Period pain is one of the various annoying things we women have to endure in our lives. If you’re lucky, you hardly feel much discomfort. For others, it’s sheer hell involving cold sweats, fainting, and nausea. I’m unfortunately one that has for several years enjoyed the latter! Thankfully I have found several natural remedies for period pain to combat serious dysmenorrhea.
My Personal Experience with Period Pain
During my teens, I had no issues at all; every month came and went without a fuss. I thought I had ingeniously outwitted PMS. Then, out of nowhere, one month at the age of 21, I found myself on all fours crying and shaking from the crippling pain. For the next three years, I suffered horrendous period pain almost every month. I would go ghostly white, suddenly have pins and needles in my arms and legs, muscle spasms in my hands (they would involuntarily seize up and cramp), vertigo, severe dizziness, seeing colored blotches, blurry vision, tinnitus, and throwing up. I even blacked out in my bathroom from the severity of the pain.
When these episodes would come on, it would also cause almost an anxiety attack from the stress of the symptoms freaking me out. I’d have rapid breathing, go very pale, and have cold sweats. Safe to say, every month, I’d be incapacitated for about three days, resigned to bed. Completely impractical if you have a job.
On one occasion I got stuck in the toilets in a shopping center. I was in so much agony I couldn’t move, I couldn’t walk, I just sobbed in the cubicle for somewhere between 30-40 minutes, trying my hardest not to wail uncontrollably. I was so dizzy and lightheaded I thought I’d be trapped there for hours. It felt like I had a ball of barbed wire ripping my uterus to bits. Finally hobbling to a taxi and close to throwing up, the driver seemed to be quite panicked by my state in the car and almost drove me to the hospital.
On seeing my GP, who was rather indifferent to my period woes, I was prescribed mefenamic acid (big buttercup-yellow lemon-shaped pills). It worked marvelously, to begin with, and after about a year, I simply couldn’t cope with the stomach cramps they were inducing. At this point, I decided to look at the information leaflet that came with mefenamic acid.
The Side Effects of Mefenamic Acid
According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (this page), mefenamic acid causes: “diarrhoea or rashes (withdraw treatment), stomatitis; less commonly paraesthesia and fatigue; rarely hypotension, palpitation, glucose intolerance, thrombocytopenia, haemolytic anaemia (positive Coombs’ test), and aplastic anaemia.”
This is in addition to the side effects of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Mefenamic acid, cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) inhibitors, and ibuprofen are three such drugs. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (this page) lists their potential side effects:
Gastrointestinal disturbances including discomfort, nausea, diarrhea, and occasionally bleeding and ulceration occur. Hypersensitivity reactions (particularly rashes, angioedema, and bronchospasm), headache, dizziness, nervousness, depression, drowsiness, insomnia, vertigo, hearing disturbances such as tinnitus, photosensitivity, and haematuria. Blood disorders have also occurred. Fluid retention may occur (rarely precipitating congestive heart failure); blood pressure may be raised.
Any degree of worsening of asthma may be related to the ingestion of NSAIDs. Renal failure may be provoked by NSAIDs, especially in patients with pre-existing renal impairment. Rarely, papillary necrosis or interstitial fibrosis associated with NSAIDs can lead to renal failure. Hepatic damage, alveolitis, pulmonary eosinophilia, pancreatitis, visual disturbances, Stevens-Johnson syndrome, and toxic epidermal necrolysis are other rare side effects.
Induction of or exacerbation of colitis or Crohn’s disease has been reported. Aseptic meningitis has been reported rarely with NSAIDs—patients with connective tissue disorders such as systemic lupus erythematosus may be especially susceptible.
Reading about the side effects, I was mortified and stopped taking mefenamic acid immediately. The stomach pains also went away once I did this. And lo, my mission to manage my debilitating menstrual discomfort without synthetics began. It was a rash decision to go cold turkey, and I struggled in the following months while researching natural remedies for period pain. I’d recommend you consult your GP before stopping the medication.
What is Dysmenorrhea?
