You have options for dealing with that monthly pain.
Periods are normal, but extreme period pain—dysmenorrhea—is not. Fortunately, there are natural ways to help minimize this monthly misery.
On a scale of intensity, period pain can range from mild discomfort to debilitating agony. Severe menstrual pain is surprisingly common; it is the most common gynaecological complaint among young women. Even so, many women do not seek treatment; instead, they just put up with their symptoms or self-medicate with over-the-counter painkillers and a hot-water bottle.
If you suffer from dysmenorrhea, you know that as well as pain, symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, fainting, and headache. The relief felt when the pain ends is short-lived, because you know that the whole, distressing experience will probably be repeated next month.
There are two types of dysmenorrhea: primary and secondary. Primary dysmenorrhea is the most common form and occurs with no underlying medical condition. In secondary dysmenorrhea, there is an underlying condition, such as endometriosis. With endometriosis, womb-like tissue grows in places outside the womb, such as the bowel or ovaries. This occurs in approximately 10 percent of young women with severe dysmenorrhea and requires specialist medical treatment.
Therefore, if you suffer from extreme menstrual pain, your first step is a visit to your doctor to determine whether your symptoms are due to primary or secondary dysmenorrhea. If you are diagnosed with primary dysmenorrhea, your doctor will probably prescribe strong painkillers, usually nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs work well because they tackle the inflammation that causes the pain. In more severe cases, however, the contraceptive pill is the only effective measure.
The problem with taking NSAIDs, or the pill, is that despite the pain relief they provide, they do not tackle the underlying cause of the inflammation, nor are they without side effects. NSAIDs can irritate the gut lining and cause internal bleeding, in some cases leading to stomach ulcers. Among other side effects, the contraceptive pill can cause water retention, headaches, and, in rare cases, blood clots.
The inflammation that causes period pain is created by chemicals called prostaglandins and leukotrienes. These are released into the uterus shortly before menstruation begins, leading to increased contractions that are similar to labor pain. Therefore, to eliminate the pain of menstruation without resorting to medication, your goal is to reduce your body’s production of these inflammatory chemicals.
Prostaglandins and leukotrienes are created from certain fats in your diet, specifically omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. These fatty acids, found in nuts, seeds, grains, and leafy green vegetables, are important to human health. They play an integral role in the body’s immune system, helping to fight infection by triggering inflammation. However, consumption of these fatty acids has skyrocketed since the introduction of refined vegetable oils in processed foods. Look at the packaging of ready-meals and snack foods, and you’ll see that most contain soya, corn, or sunflower oil, all rich sources of omega-6 fatty acids. The result is a disproportionate inflammatory response, way beyond what is required by the body.
This overconsumption has arisen at the expense of other polyunsaturated oils, particularly the omega-3 fatty acids. The principal omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are found mainly in oily fish such as mackerel, herring, sardines, trout, and salmon. They also are found in shellfish, including mussels, oysters, and clams. Smaller amounts are found in eggs, and meat from free-range, grass-fed animals. EPA and DHA are converted to anti-inflammatory chemicals that work in opposition to omega-6 fatty acids. Though humans require equal amounts of both groups, dietary studies have revealed that most people consume about 15 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids. Such a staggering imbalance is a recipe for painful inflammation.
To combat dysmenorrhea, you need to reduce, as much as possible, all processed foods containing refined vegetable oils. At the same time, increase your intake of oily fish. Studies have found low fish consumption has a direct relationship with the severity of dysmenorrhea. If you cannot stomach the thought of eating fish, consider taking fish oil supplements, which can significantly reduce the level of pain. In one study, adolescent girls who took fish oil supplements for two months experienced a marked reduction in pain from menstruation. This effect was due to the anti-inflammatory properties of these supplements, which in blood tests are shown to reduce circulating prostaglandins. Conversely, women with dysmenorrhea may have up to four times more inflammatory prostaglandins in their blood than women without dysmenorrhea.
Some women experience little or no pain, suggesting that dysmenorrhea is not an inevitable consequence of menstruation. Pain control medication is a godsend when you are in the throes of this debilitating condition, and in the case of secondary dysmenorrhea, medical treatment is essential. But if your period pain is diagnosed as primary, self-help through dietary modification may be all the help you need.