Almost every woman faces the symptoms of menstrual cramps at some point in her life. Hildegard of Bingen wrote “at the time when a woman suffers from her monthly cycle, she should avoid beef, raw foods, and kitchen poisons because they contribute to cramping. She should eat sweet foods and drink wine.” Before you give yourself license to indulge our dark chocolate and wine remedy, read-on as we have a number of other natural remedies for period cramps.
Natural Remedies for Period Cramps
There are two types of discomfort associated with menstruation: premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menstrual pain (dysmenorrhea).
Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)
Most women experience some discomfort related to the onset of their monthly cycle. Before the menstrual period, during the 8 to 10 day period after ovulation, and before menstruation, a woman’s body and soul responds to cyclical changes.
During this time, hormonal and physical changes often lead to changes in mood, such as irritability, anxiousness, and depression. Women may also experience weight fluctuations, caused by water retention, and poor sleep quality due to fluctuations in melatonin levels. Other common physical complaints include body aches, including lower back or joint pain, headaches, digestive problems, and a distracted mental state.
The chemical causes of menstrual discomfort
The precise cause of discomfort remains largely unanswered and the symptoms can vary widely. It appears clear, however, that most symptoms can be tied back to an imbalance of hormones, specifically a greater proportion of the hormones estrogen and prolactin relative to progesterone and dopamine.
Prolactin regulates the development of the female mammary gland. This hormone stimulates breast milk and the growth of breast tissue, leading to the storage of tissue fluid in the chest. As a result, breasts feel full and can become tender or even painful. Increased estrogen can also lead to a swelling of the breasts, accompanied by water retention, weight gain, and headaches.
Simultaneously, a decrease in dopamine can affect mood, resulting in a subdued or even depressive state. For some, lower dopamine levels results in volatile fluctuations in mood resulting in mental fatigue.
The impact of volatile hormone imbalances
The stress on the endocrine system (hormones) also commonly leads to changes in appetite, taste preferences, and cravings. Increased hunger, exacerbated by cravings for sweet flavors, is common, but appetite can also be volatile or even subdued in some women.
The drop in estrogen and progesterone levels immediately prior to menstruation also impacts the “happy” hormones, our endorphins. Endorphins are endogenous (created within our bodies) opioid (morphine-like) neuropeptides (small protein-like molecules). Endorphines are produced in the central nervous system for a variety of functions, but the principle function is that of inhibiting the transmission of pain, which is often accompanied by a feeling of euphoria.
Age accelerates sensitivity
The impaired endorphin production means that more pain signals will be received and the uplifting, euphoric feelings will be muted, resulting in higher sensitivity to pain and a reduced ability to generate positive moods. Primary symptoms of this hormonal change include headaches, low-energy, and water retention.
These symptoms occur more frequently and with greater intensity for women over 30, and often appear suddenly and cyclically.
Menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea)
Abdominal pain (dysmenorreah) can present in tandem with PMS symptoms or with the onset of menstruation. In some cases, nausea, vomiting and headaches may accompany cramps and discomfort.
Hormone-like lipid compound: prostaglandin
Menstrual cramps are believed to be associated with the production of a chemical compound called prostaglandin. This hormone-like lipid compound is produced in the uterus and released with the shedding of the uterus lining. The primary function of prostaglandin is to cause the muscles of the uterus to contract and the blood vessels of the uterus to constrict, which leads to a reduced blood supply to the endometrium, resulting in the death of the outer cells, which are then shed via increased muscle contractions.
Prostaglandin and menstrual cramps
The contractions, or “squeezing” is what is felt in the form of menstrual cramps. Scientists believe that higher levels of prostaglandins may be responsible for more intense menstrual cramps. Generally, menstrual cramps occur more frequently in young women. With age, the hormone fluctuations normalize. Mental and physical overload can also lead to the increased production of prostaglandin and prolactin, thus increasing the intensity of menstrual discomfort.