Period pain from menstrual cramps, regardless of the severity, is known medically as dysmenorrhea. Primary dysmenorrhea simply means it has no link to any other health problem or illness. Secondary dysmenorrhea means the period pain is caused by something else such as endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease. I personally suffered from chronic primary dysmenorrhea.
The Cause of Chronic Period Pain
Menstrual cramps are caused by the reduction in blood flow to the uterus (uterine ischemia) and muscles in the walls of the uterus contracting too much (uterine muscle hypercontractility). It can also be caused by an increase in menstrual flow (menorrhagia). Though some argue this is due to an excess or deficiency in estrogen or progesterone, others suggest it is the cause of high levels of prostaglandin, leukotrienes, and vasopressin (Phytotherapy Research, 2006; Nordic Federation of Societies of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 1984; Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, 2005). Prostaglandins and leukotrienes are potent pro-inflammatory mediators. Vasopressin is a hormone and effective uterine stimulant.
To take away the period pain, you need to get to the root of the problem. Rather than just take medicines to mute the painful symptoms, it’s better to address what is causing the pain. From my research, I’ve found that the main factors to consider when treating the cause of period pain are diet, medicines, and lifestyle choices.
Conventional remedies for period pain include taking NSAIDs, oral contraceptives, and beta-blockers. As I mentioned, NSAIDs can potentially cause severe damage to health when taken long-term. The oral contraceptive pill is another common option recommended by GPs. Personally, I have always declined to use the pill, and with good reason. A study in the Natural Medicine Journal, 2012, stated: “Although OCs [oral contraceptives] appear to help prevent colorectal, endometrial, and ovarian cancer, they appear to increase the risks of cervix and liver cancer, as well as cutaneous melanoma. In addition, OCs raise the risk of breast cancer, especially among women who used them during the 5 years before diagnosis and among women who started using OCs as teenagers. OC use has also been associated with a 60 percent higher risk of squamous cell carcinoma.”
- Chaste berry (vitex agnus cactus): this paper published in Phytomedicine, 2012, found that women who took a chaste berry supplement experienced relief from symptoms of dysmenorrhea. I take this one myself in capsule form and have noticed a reduction in the severity of cramps.
- Raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus): a stimulant for blood flow to the uterus (emmenagogue effect); raspberry leaf can be taken in tea form or tablets. It relaxes and tones the muscles in the uterus and has been used for centuries to reduce the strength and frequency of contractions during childbirth (Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, 2001).
- Chamomile (Matricaria Recutita): a compelling article by the Iranian Journal of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Infertility, 2010, found camomile tea to be an incredibly effective natural remedy for period pain. They state: “after 1 month of using camomile tea, study group had a statistically significant difference in experiencing menstrual pain, distress and anxiety compared to those of control one.”
- Sage (salvia): the dried root of Red Sage root (salvia miltiorrhiza) has been used extensively for the treatment of dysmenorrhea and amenorrhea.
- Guava leaf (psidium guajava folium): menstrual pain intensity can be reduced by taking guava leaf extract. A clinical trial in Mexico, 2006, found that: “at a dose of 6 mg/day, the standardized phyto-drug (Psidii guajavae folium extract) reduced menstrual pain significantly compared with conventional treatment and placebo.”
- Corydalis: suggested as quick natural pain relief (analgesic) and antispasmodic herb, this might be an option for those who wish to avoid paracetamol and ibuprofen.
- Black cohosh (cimicifuga racemosa): a herb approved by the German Commission E for “the treatment of premenstrual discomfort, dysmenorrhea, and menopausal symptoms,” it promotes estrogenic activity and has emmenagogue effects (International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, 2002). I have not tried this herb myself, but I came across numerous articles regarding its safety, including this one. Before trying black cohosh, I’d recommend thorough research and using it with caution.
