Prostaglandins are the molecules that stimulate contractions and drive some of the most important phases of the menstrual cycle. But boy, can they hurt.
Prostaglandins are a group of chemical molecules that cause the muscles and blood vessels in the uterus to contract, which usually then triggers period cramps.
Well, actually, they do a bit more than that…
Let’s check out how these unique molecules work and why they can be behind a lot of the cramping pain that we associate with our periods.
In this article: 📝
- What are prostaglandins?
- How do prostaglandins affect menstruation?
- Are some people’s prostaglandin levels higher than others’?
- Prostaglandins and bad period pain
- How can you reduce prostaglandins during your period?
What are prostaglandins?
Prostaglandins are not true hormones but they “act” just like hormones.
Their function is usually to trigger inflammation to fight injury or infection (which often comes with pain), to increase or slow blood flow in an area.
This triggers the formation of blood clots and contracts or relaxes muscle at different sites in the body.
Instead of being produced in specialized glands and then transported around the body via the bloodstream like true hormones, prostaglandins tend to be produced “on-site”, increasing in concentration only when and where they’re needed.
They’re a key part of the chain reactions that cover a range of bodily functions, but they’re especially important in the contraction of the uterus when it comes to the female reproductive cycle.
Not only do they control uterine contractions at the start of each period, but they also trigger ovulation and are important for the contractions that mamas-to-be experience during labor.
In fact, they are often used artificially to start the induction of labor.
So, yep: as a molecule group in our bodies, prostaglandins are pretty important.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t cause us problems.
How do prostaglandins affect menstruation?
Period pains are pretty common.
They happen when our uterus walls contract more strongly than usual (they’re often contracting mildly all the time), mostly at the start of our periods, or in the days just before.
The contractions cause the blood supply to these uterine muscles to get cut off temporarily.
This in turn causes the thickened lining of our uterus to come away from the uterine walls and eventually be expelled out through the vagina.
It’s the cutting off of the blood and the tensing or contracting of the uterus that we tend to feel as painful.
Prostaglandins are what trigger these contractions and the feeling of cramping, and can often cause cramping to increase, even when we are feeling pain, so that the contractions continue to strengthen and the full uterine lining is expelled properly.
Are some people’s prostaglandin levels higher than others’?
Even though we all know period pains are a real menace, some of us get period cramping and intense pain way worse than others.
Researchers think that this might be something to do with the natural levels of prostaglandins that we produce individually.
For most women, their prostaglandin levels in their uterus’ fall within “normal” ranges.
This means they’re sufficient to trigger contractions at the start of each period that are strong enough to expel the lining of the uterus, but not so strong that the cramps are painful.
“Too many” prostaglandins being produced, or possibly building up in the uterus, would mean that the contractions would be stronger than usual, and so more painful.
So it may be that some women get worse period pains because their bodies produce naturally higher levels of prostaglandins.
Prostaglandins and bad period pain
Does reducing prostaglandins alleviate bad period cramps? Yes, it does.
But, before we talk about how, instead of jumping straight into trying to reduce or dampen the effects of your prostaglandins, it might be best to start with talking to your doctor or another qualified medical practitioner.
Your levels of prostaglandins may indeed be too high—but bear in mind that there could also be other causes of bad period pain that a doctor might want to check out.
All of these are pretty serious medical issues and a symptom common to all of them would be bad period pains.
Probably wise to rule these out first.
How can you reduce prostaglandins during your period?
If you’ve ruled out other conditions, there are easy ways to reduce your prostaglandins during your period.
But you may already be doing them, of course.
What do we mean?
One of the most common groups of drugs that we use to alleviate bad period pain is effective specifically because it targets the production of prostaglandins.
NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) work by suppressing a specific chemical enzyme we have in our bodies called cyclooxygenase (COX for short).
COX is used by the body especially to stimulate prostaglandin production.
By suppressing it, NSAIDs limit the level of prostaglandins our bodies produce, which is why these drugs are good for dulling period pain.
The most common over-the-counter NSAIDs used for period pains will probably be familiar to you: ibuprofen and high-dose aspirin.
These are likely to be more effective than other painkillers, such as Tylenol, because of their COX-suppressant effect.
If you find these aren’t strong enough, you could request a prescription for a stronger NSAID, for example, naproxen—which also suppresses prostaglandin production and often gets prescribed for period pain.
Other ways to reduce prostaglandins
If you don’t want to go the drug route or you need additional help on top, you could try a more natural approach to reducing your levels of prostaglandins, for example, through your diet.
Some people suggest that if your diet is rich in processed foods, carbohydrates, sugar, and dairy products, you may be more susceptible to inflammation and higher prostaglandin production.
Swapping some of these for less-processed foods, healthy fats and less sugar could help.
Some studies have also shown that supplements such as fish oil can help reduce period cramps.
Regular exercise is another way of alleviating pain such as period pains, which can be helpful.
Prostaglandins are a key part of our biology, and unfortunately, even though they cause pain, they’re not going anywhere.
But there are ways to manage the cramping they leave us with.
If NSAIDs aren’t helping, have a chat with a doctor.
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