It’s hard to believe, but period pain used to be considered purely psychological and a reason for women to get out of their responsibilities. Since it couldn’t be identified by a physical or gynecological exam or tested for, those who suffered period pain were mislabeled and told to deal with it. No one could see it, so it didn’t seem real.
Now we know that period pain is very real and can present itself in many ways ranging from cramps, back pain, breast tenderness, headaches, migraines, and joint and muscle pain. But still, the biggest question remains: How can I reduce period pain?
I get it, it’s tempting to want to find a remedy for a symptom, but in reality, we need to understand why you have that symptom in the first place. Let’s dive into it. ⬇️
How is period pain defined?
Dysmenorrhoea is the medical term used to describe painful periods. According to Dr. Katharina Dalton, a British gynecologist and expert on PMS, there are two types of period pain:
- Spasmodic period pain
- Congestive period pain
I find that some women fall in-between these categories. You may not fit perfectly, but just understanding the underlying causes of both and assessing your nutrition and lifestyle will be helpful.
Spasmodic period pain
Spasmodic period pain is more tied to inflammation in the body. It typically doesn’t start until the first day of your period and often occurs in the lower abdomen, back, or inner thighs. The pain tends to come in spasms and is often accompanied by loose stools. Most women that experience this more inflammation-based period pain are between the ages of 15-25.
One key distinguisher between spasmodic period pain and congestive period pain is that women with spasmodic period pain always ovulate. This means they make progesterone every cycle. Unlike congestive period pain, spasmodic period pain isn’t due to a lack of progesterone.
Your typical PMS symptoms like mood swings, acne, difficulty falling or staying asleep, and cravings are not always present with spasmodic period pain, but they can be.
Spasmodic period pain characteristics
- Onset: first day of period
- Site of pain: lower abdomen, back, inner thighs
- Type of pain: comes in spasms
- Usual age: 15-25 years
- Ovulation: must be present
- PMS symptoms: not always present
- What helps: reducing prostaglandins and inflammation in the body
What’s the main cause of spasmodic period pain?
Inflammation is the root cause of spasmodic period pain. Our primary focus when improving these symptoms is to reduce prostaglandins. Prostaglandins occur in nearly all body tissues and fluids and, among other functions, are responsible for the inflammation in the body. Not all prostaglandins are bad. They’re necessary for our health, but too many of them can cause unwanted and painful symptoms.
When you have a blood vessel that’s injured, prostaglandins are released at the site of injury to help form a clot so that your body can heal the damaged tissue. They also stimulate the contraction of the blood vessels and the muscle tissue to prevent further blood from being lost.
They also help support ovulation and hormone production in general, but the inflammatory prostaglandins are the ones that lead to spasmodic period pain and loose stools.
What causes high prostaglandins?
- Poor digestion and gut health.
- Excessive amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAS). These typically come from vegetable oils like canola and soybean oil.
- Nutrient deficiencies such as low magnesium, vitamin E, and B vitamins.
- High estrogen levels.
- Excessive stress.
Spasmodic period pain toolkit
- If you struggle with constipation or bloating, consider using 1-2 tsp of apple cider vinegar prior to your meals.
- If you suspect that gut health is a main concern for you, consider adding bone broth and gelatin to your diet.
- Consider adding topical magnesium in the form of magnesium oil spray/lotion or Epsom salt baths. You can rub magnesium oil/lotion right onto your lower abdomen or back when experiencing pain. If you supplement with magnesium orally, make sure you are eating calcium rich foods like dairy and cooked leafy greens.
- Ginger tea or a ginger supplement are both great for inflammation and can be very helpful for those struggling with inflammatory period pain.
Castor oil packs are another great one to support digestion, but they also help to reduce inflammation within the body and digestive system. You can even place castor oil packs right over your uterus (or your breasts if you have breast tenderness).
Congestive period pain
Congestive period pain is the result of a lack of adequate progesterone. It typically involves pain in the lower abdomen, back, head, breasts, joints, or limbs. Unlike spasmodic period pain, symptoms can occur up to 14 days before your period starts. The pain is often continuous and increases as menstruation begins.
Ovulation may be present or not, which is what impacts progesterone. Often these women can have long or short cycles.
Congestive period pain characteristics
- Onset: Up to 14 days prior to your period. Often accompanied by changes in mood, difficulty falling or staying asleep, feeling hangry, etc.
- Site of pain: lower abdomen, back, head, breasts, joints, and limbs
- Type of pain: heavy, dragging, and continuous increasing as menstruation starts
- Usual age: 13-53 years
- Ovulation: May be present or not. Lack of ovulation or not having a strong ovulation is what contributes to low progesterone
- PMS Symptoms: Always present
- What helps: increasing progesterone and balanced, consistent meals throughout the day
What causes low progesterone?
- Lack of ovulation. Ovulation is the only way we make progesterone.
- Excessive stress. This can be mental/emotional or physical stressors.
- Nutrient deficiencies. We need adequate macronutrients and micronutrients in order to ovulate and make enough progesterone.
Congestive period pain toolkit
- Nourish your body. Eating enough food is the only way to give your body the energy it needs to perform the functions required for optimal hormone health. Under-eating leads to stress, which causes the body to compensate and use up energy and vitamins and minerals. When the body is stressed, it’s not in the best place for reproduction, and it will negatively impact hormone levels. That’s why eating and balancing blood sugar is the number one way to reduce your stress.
- Eating every 3-4 hours. Each of our cells has a tiny engine, this tiny engine requires energy in order to let things inside and out of the cell so it can do its job. When our cells don’t get enough energy, all of those engines slow down. This means hormone production, digestion, detoxification, cognition, all slow down. A key part of this is eating regularly. Often when women are dealing with low progesterone they are also dealing with a sluggish thyroid. This makes it difficult to keep your blood sugar balanced. Eating regularly supports your sex hormones AND your thyroid health.
- Balance your meals with protein, carb, and fat. One way we can avoid stressing our bodies is by keeping our blood sugar balanced. Having some sort of protein, carb, and fat at your meals is a great way to do this. It also helps keep your energy stable throughout the day. One example is a breakfast of eggs and fruit. This is very simple, but eggs contain protein and fat and then you get your carbs from the fruit.
- Reduce stress during your follicular phase. When the body is in a stressed state, there are elevated stress hormones that inhibit certain functions in the body, especially hormone production, since that isn’t looked at as essential for survival. Stress also depletes specific vitamins and minerals that are needed for hormone production (magnesium, vitamin C, and sodium, to name a few).
- Vitamin E is especially helpful for those that struggle with congestive period pain. It acts similarly to progesterone in the body and protects us from stress.
Period pain is common, but it’s not normal. I hope these tools empower you to take action and reduce your specific type of period pain.