- Anti-inflammatory herbs and spices: cloves, ginger, rosemary, turmeric, cinnamon, allspice, oregano, marjoram, sage, thyme, garlic, basil. A study in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2009, found that ginger was as effective as mefenamic acid and ibuprofen in relieving pain in women with primary dysmenorrhea. Ginger was administered at 250 mg (capsules of ginger rhizome powder) four times a day for three days from the start of the menstrual period.
In my experience, raspberry leaf tea, camomile, and chaste berry have been the best natural remedies for period pain. I make sure to drink a cup of raspberry leaf tea every day, and it even tastes good if it goes cold. Hot ginger tea made with fresh ginger root, cinnamon bark, and honey is another favorite of mine, and I also recommend adding ginger to smoothies as an easy way to reduce inflammation in the body.
Diet and Nutrition
Diet is probably the most important part of treating menstrual problems. Several studies have shown that a low-fat, plant-based diet can dramatically decrease symptoms of dysmenorrhea (Obstetrics & Gynecology, 2000). Whilst lowering the intake of fats is necessary to reduce painful periods, it’s important not to eliminate them from the diet completely. Instead, choose healthy fats such as those found in avocados, coconut oil, and butter. An Italian medical investigation also found that specific foods had an impact on period pain: “as far as dietary habits, it was noted that a higher consumption of fish, eggs, fruit and a lower consumption of wine is correlated with a lower frequency.”
Foods that contribute to and aggravate dysmenorrhea:
- Omega-6: the typical Western diet has a high amount of omega-6 and a low amount of omega-3 in a ratio of 10:1. To prevent serious diseases caused by inflammation, it’s important to reduce the ratio to about 2-3:1 (Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, 2002). According to an Australian study, 2003, a high intake of omega-6 “may have implications for subsequent eicosanoid [prostaglandin] production, as eicosanoids produced from the n-6 PUFA AA [omega-6] have mainly vasoconstrictor, pro-aggregatory, and pro-inflammatory actions, whereas eicosanoids produced from n-3 PUFA EPA [omega-3] result in primarily vasodilation and anti-inflammatory actions. Hence there is a necessity to balance these fatty acids in our cell membrane, which can be achieved by modifying dietary intakes.” The main sources of Omega-6 are vegetable oil, notably sunflower oil (crisps, fried foods, chips), corn oil (junk food), margarine, shortening, meat, soy, and cereal products. It’s also found in evening primrose oil.
- Trans fats: these are industrially-produced fats found in margarine, shortening, and hydrogenated vegetable oil. They are high in omega-6.
- Processed foods: these contain a high amount of trans fats. Stay away from commercially-made baked goods, snacks, and fried foods. Avoid anything that contains high fructose corn syrup, refined sugar, and artificial flavors and additives.
- Caffeine: a high intake of caffeine from tea and coffee has been linked with aggravated dysmenorrhea, and I have first-hand experienced this. Instead, opt for decaffeinated drinks such as Rooibos, various Yogi teas (Choco and Classic are two of my favorites), fruit and herbal teas, hot chocolate with raw honey, chilled water with fresh mint, even homemade lemonade.
- Refined sugar: again, this is a serious offender. Cutting out sugary processed foods will help to lower the intensity of menstrual cramps. One Turkish research paper found that women who had a diet high in sugar intake were almost twice as likely to suffer primary dysmenorrhea. Try healthy raw brownie bars for a chocolate fix.
- Salt: having a diet high in sodium as a result of processed foods causes inflammation.
- Dairy: too much calcium is not good for the body as with anything taken in the incorrect amounts. Magnesium and calcium compete with each other for absorption; therefore, it can be beneficial to consume them in a 1:1 ratio. Excess calcium can cause muscle contraction and inflammation.
- Alcohol: a study in Milan, 1994, found that increased alcohol consumption provoked heightened menstrual discomfort.
Nutrients that alleviate dysmenorrhea:
- Omega-3: it has been noted in several research papers, including a study by the University of Cincinnati Medical Centre, 1996, that dietary omega-3 fatty acids have a significant beneficial effect on symptoms of dysmenorrhea. Omega-3 can be found in cold-water fish, cod liver oil, krill oil, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, meat, and eggs. It’s also been highlighted that taking omega-3 with vitamin B12 is even more effective (Aarhus University, 2000).
