Oh, cramps. They are one of the more common side effects of menstruation. For some, cramps are just a little bit annoying. But for many women, cramps can be so severe, so debilitating, that they interfere with life's everyday activities and can get in the way of relationships, work, and school. According to a static that I heard during Alisa Vitti's SXSW talk, cramps cause the US workplace to lose $2 billion annually. So yeah, they are kind of a big deal.
My personal experience with cramps has been varied: when I was a teenager, I rarely experienced them. In my late teens to early 20's, the cramps came on strong. I was still able to go to school, but I experienced discomfort and mild diarrhea. No one else in my family really experienced them, and I remember my mom saying "Cramps aren't a thing" and she kind of pushed me to just suck it up and take some Midol/Advil. I appreciate my mother's tough-love approach, but now I handle my cramps with much more tender-loving-care.
I lost my cycle twice in my life: once from an ED in high school and then again in my 20's due to PCOS and imbalanced living (stress, exercise, diet, etc). Working hard to get my blood sugar levels, stress, and lifestyle in check, I've had a steady period since January 2017. Read more about my period story here.
Now that I've got a much better handle on my lifestyle, the cramps are much more minor for me, but it's not rare for me to experience them the first 35 hours of my cycle. As soon as the lining begins to shed, the cramps come on just like clockwork. They are usually at a 4/5 on the pain scale (1 being the least amount of pain, 10 being the highest amount of pain). I can still go about my day, but I definitely don't feel up to leaving the house much or doing any strenuous activity. I try to rest as much as possible.
Though I feel thankful each time I get my period (given that it was non existent for so many years) the cramps are not always something to be so thankful for.
Given that I'm all about those natural remedies, I've developed a system of tricks that help me remedy my cramps and put them all together in a single blog post. I've enlisted the help of my favorite period expert, Alisa Vitti, HHC, AADP, women's hormone and functional nutrition pro, and best-selling author of WomanCode to help explain some of the scientific reasoning behind cramps and dietary statements. She also created the Cycle Syncing method and MyFLO (the app I use to track my cycle). But first, some background on cramps.
Why do we even get cramps?
During your menstrual cycle, the uterus contracts to help expel the lining. Alisa Vitti shared with me that elevated levels of Prostaglandin E2 cause menstrual cramps. Prostaglandins are a group of fatty acid compounds with varying hormone-like effects. The most notable effect of these are period cramps.
How do we avoid cramps in the first place?
Personally, I find that when I'm really on top of my lifestyle: managing my stress, exercising according to my cycle, eating a balanced, blood sugar stabilizing diet (healthy fats, quality proteins, tons of leafy greens and the right complex carbohydrates), staying away from sugar/coffee/alcohol/gluten/dairy/soy, my cramps aren't so bad. I learned a majority of this way of living through reading Womancode and through self experimentation.
Throughout the month, there are things I've noticed about my cycle. The strength of the cramps kind of depends on how I treated myself that month. If I am:
managing stress (self care, journaling, nature, meditation, technology breaks, exercise)
eating a blood sugar stabilizing diet filled with tons of leafy greens, complex carbohydrates, quality proteins, healthy fats like avocado + salmon
abstaining from alcohol, excessive caffeine (all coffee), and sugar, gluten/dairy/soy
then my cramps will be significantly less than if I hadn't. Now, this is just a personal observation and may not be true for all. I also know that when I travel, eat outside my normal diet, am excessively stressed, then I also experience other painful period symptoms like greater mood swings, acne, breast tenderness, etc. Keeping track of your lifestyle and then paying attention to your PMS/menstruation symptoms are a great way to get better in touch with your body so you can actually see the results for yourself.
Top Natural Cramp Remedies
In western medicine, many practitioners overlook this simple yet very effective way of combating most ailments: the food we eat. My favorite way of reducing cramps is by focusing on my diet and make sure I'm including plenty of the right healing foods during my cycle. Why? Because I have to eat anyway, so why not include foods that can possibly help lessen my cramps too? Win-win situation in my book. I learned a lot about which foods are good for menstruation from Alisa herself and her wonderful book and app, as well as from my acupuncturist (Dr. Kara from Aculand) who studied ayurveda. On top of including foods high in essential fatty acids, I try to eat more soups, stews, and warming foods during this time. Lots of roasted vegetables, pureed soups, curries, and more. Try making my bone broth, it's a wonderful thing to sip on throughout menstruation. It's warming, full of collagen and healthy fats.
