What Helps With Period Cramps? 19 Things To Try, According To OB/GYNs
Getting your period is a natural part of your menstrual cycle, and, unfortunately, that may involve period cramps. But while period cramps are common, it's more than understandable to want to do everything you can to try to feel more comfortable when it's that time.
Of course, it's important to talk to your health care provider if you're dealing with more severe cramps. However, if your cramps are livable—but not exactly pleasant—doctors say there are a few things you can do to ease your pain.
Why do period cramps happen?
To understand the best way to handle your period cramps, it's first important to go over why they happen in the first place. When you have your period, your body releases prostaglandins, chemical compounds that are involved in pain and inflammation, explains Lauren Streicher, M.D., a professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "These cause the uterus to contract," she says.
When your uterus contracts, it helps your body push out the uterine lining, aka period blood, that has built up inside you during your cycle. On the first day of your period, the level of prostaglandins in your body is high, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists1 (ACOG) says. But as your period continues, the level goes down and you end up feeling less pain.
Higher levels of prostaglandins are usually linked with more severe period cramps, says Christine Greves, M.D., a board-certified OB/GYN at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies in Orlando, Florida.
Foods that can help with cramps.
Doctors say eating a healthy diet with nutritious foods may be helpful for relieving period cramps. Consider adding these options into your regular rotation when it's that time of the month:
Salmon is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which help to tamp down inflammation2 in your body. "Omega-3s can reduce period cramps due to blocking prostaglandins," says Jennifer Lew, M.D., an OB/GYN at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital. While you don't need to eat salmon every day, trying to have a serving when your prostaglandin levels are at their highest—at the start of your period—may help you get some relief.
Dark green leafy vegetables
Vegetables like spinach and kale also contain omega-3s and block the impact of prostaglandins on your body3, Lew says. Try having these in salads or tossing them into dishes for extra benefits.
Bananas and other potassium-rich foods
Bananas are packed with potassium4, an ingredient that helps lessen muscle cramps. "Potassium depletion affects muscle cramping and, if one is depleted, the cramping will be worsened," Lew says. "Foods high in potassium can be important for this reason." Add a banana to your morning smoothie for added perks.
Research has linked calcium with a reduction in cramps and even PMS symptoms5. One particular study found that patients who had 500 milligrams of calcium a day had less anxiety, depression, emotional changes, water retention, and bodily changes during their period than those who didn't take the nutrient. You can try having yogurt as a snack to reap the benefits.
Oats contain magnesium, a nutrient that can help reduce cramps6. "It works by relaxing the smooth muscle of the uterus and by reducing the prostaglandins that cause menstrual cramps," Lew explains. Consider having a bowl in the morning to help with your cramping.
Drinks that can help with cramps.
Just like with foods, there is no drink that will magically make your cramps disappear. But sipping on certain liquids may help ease your pain a little. Try these liquid remedies.
It seems basic, but make sure you're sipping enough H2O. "Muscle cramps are easier to handle if you are well hydrated," Lew says. "Without hydration, the cramping will be worse." The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine7 recommends that women have about 11.5 cups of fluids from food and drink a day—and you'll probably want to aim for even more than that during your period.
There's no definitive evidence that chamomile tea will actually reduce menstrual cramps "but these teas are thought to reduce inflammation8, therefore reducing pain," Lew says. It may also help relax an upset stomach.
Exercises & yoga poses that can help with cramps.
The ACOG1 specifically recommends exercising most days of the week to help you get relief when you're dealing with cramps, noting that they help produce chemicals that block pain. That can include:
"Exercise in general increases blood flow and endorphins, which is thought to help with the reduction of prostaglandins and pain relief," Lew says.
Certain yoga poses may also help you stretch and get some relief, Greves says. She lists the following as being particularly helpful:
Other things you can do to relieve cramps.
Doctors say there are certain medications and lifestyle remedies that can help ease the pain of period cramps. Those include:
- NSAIDs. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs1 (NSAIDs) can help relieve period cramps. Specifically, taking them 48 hours before you start cramping can be the most effective, explains functional OB/GYN Wendie Trubow, M.D. "That's when the prostaglandins start being secreted, so if you block them then, the cramping is less."
- Hormonal contraceptives. Combined hormonal contraceptives block your body's production of prostaglandins by stopping ovulation, gynecologist Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., explains. "Prostaglandins are most heavily made in cycles where you ovulate," she says. "No ovulation, less prostaglandins. So taking the pill—or using a contraceptive ring—can be very helpful." Trubow also mentions that hormone-releasing IUDs could help, too.
- Heating pad. "Heat is an option used by many to help with menstrual cramps," Lew says. "This would be a heating pad or hot water bottle. It is a low-cost option with low risk and potential gain in improvement in symptoms."
- Bodywork. "Acupuncture and bodywork also may be helpful for women to try," says Trubow.
- Magnesium. Trubow also recommends magnesium, which can also be beneficial for muscle health. "Adding in either Epsom salt soaks/foot baths or oral magnesium can help alleviate cramps."
When to talk to your doctor about your PMS symptoms.
Severe cramps can be a sign of an underlying condition like endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). "If you feel like your lifestyle is affected by your period cramps, definitely talk to your health care provider," Greves says.
Streicher agrees: "You should not be canceling plans or having to call out of work because the pain is so bad," she says.
And, if you're unsure whether your period cramps have ventured into a bad place, Greves recommends talking to your doctor anyway.
When period cramps strike, there are a few different things you can do to get relief. But, if you're still struggling, talk to your health care provider. They should be able to help with the next steps.
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, relationships, and lifestyle trends with a master’s degree from American University. Her work has appeared in Women’s Health, Prevention, Self, Glamour, and more. She lives by the beach, and hopes to own a taco truck one day.