- Vitamin B1: impressive results from an experiment in The Indian Journal of Medical Research, 1996, reported that the prescription of vitamin B1 to 556 girls aged 12-21 eliminated chronic period pain. They noted: “after 90 days of vitamin B1 administration, were 87 per cent completely cured, 8 per cent relieved (pain almost nil to reduced) and 5 per cent showed no effect whatsoever. The results remained the same two months later as well when no drug was administered.” Vitamin B1 can be found in vegetables, fish (particularly trout), nuts, seeds, and wholewheat bread.
- Vitamin B6: scientific trials, including one in the British Medical Journal, 1999, and Journal of Women’s Health & Gender-Based Medicine, 2004, showed that vitamin B6 helped relieve anxiety-related premenstrual syndrome symptoms. Vitamin B6 can be found in sunflower seeds, pistachio nuts, fish, lean pork and chicken, dried fruit.
- Magnesium: deficiency in magnesium has been linked with premenstrual tension (The American Journal for Clinical Nutrition, 1981; Annals of Clinical Biochemistry, 1986). Making sure to eat plenty of healthy foods rich in magnesium can greatly help reduce monthly pain. Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, swiss chard), nuts and seeds, fish (particularly mackerel), beans, lentils, whole grains (brown rice and quinoa), and dark chocolate are naturally high in magnesium. It can also be taken as a supplement through the tablet form can cause mild laxative effects, and most of the magnesium isn’t absorbed. A high-quality ionic liquid form may be better. It can be absorbed through the skin (transdermal) – I like to use magnesium flakes and Epsom salts in the bath.
- Calcium: aha, I hear you say, you just said this was a bad thing! As mentioned above, it can cause cramps in the correct quantities (the 1:1 ratio with magnesium), and it will reduce dysmenorrhea symptoms (Evidence-Based Nursing, 1999).
- Folic acid (vitamin B9): eating plenty of foods rich in folic acid will support the body during high menstrual flow and prevent anemia. Folic acid is found naturally in beans (chickpeas, mung beans), lentils, dark leafy green vegetables, asparagus, avocados, broccoli, and oranges.
- Smoking and exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke have been connected to dysmenorrhea (Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, 2005).
- Stress and disruptive life events can cause gonadal hormonal disruptions to the body, resulting in more painful menstrual cramps. Aromatherapy is reported to have excellent pain-relieving effects on women with moderate-severe dysmenorrhea related to stress (Journal of Korean Academy of Nursing, 2002). I will have a blog post to follow on this soon! 🙂
- Exposure to pollutants and harmful toxins in household cleaning products can also contribute to aggravated dysmenorrhea. Choose natural skincare, cosmetics, house cleaning, and feminine hygiene products. Switching from bleached synthetic and toxin-laden conventional pads and tampons made a huge difference for me. There are a number of non-GM organic alternatives on the market, in addition to cloth pads and the Mooncup.
- Exercising has been found to be helpful in the right amount. Research by the Medical College of Georgia, 1989, noted that: “contrary to the expected, regular exercise increased with the severity of menstrual symptoms, after controlling for medications, disposition, perceived stress, and mood. The findings suggest that exercise presents a tradeoff; it relieves the stress that may intensify dysmenorrhea, yet it may aggravate these same symptoms.” They suggested that increased aerobic activity such as jogging and biking heightened menstrual pain. Personally, I cannot go running anymore as it triggers severe dysmenorrhea, so instead, I like to walk for at least 20 minutes every day and do strength training and pilates.
I really hope this helps other girls who struggle with chronic and uncomfortable periods. It was one of the main reasons I decided to ditch toxins and follow a natural lifestyle. For me, getting my diet right and making sure I was taking the right dose of omega-3 and magnesium were fantastic for seeing my excruciating monthly pain almost diminish to nothing. Please share any natural remedies for period pain you may have in the comments; I’d love to hear other tips you may have!