The Causes of Menstrual Cramps and What You Can Do About Them
The causes of menstrual cramps are poorly understood and controversial, and because we don't know exactly what causes them, we don't really know exactly how to treat them. Adding to the confusion, menstrual cramps can be caused by different things for different women, so what helps one woman, may be useless for another.
This article describes some of the underlying problems most commonly associated with menstrual pain, and how you can treat them with simple, safe home remedies and lifestyle changes.
Because menstrual cramps can be caused by other conditions, including endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and others, it is highly recommended to seek the opinion of a doctor or gynecologist before beginning any self-treatment program, especially if you experience pain or bleeding in between menstrual cycles or right before your period begins.
Cause #1: Prostaglandins
Prostaglandins are chemicals naturally synthesized by the body's cells. They cause smooth muscles to contract and are required for the normal functioning of a number of organs, including the uterus. Prostaglandins are the chemicals that cause the uterus to contract every month and expel its unused endometrial lining in the process known as menstruation. However, if too much prostaglandin is produced, the uterus contracts too strongly and causes painful cramps. Women who experience menstrual cramps almost always have unusually high levels of prostaglandins. Because prostaglandins affect the muscles of the intestines, they are also responsible for the diarrhea or constipation that many women experience along with their menstrual cramps.
Eating Healthy to Reduce Cramps
How To Reduce Prostaglandin Levels
There are a number of ways to reduce the effect of prostaglandins on your body:
- Start taking anti-inflammatory drugs regularly several days before your period is due to start. Anti-inflammatory drugs (I recommend Ibuprofen) act to inhibit the production of prostaglandins. If you suffer from menstrual cramps, taking these drugs regularly several days before you expect your period to begin will lower your body's production of prostaglandins and should reduce the severity of your cramps. If you wait until you are already in pain, they do not usually provide as much relief.
- Reduce your consumption of meat and dairy products. The body synthesizes prostaglandins from essential fatty acids. Series two prostaglandins, the kind responsible for uterine cramps, are synthesized primarily from fatty acids found in animal fats, so by reducing your consumption of animal fats, you can reduce your body's production of prostaglandins.
- Increase your consumption of Omega-3 fats (lineolic acid). Lineolic acid is used to manufacture series one and three prostaglandins, which have an anti-inflammatory effect and are beneficial to women who suffer from cramps. It can be found in olive oil, salmon, tuna, walnuts, grassfed meat, eggs, and dairy products, flax, soy, and leafy green vegetables such as kale or romaine lettuce.
- Reduce your consumption of trans-fats. Trans fats, which are found primarily in hydrogenated vegetable oils, inhibit the production of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins.
Cause #2: Hormone Imbalance
Some doctors believe that an imbalance in the two hormones, estrogen and progesterone, that regulate the menstrual cycle may contribute to cramps. Excessive levels of estrogen are believed to overstimulate the growth of the uterus's endometrial lining. The body then increases its production of prostaglandins in order to contract the uterus and push the excess endometrial tissue out during menstruation, causing cramps.
Excess levels of estrogen are also associated with endometriosis, another common cause of menstrual cramps, uterine fibroids, many symptoms of PMS, and several types of cancer. Learn more about the symptoms of estrogen dominance.
- Does Soy Relieve Menstrual Cramps?
Some doctors recommend soy products to help maintain hormone balance, others think they do more harm than good. Who's right?
Maintain a Healthy Hormone Balance
Estrogen is required for the normal function of the reproductive system, but a proper balance between the levels of estrogen and progesterone is important.
- Consider the Pill. The Pill reduces cramps for many women by controlling hormone levels. However, in some women, it may worsen estrogen dominance. Consult your doctor for more information.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Estrogen is produced by fat cells, so excess weight can lead to excess production of estrogen.
- Reduce alcohol consumption. Drinking alcohol can damage your liver, which helps regulate estrogen levels in the body.
- Eat a high-fiber diet. Excess estrogen binds to fiber in the body and is excreted in bowel movements. However, estrogen is reabsorbed into the bloodstream if stools remain for too long in the bowels. Eating a diet high in fiber, which is found in whole grains, beans and legumes, and many fruits and vegetables, prevents constipation and helps the body maintain its hormone balance. Learn more: 10 Best Ways to Get Fiber in your Diet.
- Drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated encourages healthy liver and bowel function, both of which maintain the body's hormone balance.
- Reduce your exposure to xenoestrogens. Xenoestrogens are artificial compounds that mimic the behavior of estrogen in the body. They occur in a wide range of household products.
More on Magnesium
Other Tips for Reducing Menstrual Cramps
- Exercise regularly. Exercising helps maintain a healthy weight, improves blood circulation, and release chemicals called endorphins that reduce the feeling of pain.
- Increase your intake of magnesium. Magnesium deficiency is commonly found in women who suffer from menstrual cramps. Magnesium, a muscle relaxant, can be found in leafy greens and other green vegetables like spinach and broccoli, coldwater fish like salmon and halibut, and many seeds, including pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower feeds, and flax seeds.
- Avoid caffeine. Caffeine exacerbates menstrual cramps.
- Eat a low-sodium diet. Excessive sodium causes bloating, which can worsen cramps.
- Stay warm. Heat relaxes muscles and improves blood flow, which relieves menstrual cramps.
- Reduce stress. High stress exacerbates cramps for many women because it increases the perception of pain.
Check out 20 Ways to Relieve Menstrual Cramps for more tips and tricks to help prevent and relieve menstrual cramps, or share your story at Menstrual-Cramps-Relief.com.