Primary dysmenorrhea is the oh-so familiar cramps that come around menstruation.
In middle school, there was a girl in my grade that had gotten her period before the rest of us, and she complained about cramps one month. I was really thrown off by it because I didn’t know a whole lot about periods and hadn’t put much thought into it.
Sure, I’d taken a Sex Ed class, but maybe I missed a few details? Let’s be real, middle school Sex Ed isn’t exactly the best education, and I wasn’t prepared for the idea that my period could hurt.
Well surprise surprise. That shit can hurt. But it doesn’t have to.
Let’s break down cramps, what’s normal and what isn’t, and things that can be done to prevent cramps in the future.
Normal period cramps (primary dysmenorrhea) is caused by prostaglandins and can feel like a throbbing or cramping sensation in the lower abdomen, back, and even down your thighs. Some describe it as a dull ache, while others describe it as something deeper and more painful.
Cramps generally start 1 to 3 days before your period and subside in 2 to 3 days after you start.
Symptoms that can (and typically do) go hand-in-hand with period cramps include headaches, dizziness, nausea, and loose stool.
Typically, cramps lessen as women age.
If you find that your cramps are debilitating and causing you to miss school or work, then that could be a sign that something is going on. Typical period pain is uncomfortable but does not interfere with your life.
Unbearable cramps are one of the symptoms of endometriosis, fibroids, adenomyosis, PID, and cervical stenosis and require a proper diagnosis. Please see your doctor or other qualified healthcare professional if you feel this applies to you.
NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like ibuprofen have shown to improve period cramps. They lower prostaglandin production in the body, therefor limiting pain. (1)
The downside of relying on NSAIDs is that they have shown to potentially affect the gut microbiome similarly to how antibiotics do. (2)
Studies have found that heat therapy such as a heating pad, hot water bottle, or a warm bath can be even more helpful in reducing cramps than NSAIDs. (3)
Cramp bark is an herbal remedy from the Viburnum opulus plant. It contains a compound called methyl salicylate, which has been shown to be anti-inflammatory and relieve pain.
My favorite products that contain cramp bark:
Oona PMS2 Gelatin Capsules – I swear by this stuff. It works really well for me and my body.
Aunt Flo Menstrual Formula – This is a blend of vitamins and herbs that are really supportive during menstruation.
If you want the pure plant to make a tea you can order it here.
One of my favorite ways to relieve inflammation, pain, and emotional stressors is with CBD oil. This falls in between short term and long term relief for me, because long term use of CBD oil can help in reducing inflammation but short term use can help to relieve pain. So here it is and use it as you wish, or not, that’s cool too.
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i’ve had a relationship with marijuana since high school. WOAH TABOO TOPIC WE CANT GO HERE WHAT yeah, i’m talking about it. and my early relationship with marijuana was like most of my high school relationships – messy and unhealthy. but as i grew up and became an adult (barely??), i learned how to be somewhat mature (again, barely????) fast forward a few years, here i am, a huge advocate for doing what feels good in your body. i sometimes experience anxiety and SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and using CBD, in conjunction with stress management and meditation, has been very helpful for me. i was way nervous about using CBD at first. would this be like going back to a terrible high school boyfriend? i am pleased to report that it is in fact, nothing like that. • cannabidoil (CBD) is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in hemp. it does NOT make you feel stoned. i don’t get a buzz, and honestly don't “feel” it – i just simply notice a difference in my mood. it has tons of medical benefits and can help with inflammation, pain, anxiety, and other conditions. there is so much research and scientific evidence regarding CBD so i definitely encourage you to do your own research and learn about it if you’re interested in taking it. • the benefits i notice in myself? i just find that i’m consistently more positive and relaxed when i take it. i feel more motivated, and tasks that would typically overwhelm me seem way less daunting. i’ve also used it for headaches and to relieve menstrual cramps and it has worked so well. • i’ve recently been really into the brand @nuleafnaturals – their CBD is 100% organic, legal in all 50 states, and free of additives and preservatives. their customer service and shipping is 💯 and i have a discount code for you 😏 use ‘CALEESHEA’ at checkout for 20% off your order!
Nutrition plays a big role in your period health, and I believe it is one of the most important things to address in regards to period problems
A study conducted at Urmia University of Medical Sciences surveyed 293 random students in regards to their period cramps and their dietary choices. The study found that students who frequently consumed sugary foods, caffeine, salty snacks, and added fat had a higher chance of experiencing moderate to severe dysmenorrhea in comparison to the other students surveyed. (4)
Another study found that a higher consumption of clean meats like fish and eggs, as well as fruit, contributed to less frequent period pain. (5)
So what does a diet that supports your hormones entail?
I’m a big believer in taking a break from exercise the first 2 days of your menstrual cycle. That number can go up or down depending on each person and their body, but definitely avoid exercise the first day.
When you menstruate, your body is performing internal surgery on itself. Keep that in mind as you move through the week of your bleed.
There are specific poses that are helpful during your cycle such as Supta Buddha Konasana (Reclined Butterfly Pose) or Child’s Pose, but outside of the week of your bleed it is important to maintain a healthy exercise regimen.
Regular exercise helps to regulate and balance your hormones, therefor making your cycle a bit easier.
113 unmarried women were surveyed by Dr. Pinnamaneni Siddhartha Institute of Medical Science and Research Foundation and they found that women who did regular yoga reported a reduction in menstrual pain and their ability to participate in daily activities increased. (6)
Acupuncture is incredibly effective in helping to reduce period cramps. I’ve personally found relief in so many aspects of my life due to acupuncture and can attest to how life changing it can be.
It can seem scary to sit on a table with needles sticking in you, because let’s be real that’s exactly what it is. But just like when you’re looking for a good therapist, it may take some time to find an acupuncturist you like. I tried 3 different clinics before I found an acupuncturist that I absolutely love.
A few studies were conducted comparing menstrual symptom relief from acupuncture compared to medication and the results showed that acupuncture relieved menstruation symptoms better than medications. (7)
Managing your stress is so important. Coming from a girl who is *highly stressed* a lot of the time, LISTEN. TO. ME.
The risk of dysmenorrhoea was found to be 2x greater in women who reported high stress levels than those with low stress. (8)
A few ways to manage your body’s stress throughout your cycle:
Supplements can be tricky and often times require bloodwork to make sure you aren’t overdoing it on one thing and underdoing (is that a word? Well it should be so it is now) it on others.
I don’t recommend spending a bunch of money on supplements before addressing your dietary and lifestyle habits first. If you’re taking care of your body with proper exercise, nutrition, and stress management for an extended period of time (4-6 months) and still haven’t noticed any improvement, then it may help to add in supplements like Magnesium, Vitamin K2D3, Vitamin E, and Omega-3 fatty acids.
While it is important to focus on all of these things during your cycle, it is arguably even more important to incorporate these lifestyle changes into your everyday life outside of your cycle. The health of each period is predetermined 100 days in advance as that is how long it takes for your follicle to fully mature. To ensure that your periods are smooth and as symptom-free as possible, take care of your body before, during, and after your bleed.
Have you tried any of these things? How have they worked for you?
If you have any questions, leave them in the comments here or feel free to reach out via Instagram @caleeshea
Calee Shea is a Holistic Health Practioner based in Atlanta, Georgia. She is your go-to gal for all things periods, vaginal health, and sex.