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.
My personal experience with cramps has been varied: when I was a teenager, I rarely experienced them but when I did the pain was intense. I was still able to go to school, but I experienced discomfort and mild diarrhea (TMI). In my early teens to early 20’s, the cramps slowly diminished. I think this was because when I was 19, I was transitioning to a more plant-based diet.
The first thing I noticed after switching from meat-eater to plant-based was my otherwise heinous PMS cramping had dwindled. I still experience subtle pain from time to time, and my bowel movements are still plentiful, but I’m no longer cowering in a fetal position for seven days straight.
And that water-retention baby I’d be carrying before, throughout, and post-period? It shrunk! Usually, I’d blow up like a balloon on my period, all thanks to the water weight as well as the salty-sweet cravings I give in to. Because I’m eating predominantly natural sugars, leafy greens, and less animal product, the swelling has gone down.
And today, 99.9% of the time; I have lighter periods, less PMS symptoms including, mood swings, cramps, and even bloating.
I lost my cycle twice in my life: once from in high school and then again in my 20’s due to imbalanced living (stress, exercise, diet, etc.). Working hard to get my stress, and lifestyle in check, I’ve had a steady period since January 2017.
Though I feel thankful each time, I get my period (given that it was nonexistent for so many years) the cramps are not always something to be so grateful 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. 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 impact of these is 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 processed foods/coffee/alcohol/gluten (and including all animal products), 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)
- exercising according to my cycle
- eating a blood sugar stabilizing diet filled with tons of leafy greens, complex carbohydrates, quality proteins, rich in omega fats like avocado, nuts + seeds
- abstaining from alcohol, excessive caffeine (all coffee), and sugar, gluten/animal products
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, being 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 reading Womencode, 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.
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:
- flax seeds
- chia seeds
- pumpkin seeds
- hemp seeds
- beans – soy, lentil, mung beans, tempeh etc
- dark leafy greens
- winter squash
OTHER FOODS AND HERBS TO INCLUDE DURING MENSTRUATION:
- 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)
- Reishi mushroom (I have a fabulous Reishi mushroom latte ALMOST every day, but it very perfect for before-bedtime. It also helps reduce my night sweats that come along with periods)
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:
Womencode 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.
- excessive caffeine
- saturated fats
- too many raw, bulky vegetables
We already know excessive cups of coffee and pounding beers on the daily aren’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 latte (my favorite).
Essential oils are one of the first things I turn to during menstruation. From putting in baths to applying to the body, they can become a considerable 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 a straightforward 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 discomforts. 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, that’s 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?