Hildegard’s 8 Natural Remedies for Period Cramps
To reduce or eliminate symptoms of PMS and cramping, follow these simple natural remedies for period cramps.
(1) Reduce Tension and Promote Relaxation
Like many of Hildegard’s remedies, it starts with basic needs including restful sleep, a balanced diet, and adequate exercise – all of which help mitigate discomfort. Sunlight helps enhance mood and moderate physical activity helps reduce our stress hormones and increase endorphins. Taking time to relax is also important. Consider a relaxing bath with calming plant extracts. And, as always, meditation is helpful.
(2) Stick to Your Healthy Diet
Symptoms such as water retention, cramps, nausea and mood swings can be improved with a healthy diet. Hildegard’s philosophy on nutrition, abundant vegetables and fruits and natural (unprocessed) carbohydrates such as spelt, is good general guideline to follow.
(3) Avoid Refined Sugar & Added Salt
Refined sugars and added salt should be minimized. Sugar is inflammatory and salt will increase water retention. A small amount of dark chocolate or fruit can satiate those cravings for sweets. Salt cravings are often actually a mineral deficiency, so during the days preceding menstruation, focus on a low-sugar and low-sodium diet, and incorporate foods high in magnesium and potassium, and calcium.
(4) Eat More Foods High in Calcium, Magnesium, and Potassium
These minerals are essential for healthy functioning but are particularly important during menstruation, as the hormonal changes, blood loss, and water retention can lead to deficiencies. They are also electrolytes, which means they are involved in conducting electrical signals throughout the body that regulates nerve function, muscle contraction, and cardiac functioning. Asparagus, bananas, leafy greens like spinach and kale, cantaloupe, and squash are all good sources of these important minerals.
(5) Increase Your Iron Intake
Due to the loss of nutrient-rich blood from the lining of the uterus, menstruation often results in temporary anemia (low hemoglobin due to iron deficiency.) Eating more iron-rich foods can help keep your energy levels up, keep your immune system strong, and keep your nails, hair, and skin healthy and vibrant. Red meat, leafy greens, dried fruits such as raisons and apricots, and beans are all good sources of dietary iron.
(6) Incorporate Naturally Diuretic Foods
You may also want to consume foods known for a slightly diuretic effect (help your body excrete retained water) to reduce discomfort associated with water retention. Lemon juice, celery, pineapple, cucumber, cabbage, and watermelon are some of the best.
(7) Embrace the Healthy Fats
Essential fatty acids are substances that are not produced by the human body and are only available from diet. These fatty acids assist with many functions including vitamin absorption, anti-inflammatory responses, and hormone balance. Gamma linolenic acid (GLA) is a fatty acid that is not commonly part of our diet. Adding some foods high in GLA may help relieve. Vegetable oils*, eggs, nuts, and cold-water fish provide high-levels of these fats and there are many options in supplement form. *Not all vegetable oils are the same. Soybean, safflower, cottonseed, and corn should be avoided in favor of high-quality coconut or olive oils – and those high in Omega-3 fatty acids such as flax seed and walnut, which have been shown to reduce symptoms of PMS. Other sources of healthy fats include avocado, sardines, flax, chia, almonds, and olives.
(8) Get Your B-vitamins, Especially B-6
Hildegard would also recommend foods rich in vitamin B6 because elevated estrogen levels and stress reduce our body’s available B6 supply. Vitamin B6 is an important co-enzyme for the metabolic process of several different amino acids, as well as maintaining the central nervous system. The CNS is where B6 supports the production of GABA, an amino acid with neurotransmitter properties associated with positive mood.
B6 helps to regulate hydration levels in the body by maintaining the balance of sodium and potassium, is a key part of the utilization of essential fatty acids, and helps with hormone balance in women, particularly the metabolizing estrogen. This is important for woman when excess estrogen needs to be eliminated. For that reason, B6 can also be helpful with breast tenderness and other symptoms during the menstrual cycle. B-6 is found in all green plants. Other foods high in B-6 include whole grains, legumes, potatoes, yeast, and walnuts.