If you experience debilitating menstrual cramps, as I do, then I'm sure you remember the first time they started and the constant struggle you've had in learning to cope with them. I've been trying to take my own pain away since age 12, and it hasn't looked pretty.
It's been a lot of missed work, sleepless nights, tears of desperation, and a couple of memorable hospital trips. I have tried so many things I've lost count of what I've tried. I even have a closet full of half-empty supplement bottles to show for it. In my countless efforts to find relief, I've found that bringing it back to the basics has helped me cope the most. I'm not going to lie and say that I don't have pain anymore, but I've found these really simple strategies helpful, and I wish I had known about them sooner.
1. Go to sleep.
I know that sounds crazy because the pain can make it impossible to sleep, but what I mean to say is get regular sleep before your period. You know you already want to nap all of the time before your period because of our trusty friend progesterone! Progesterone is the driving hormone in the second half of your cycle (after you ovulate), and it has been shown to promote and maintain sleep. But even better than sleeping before your period, make sleep a priority all of the time. Regular sleep means going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day. When you have a predictable circadian rhythm, you produce optimal amounts of melatonin. Melatonin is an antioxidant, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory. Those are all actions you want for your uterus when you have a scalding hot-water bottle pressed against your pelvis and there's no relief in sight.
2. Say goodbye to caffeine for a minute.
You've just spent the night awake in pain, and now I'm taking away your coffee? It seems cruel, but trust me, it helps. Caffeine can be found in pain-relieving medications (like Midol) but it's not necessarily your friend when it comes to period cramps. It turns out, period pain may be more common in coffee drinkers than non-coffee drinkers. Think about this: Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor (it constricts your blood vessels), which means decreased blood flow to your uterus. Reduced blood flow means reduced oxygen, which means muscle spasms, which means pain. I, too, love a good cup of joe in the morning, but I've found I do better when I give it up a few days before my period and during. You can have it again afterward, of course!
3. Eat nuts, seeds, and chocolate.
What do they all have in common besides being a delicious trail mix all together? They decrease prostaglandins, which are fatty acids and hormone copycats that cause uterine contractions, pain, and inflammation. Chocolate wants to heal our pain soooo badly, so let's just let it! Make it dark chocolate (it's rich in magnesium) and add some almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds for the ultimate anti-inflammatory snack.
4. Try castor oil massage.
Castor oil is a wonderful oil used topically to decrease pain and inflammation. I'm not recommending that you drink it as a laxative! When applied over the uterus, it can increase blood flow and activate your parasympathetic nervous system (your resting and relaxing nerves) to calm uterine spasms and bowel spasms. Use 1 to 3 tablespoons and massage it over your uterus when you're in pain. The oil can stain your clothes, so wear old pjs and don't be shy about the amount you use; it will absorb overnight. You can also rub it on aching joints and tissues, like your breasts and low back.
5. Take good-quality ginger capsules.
They can be as effective as Advil. It's just too simple. I avoided trying it for so long because I just figured I needed something fancy, expensive, and complicated to help my pain. Well, I didn't. Now, the dosing is important; you want to start taking ginger three days before the first day of expected pain. Pain-relieving medications always work better before the pain starts; if you wait until it starts then you're playing catch-up. It’s also recommended that you take the ginger during the painful days of your period. The recommended dose in the study I refer to here is 250 mg four times a day. Unlike ibuprofen, it has no liver or gastrointestinal toxicity.
Super-simple tips for preventing, reducing, and coping with period pain. If you're like me and have spent years miserably trying to alleviate your pain, I hope you're able to try out these techniques and see how you feel.