Because cramps are caused by elevated levels of PGE2 as mentioned above, Alisa Vitti recommends eating the right fats throughout the month and during your cycle to get more PGE 1 and PGE 3. You can help elevate PGE 1+3 by adding more essential fatty acids into your diet during menstruation. Full list below!
Foods high in essential fatty acids:
oily fish such as salmon, sardines, anchovies mackerel, tuna and freshwater trout
other foods and herbs to include during menstruation:
Alisa also recommends including:
seaweed (wakame, dulse. Eden Foods sells high quality seaweeds)
kelp (found in most refrigerated areas of health food stores near vegan items)
mushrooms (all types)
He shou wu (Sunpotion makes a great one)
it's especially important to eat these foods around the year, but try including them during your next period to see if they help with your cramps.
Foods to avoid during menstruation:
Alisa recommends staying away from the following foods which will increase inflammation in your body, contribute to the manufacture of more PGE2 and cause you to have more pain during your bleed.
too many raw, bulky vegetables (this was recommended to me by my acupuncturist as well!)
We already know excessive cups of coffee and pounding beers on the daily isn't ideal for a healthy lifestyle, but doing these things around your cycle can cause additional stress and fatigue on your body during this delicate time of the month. Eating sugar around this time of the month, though sometimes tempting, can actually worsen your symptoms, so I do not recommend turning to sweets during this time. No-sugar-added dark chocolate is a wonderful way to satisfy your sweet tooth. I love Eating Evolved Midnight flavor. Try to stick to only 1 cup of caffeine a day, and if so, make it a matcha.
Essential oils are one of the first things I turn to during menstruation. From putting in baths to applying to body, they can become a huge part of menstrual wellness. I take them with me wherever I go during my cycle.
Clary Sage has been studied and known to help women lessen the pain of contractions, so it has the same healing effect on our bodies during their cycles. A few drops along with a carrier oil like coconut oil massaged onto the pelvis can help reduce some of the pain. Mountain Rose Herbs carries safe Clary Sage.
Saje Wellness' Moon Cycle roller is an easy application oil blend that uplifts and calms the body and brain. It has lavender, geranium, and rosewood oils and already has a carrier oil inside so you can just roll-on and go. I usually add this to my pelvis and gently massage in circular motions or wherever else I feel cramps. I also love adding this oil to my bath along with some epsom salt to help disperse the oils.
You can also apply both of these oils on your lower back and inner thighs.
Applying heat directly to the cramps is always super helpful for me. I picked up a $10 heating pad at my local pharmacy not too long ago, but before that I was just putting white rice into an old sock and microwaving it. You can also use a water bottle and fill it with warm water. I love taking long baths during my period. Contrary to popular belief, baths are 100% safe to take during menstruation. Do whatever feels best to you.
It sounds cliche, but water heals all, especially during our periods. Drinking water during your menstruation cycle helps replenish some of the liquids you are losing through your uterine lining. Dehydration worsens menstruation symptoms. Drinking plenty of water can also help reduce headaches, bloat, fatigue and other symptoms of menstruation. It's a simple, quick, and effective way to find immediate relief.
Though I don't recommend heading to a vinyasa class during the first few days of menstruation, there are some yoga poses one can do to help relieve cramps. Child's pose, happy baby, and camel pose have all been said to help ease some of the pelvic discomfort. Youtube has a bunch of wonderful, free resources for cramp reducing yoga postures.
Lastly, the biggest yet oftentimes most difficult thing is to take it easy. In a fast paced world, it can be hard to give ourselves permission to cancel plans, push back deadlines or. And sometimes, thats not possible. But if you know you get cramps, it can be helpful to plan your schedule ahead of time. Finish deadlines the week before your menstruation cycle. Take a few days off from the gym or your training program. Try not to plan any social activities the first few days of your period. If there is ONE time of the month to take it easy, it's this time. Schedule in some reading time, bath time, journal time, nap time or Netflix time. Give yourself the gift of slowing down. Our bodies are going through a very intense process during menstruation, and honoring that is a form of beautiful simple self care.
Do you get cramps? If so, how do you handle them?