In honor of International Women´s Day this past Monday, I´ll be doing a few posts on menstrual health! We need to make menstrual issues heard and easy to talk about by removing the stigma that people associate with periods... especially in the sporting world.
It is important to remember that painful periods are NOT NORMAL. It is a way of your body communicating with you of an imbalance within your system.
Types of period pain
Period pain (medically known as dysmenorrhea) can either be purely related to menstration (primary dysmenorrhea) or it can be classed as a more severe form known as secondary dysmenorrhea, which is due to an underlying condition. Below I have explained both forms. If you suspect you suffer from secondary dysmenorrhea, I highly encourage you to seek medical advice.
Related purely to menstration (only appears around your period, therefore, pain is not due to an underlying condition)
Occurs due to an increased production of prostaglandins (inflammatory molecules)
Usually occurs on days 1 & 2 of your period
Moderate cramping pain or a dragging sensation
Occurs in your pelvis or lower back
Pain can be relieved through applied heat, anti-inflammatory pain killers or magnesium supplementation
Can affect your daily activities if not addressed
Can be reduced through nutrition
Pain related to more than menstruation (underlying condition causing the pain)
Usually lasts longer than your period or appears at other times of your cycle
Pain occurs when you pee or during or after sex
Strong pains (e.g. stabbing, burning or throbbing)
May lead to fainting, nausea or vomitting - this should not be your normal
No repsonse to anti-inflammatories
Examples that can cause secondary dysmenorrhea:
Endometriosis - a condition whereby endometrial tissue (that which prepares the lining of the womb for ovulation) grows in other places other than the uterus such as the ovaries. It can affect women of any reproductive age and is a common cauuse of secondary dysmenorrhea.
Adenomyosis - a condition in which the inner lining of the uterus (the endometrium) grows into the muscle wall of the uterus (the myometrium).
Fibroids - growths on the inner wall of the uterus. When they do cause symptoms, these may include heavier or longer periods, pressure in the pelvis or pain during sex.
Infection - pelvic infections caused by bacteria.
If you suspect you may be suffering from any form of secondary dysmenorrhea, I urge you to see a medical professional.
How to ease of primary dysmenorrhea:
1. Reduce inflammation through diet
Inflammation can be easily increased due to the foods you eat. A diet high in sugar, dairy, alcohol, processed meats and other processed foods and low in wholefoods abundant with antioxidants, healthy omega 3 fats and other essential nutrients is a prime example of the type of diet that will increase inflammation in the body.
For this reason, the best first step into easing period pain is improving your diet. However, this doesn´t mean only eating healthy during the time of your period. Removing or reducing your consumption of processed foods and drinks (e.g. baked goods, pastries, sodas, fast foods, deep-fried foods etc.), sugar and alcohol on a daily basis will be a good place to start.
The majority of your base diet should include wholefoods. These are foods found in their whole natural form (i.e. have not been processed). By consuming foods rich in nutrients on a daily basis you are providing your body the power and ability to support overall health and create balance within. Such foods include a combination of fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, legumes, high quality sources of protein (e.g. wild fish, grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds) and cold-pressed oils (e.g.extra virgin olive oil).
2. Increase consumption of certain nutrients
Certain foods contain nutrient properties with the ability to ease pain by managing the production of inflammatory molecules, regulating hormone balance or by helping to relax muscles with in the uterus and body.
Magnesium is an essential mineral that can be used as natural muscle relaxant. Foods rich in magnesium include green leafy veg, flaxseeds, raw cacao, salmon, almonds, legumes, tofu, chia seeds and avocados.
Painful periods have been associated with increased oestrogen levels and low progesterone commonly caused by a sluggish detoxification of hormones. Foods rich in sulphur help to support the second phase of liver detoxification responsible for breaking down oestrogen.
Omega 3 fats:
Omega 3 fat works as an anti-inflammatory in the body and is essential for regulating hormones. Foods rich in omega 3 include oily fish (e.g. cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines), walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, avocados, green leafy vegetables)
3. Avoid caffeine
During the time of your period, caffeine can upset digestion and increase the severity of cramping and other PMS symptoms. Although you may feel like coffee will give you the boost you need during this time, it will only make the pain worse.
Try your best to reduce or avoid coffee and other caffeine-filled drinks (e.g. matcha, green tea, chai tea, energy drinks etc.) 1-3 days leading up to your period and until the pain subsides. Not to worry there are substitutes to help manage your withdrawals from coffee (e.g. golden milk, ginger tea, chamomile tea, green smoothies, chicory coffee substitute).
Try this anti-inflammatory golden milk recipe!
(VEGAN. GLUTEN-FREE. DAIRY-FREE.)
2 tsp. turmeric powder
Pinch of black pepper
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk (use the cup you will drink from)
1 tsp. honey
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
Simply heat up the milk along with the other ingredients in a pot on a low heat. Give it a good mix and remove from the heat before it starts to boil.
4. Reduce cow dairy in your diet for a few weeks
Large amounts of dairy can cause an inflammatory response in the body. In order to reduce and manage inflammation build up not only during your period and the time leading up to your period, aim to reduce your consumption of dairy. Especially if you have a sensitivity to casein (the protein within dairy), avoiding dairy for a few weeks or months can provide added benefits to your health such as improving digestive comfort and clearing skin acne.
5. Include more movement in your day
Introducing more movement into your day helps to improve blood flow around the body and to the reproductive organs, helps to reduce stress and help to manage water retention. The amount and intensity of the exercise you do will depend on how you feel. Light stretching and yoga movements are always encouraged to help relieve period pain.
6. Consider supplementation
Magnesium bisglycinate or malate (easy on digestion and well absorbed)
If adding more magnesium rich foods do not help ease your symptoms, try taking a magnesium bisglycinate or malate supplement. Due to the low levels of magnesium in agricultural soil these days, plants are often delpleted in this essential nutrient, therefore, supplementation may be necessary depending on your location, diet and symptoms.
Turmeric (with black pepper for better absorption)
Although adding turmeric into your meals and daily diet is beneficial, turmeric supplementation is much stronger than that in the diet. Supplements provide higher intakes of the active ingredients within turmeric, which provide the effects.
Not only does gut health play a key role in overall health and wellbeing, but it is directly influenced by our hormones and visa versa. Maintaining optimal gut health ensures nutrients are being absorbed from the diet, manages digestive discomforts (e.g. bloating, diarrhea, excess gas production and constipation) and helps to regulate hormone balance.
7. Be kind to yourself
During days 1 & 2 of your period, you usually feel pretty lousy and everything seems to be uncomfortable. Don´t forget to be kind to yourself. If you are feeling fatigued, take a quick 30 min nap or try to do an activity that will help you to relax. I always find using a hot water bottle helps my body to relax and helps to ease cramps.
Being proactive in managing your period pain through nutrition, lifestyle, stress management, emotitional wellbeing and exercise is the only way to truly rid yourself of painful periods for good and not dread them coming each month!