are some of the oldest tricks in the book for relieving menstrual pain. They really work, too, but they give the most relief for relatively mild pain. Heat will help relieve more severe pain but is unlikely to get rid of it entirely.
It is also important to stay warm in general when you have cramps or might get them. Cold contracts your muscles and makes pain worse, so put on extra layers of clothes or blankets and crank up the heat in your house a little as soon as your period begins.
Counter-Pressure: Surprisingly Effective
When your insides feel like they're being squeezed in a vise, you wouldn't think that adding more pressure would help, would you? I found that getting my mother, friend, or husband to sit on or apply strong pressure with their fingers to points on my lower back could provide a surprising amount of relief during bad cramps.
Many women also swear by acupressure, the professional version of what my mom, friends, and husband did to me—though I've never tried it professionally.
Distraction: Fun and Effective
The doctors who told women their cramps were "all in your head" were wrong, but they weren't completely wrong. Pain does have a mental component. Studies have shown that patients who expect to be in severe pain after surgery report stronger levels of pain post-op than patients who expect more manageable levels of pain. Now, I'm not a doctor, but I don't see any reason why this wouldn't be equally true for menstrual cramps.
Once you've experienced a bad period, it's pretty hard to keep a positive attitude about them. I know I never could. One thing I could do, however, was distract myself once the pain had already started. Like Ibuprofen, this technique works best if you start when the pain is mild. In my experience, it works better than Ibuprofen at reducing pain once it's already strong.
Human interaction usually worked best for me—a lively conversation or a board or card game with a lot of action, for example. Books and movies were usually too easy to put aside if the pain worsened.
Relaxation: Mixed Results
A little bit of stress drives us to achieve great things, but too much is implicated in dozens of ailments. If you are prone to cramps, it is a very good idea to learn healthy ways of reducing and coping with stress. Exercise is one of the best remedies, and many women find yoga or pilates helpful. There are even yoga exercises specifically designed for women suffering from cramps.
I've never found relaxation exercises like yoga, deep breathing, or meditation to be at all helpful while I'm actually having cramps. However, some of the worst periods of my life have occurred during periods of great stress, so I highly recommend reducing stress in general.
Sex: Old Wives' Tale?
Some women swear by orgasms. I can see how orgasms might help—distraction and post-sex relaxation—but never experienced any benefit from it myself.
If you do give this technique a shot, remember that even though it's unlikely, it is possible to get pregnant during your period, so use protection!
Diet: Find What Works for You
When I was in my mid-teens, my mother suggested I start keeping a journal of what I ate every day to see if there were any patterns to how my eating habits affected my cramps. I never really did that, but I did start paying more attention, and the results were interesting. I discovered that eating chocolate when I had my period was almost a guaranteed way to end up moaning and writhing on the bathroom floor. Eating a lot of dairy products also seemed to make my cramps worse, while eating soy seemed to make them easier.
I have come to believe that after exercise, diet is the single most important factor affecting the severity of menstrual cramps. Frustratingly, different things seem to work for different women. I recommend you experiment to see what works best for you. Meanwhile, here are a few common suggestions:
- Eat a healthy diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains throughout the month.
- Drink 6-8 glasses of water every day all month. Drinking plenty of water can reduce bloating which can make cramping worse, and help maintain hormone balance.
- Avoid coffee, chocolate, and other caffeinated foods and beverages. Caffeine exacerbates cramping.
- Avoid food and beverages high in sodium and refined sugars. These increase bloating, which worsens cramps.
- Eat plenty of fiber. Fiber, which is plentiful in whole grains and many fruits and vegetables, reduces constipation, which can worsen cramps.
- Calcium and magnesium deficiencies are commonly associated with menstrual cramps, so increase your consumption of these minerals. If, like me, dairy products seem to make your cramps worse, you can get calcium from leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale, some beans and legumes including soy, and seaweeds like kelp and kombu. Tasty sources of magnesium include leafy greens and other green vegetables like spinach and broccoli, coldwater fish like salmon and halibut, and many seeds, including pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower feeds, and flax seeds.
- Naturally occurring chemicals called phytoestrogens in soy seem to ease cramps in some women and worsen them in others. Because of soy's high levels of calcium, magnesium, iron, protein, omega 3 fatty oils, and other healthy nutrients, it is well worth experimenting with soy products to see if they help you. Learn more here: Does Soy Relieve Menstrual Cramps?
Exercise: The Single Best Thing You Can Do for Cramp Relief
Exercise releases endorphins into your blood that help reduce the feeling of pain. Many women claim that exercising during their periods makes them feel better. Personally, I never really got the chance to test this because it's kind of hard to exercise when you're doubled over in the fetal position from pain.
However, I also discovered that exercising during the rest of the month did help my cramps dramatically. The easiest periods of my life occurred when I lived in an apartment complex with a great gym and I used to go every day to watch The Daily Show while I was doing the ellipticals. During those months, my periods were not only easy, they were completely pain-free! Unfortunately, after I moved, I stopped my exercise regime and within a couple months, my cramps returned full force.
Aerobic exercise—exercise that raises your heart rate and works up a sweat, like brisk walking, swimming, jogging, or biking, seems to be most effective at relieving menstrual cramps.