Millions of women around the world suffer from dysmenorrhea, the intense pain and cramping in the abdomen, pelvis, lower back, and/or thighs many women experience before, during, and after menstruation. It’s not to be confused with PMS (premenstrual syndrome) which is a combination of emotional and physical factors women experience – from headaches to mood swings – usually a week or two before the period and ends when the period starts.
Why does it hurt so bad?
Dysmenorrhea is common among young women, occurring in up to 91% in women of reproductive age, with the pain caused by more intense contractions of the uterus than normal due to the raised levels of prostaglandins (fat compounds that have hormone-like effects).
Prostaglandins, secreted by the uterine lining at the first two days of menstruation, makes the uterus contract and dislodge the lining, causing menstrual flow. The intensity of the pain is proportionate to the amount of prostaglandins released, which is why pain tolerance is different in every woman. Sometimes there may be no pain – this is because ovulation doesn’t take place, as women don’t always ovulate every month.
While dysmenorrhea is caused mainly by prostaglandins, PMS is caused by hormones. Its levels fluctuate 5 to 10 days before the start of menstruation, and can cause emotional and physical factors, from irritability to fatigue, mood swings, and food cravings.
Non-dietary pain relief
Painkillers may provide relief for those with mild-to-moderate symptoms of PMS and dysmenorrhea. NSAIDs like ibuprofen (ie. Nurofen) are a more suitable for dysmenorrheal cramping than acetaminophen (ie. Panadol) due to their ability to inhibit prostaglandin.
However, acetaminophen may be useful for PMS-related discomfort and also for the extrauterine discomforts associate with dysmenorrhea. They’re also more suitable for those who’re unable to take NSAIDs as it may result in bad gastrointestinal side effects.
Heat applied to the lower abdomen have also been proven to alleviate dysmenorrheal cramping, and it’s the fastest, safest method.
Foods that reduce period pain
Certain foods do contain minerals or vitamins that help you feel less pain.
Ginger: it has a pain-reducing effect as it’s rich in anti-inflammatory and antioxidative phytochemicals to combat inflammation, and balance the chemicals in the body which cause pain. You can add fresh ginger into your food or make ginger tea (there are also ginger tea packets) or take ginger supplements (they’re often sold as travel sickness pills too).
Calcium: According to some studies, calcium can reduce cramps by 58%. The daily recommended allowance for calcium is 800mg to 1,000mg. Dairy products like cheese and yoghurt are excellent sources – around 300mg per serving – and your body absorbs the calcium in dairy products more easily than that from plant sources like kale, which has 266 mg per cup. Other calcium-rich foods include fish with edible bones (ie canned sardines and anchovies) as well as calcium-fortified soya milk, beancurd, and tofu.
Vitamin D: These days, there’s a widespread deficiency of vitamin D (you can do a blood test to determine if you are). You need 400 IU to 800 IU vitamind D daily, and it can be found in walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, eggs, and in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines.
Vitamin E: This also useful in reducing the severity of pains. Vitamin E is found in wheat germ, dry roasted sunflower seeds, almonds, and peanut butter.
Omega-3 & Vitamin B12: The inflammatory properties from a combination of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12 has been shown to be effective in relieving menstrual pain. In addition to being heart-healthy, it also suppresses the production of prostaglandins. About 1,000mg of omega-3 daily helps with menstrual cramps; it can be found in oily fish, walnuts, chia seeds and eggs, and vitamin B12 can be found in dairy products, fortified breakfast cereals, and milk alternatives.
Magnesium & Vitamin B6: Period pain can be alleviated by magnesium, which acts like a relaxant to the muscle of the uterus and reduces prostaglandins. It also helps with PMS as it regulates the actions of hormone levels on the central nervous system. It seems to work well with Vitamin B6, which is associated with the nervous system – the combination of magnesium (250mg) and Vitamin B6 (40mg) has the best pain relief, according to a study. Magnesium is in dark chocolate, avocado, dark green leafy vegetables, almonds, and whole grain products.
Chamomile or Peppermint tea: Chamomile and peppermint tea are among some of the teas that possess anti-spasmodic properties which may relieve the painful menstrual cramps and PMS.
Things that may increase period pain
Caffeine: Consuming caffeine (especially sodas) may actually exacerbate uncomfortable symptoms of the menstrual cycle. It restricts blood vessels and increases tension and anxiety; it also contributes to cramps because of its diuretic nature (it increases urine production). However, caffeine withdrawal can cause headaches, so don’t cut out coffee completely if you’re used to having a few cups a day.
Red meat: In addition to iron (which is beneficial for women), red meat is also high in prostaglandins which cause cramps.
Salt: Some of the discomfort associated with cramps is the bloating, which is caused by water retention. Consuming lots of salt (like highly processed foods that contain a lot of sodium) leads to water retention.