A Naturopath’s Approach to Treating Monthly Period Pain
Having menstrual cramps can vary from a slight annoyance to being incapacitated for several days. Many women experience them regularly and some have to miss days of work or school every month as a result of the period pain. In addition to pelvic pain, other symptoms can include back, leg and hip pain as well as an upset stomach, loose stools and sometimes vomiting. While over the counter medications can ease the pain, for some these pain relievers are not enough to allow for normal functioning during the day.
Having period pain can be a problem for many. Thankfully there are a number of effective natural treatment options that you may not be aware of to significantly reduce menstrual cramping and in some cases resolve it completely.
In this article we will look at why menstrual pain occurs and then the approaches taken by a Naturopath to treat menstrual cramps.
What are Menstrual Cramps?
Menstrual pain, also known as dysmenorrhea, and tend to begin after ovulation, when an egg is released from the ovaries and travels down the fallopian tube. Typically pain begins anywhere from 1-3 days before the first day of menstruation and can last for several days. Often Day 1 and 2 of the menstrual cycle are the most painful and then the pain subsides by Day 3. The throbbing cramping pain in your lower abdomen can be very intense. The pain is a result of contractions of the uterus as the uterus attempts to expel its lining. Hormone like substances called prostaglandins trigger the contraction of the uterine muscle contractions. Higher levels of prostaglandins are associated with more severe menstrual cramping.
Two Types of Menstrual Pain:
Primary vs. Secondary Dysmenorrhea
Menstrual cramps can be the result of a number of specific underlying uterus related conditions, this is known as secondary dysmenorrhea. These conditions interfere with normal uterine muscle relaxation. These conditions include:
- Endometriosis – some of the tissue that lines the uterus implants itself outside of the uterus
- Adenomyosis – some of the tissue that lines the uterus grows in to the muscular walls of the uterus
- Uterine Fibroids – non-cancerous growths in the walls of the uterus
- Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) – infection of reproductive organs usually as a result of a sexually transmitted disease.
In secondary dysmenorrhea, cramping usually starts in a woman’s 20s or 30s after years of painless period. Often it is associated with heavy menstrual bleeding and irregular periods. As well, it often is not well controlled with the birth control pill or Advil. The cause of the pain can be identified via pelvic ultrasound, MRI and/or laparoscopy.
Menstrual cramping can occur without an underlying condition. This is known as primary dysmenorrhea. It usually starts within six months of the first menstrual cycle at the onset of puberty. The pain starts just before the onset of bleeding and feels like cramping pain in the lower abdomen that that can radiate to the back or down the legs. Sometimes nausea and/or vomiting can occur if the pain is severe. No abnormal findings are found during a pelvic examination or ultrasound.
Risk Factors for Primary Dysmenorrhea
The following factors can increase a woman’s risk of menstrual cramping:
- Younger than 30 years of age
- Having first menstrual cycle before 11 years of age
- Heavy bleeding during menstrual cycles
- Menstrual cycles are irregular i.e.. do not occur at regular intervals every 28-32 days
- Family history of menstrual cramping
Naturopathic Treatment Approach
Naturopathic treatment for menstrual cramps is aimed at decreasing the levels of inflammatory and spasmodic prostaglandins, while increasing blood flow to the pelvis. The approach to non-pharmacological treatment for dysmenorrhea is a multifaceted approach including dietary changes and relevant anti-inflammatory and uterine relaxing herbs and nutrients. Specific treatment varies between individuals and depending on the underlying cause.
Dietary changes are aimed at reducing foods that are high in Arachidonic Acid. Arachidonic Acid is found in a number of different foods and is responsible for generating spasmodic and anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. For example, egg yolks, poultry and red meat are high in arachidonic acid. As well, saturated fats stimulate prostaglandin production. Research has shown that a low saturated fat, vegetarian diet decreases menstrual pain. Foods that conversely decrease menstrual pain include fish, nuts and seeds.
Many women have food sensitivities that further exacerbate menstrual cramping. Foods that cause gas and bloating for example can worsen symptoms. Identifying aggravating foods and removing them from the diet may also mitigate cramping. Reducing consumption of these foods is an important part of a multifaceted approach to treating dysmenorrhea.
In addition, adequate fibre in the diet has been shown to reduce menstrual pain. A whole foods diet full of fruit, vegetables and ancient grains will help increase fibre consumption as well as provide important vitamins and minerals important for proper uterine muscle function, including magnesium, potassium and calcium. These minerals further reduce the severity of uterine muscle contraction.
There are a variety of nutrients and herbs that can work to improve menstrual cramping. Specific supplements and herbal treatments can include Magnesium, Vitamin B6, Zingiber Officinale, Valerian Officinalis and Viburnum Opulus.
Magnesium relaxes smooth muscle and can ease menstrual pain. The type and dosing for magnesium used in menstrual pain can vary between individuals. An excess of magnesium can cause loose bowel movements and the dose that would trigger this side effect varies considerably between individuals. Typically a glycinate or citrate form is preferred and dosing can vary from a few doses per day to a small amount every hour or two. It is best to consult a Naturopath when dosing magnesium for menstrual pain but it can work quite well to improve the severity of cramps.
Vitamin B6 helps reduce fluid retention that causes menstrual cramping and bloating. Typically 100mg per day is required to be taken over a number of cycles to see the full effects on menstrual cramps
Herbal treatments can work quite well to significantly reduce menstrual cramping and there is a growing body of research to support the use of herbs in preventing menstrual cramping.
Zingiber Officinale (ginger extract) works well for reducing menstrual pain. A 2009 study looked at 150 reproductive-aged women with primary dysmenorrhea. The women were divided into three groups in a double-blind clinical trial. One group received ginger capsules, a second group was given mefenamic acid and a third group was given ibuprofen. The severity of menstrual pain decreased in all groups and no differences were found between the groups in pain severity or pain relief.
Valeriana Officinalis actually binds to the same receptors in the brain as valium, which relaxes spasmodic contractions of intestinal muscles. As a result it is effective in treating menstrual pain. In research, valerian has been shown to have many positive benefits for the treatment of dysmenorrhea symptoms. A randomized placebo controlled trial looked at 100 subjects with primary dysmenorrhea. Pain and severity was significantly reduced and to a much greater degree in the valerian group versus the placebo group
Viburnum Opulus is a highly effective uterine relaxant that provides general anti-spasmodic actions. Typically this herb is best given in several doses every few hours. There is another related herb called Viburnum Prunifolium that can be given simultaneously for improved effects.
Improve Menstrual Pain and Irregularity!
See a Naturopath.
A Naturopath will do a thorough assessment of your menstrual health and review any lab testing that may have been previously done. Then they will put together an individualized treatment plan to address any menstrual irregularities including menstrual cramps.
To find out more about how a Naturopath can help treat issues with monthly menstrual cramps and other related issues, book a FREE 15 min Meet the Naturopath info session with Dr. Tara Andresen today at one her NDcare Naturopathic Clinics in Toronto.