It’s a pretty common scenario: You, on the couch, clutching a pillow, cursing your cramps. In fact, dysmenorrhea (the scientific term for pain associated with menstruation) affects about half of all women who get their period for at least one or two days each month. But discomfort doesn’t have to be a regular occurrence. Follow these strategies to keep you feeling strong and healthy all month long.
“Most period cramps are caused by an overproduction or oversensitivity to the hormone prostaglandin,” explains Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale School of Medicine. “Prostaglandins help the uterine muscles contract, but they can also cause other muscles like those in the gut to contract, causing pain as well as diarrhea and nausea.”
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen block the formation of prostaglandins. Take it 24 to 48 hours before your period is due with food, says Minkin. “It can be a little more difficult to stop the cramps once you miss that window.” Just don’t overdo it—NSAIDs can increase the risk of ulcers and other complications in high doses.
It can be tempting to empty an entire sleeve of Oreos when you’re dealing with your period, but the cleaner you eat, the better you will feel. “Cutting back on carbs, as well as salt, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine can help reduce cramps and other symptoms by reducing inflammation in the body,” notes Holly Lucille, N.D., R.N., a naturopathic doctor and author of Creating and Maintaining Balance: A Woman’s Guide to Safe Natural Hormone Health.
Calcium-rich foods, such as dairy, almonds, and dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, may also help reduce cramps, as well as foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as olive oil, flaxseed, and salmon.
Who wants to push it when all you want to do is curl up in the fetal position? But exercise plays an important part in minimizing your period problems. “Exercise helps decrease levels of estrogen while elevating feel-good hormones like beta-endorphins, so you start to feel better faster,” says Lucille. The type of exercise doesn’t seem to make a difference, although 20 to 30 minutes of moderate cardio, such as riding a bike or going for an easy run, helps boost levels of endorphins. Restorative yoga and other modalities that emphasize gentle stretching of aching muscles can also help.
Research shows several types of supplements may help reduce menstrual symptoms. Magnesium and calcium, for example, may help reduce pain when taken in moderate doses (about 300mg one to three times a day for magnesium and 1,000mg daily for calcium), as well as vitamins D, E, and B1. Fish oil can help combat inflammation, and other supplements, such as evening primrose oil, have been tapped as effective ways to reduce premenstrual syndrome.
Women who consistently suffer through a painful cycle might want to consider birth control pills to help manage their symptoms, says Minkin. “The pills block ovulation, so your body will naturally make less prostaglandin,” she explains. It can also help women with irregular cycles better determine when they might be getting their periods (and can plan accordingly). The latest generation of IUD devices such as Mirena produce a very low level of hormone, which in turn reduces the monthly thickening of the uterine lining, so menstrual flow (and prostaglandins) is reduced or eliminated.
Particularly heavy cycles may be due to a secondary disorder such as endometriosis or uterine fibroids. Often, pain from these conditions last longer than normal menstrual cramps and get worse as your period continues.
“If the medication you’re taking is not helping, it’s worth calling your doctor,” says Minkin. “We can help make it better and rule out whether there’s a bigger medical issue in play.”