Menstrual cramps – what’s normal?
Each month the womb begins to prepare for a fertilised egg by becoming thick and spongy however, if an egg isn’t fertilised then the womb contracts in order to shed this newly acquired lining. This is why women often experience cramp at the start of their period but when it comes to pain, what exactly is normal?
Well, menstrual cramps usually occur in the first few days of your period and, on occasion, in the days leading up to it as well. It’s less common to experience pain out-with this period. Also, the general rule is that if menstrual cramps regularly stop you from going about your day-to-day life, then something isn’t right. Normally any discomfort can be managed by pain killers meaning you can continue going to work and doing your usual activities. If not though, then it’s time to get further advice. Your doctor will have seen it all before so don’t be put off discussing what can seem like a pretty personal problem with them.
Over the years many studies have highlighted the positive effect that exercise can have on period symptoms like cramp.1 That’s because when doing physical activity, the amount of blood being pumped around the body increases which helps to ease pain. Also, exercise releases endorphins to counteract the effect of prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are hormones that are released during the menstrual cycle and it is these that contribute to inflammation and pain.
Also, exercise gives your mind something else to focus on other than the pain in your abdomen and so in this way it further reduces the severity of cramps.
If you feel up to doing a little exercise whilst on your period keep it simple and don’t do anything too strenuous – now is not the time to go running your next 5 or 10K! Brisk walking or an exercise class are your best options but you could also try an easy workout at home if that sounds more appealing. Why not start by looking at one of our blogs over in the exercise hub?
If you’d like to read more on exercise and periods then have a look at my blog ‘Can exercise help manage your monthly symptoms?’
It is often suggested that heat will help with period cramps and for good reason too! Heat increases blood flow to your stomach which, in turn, helps to relax the contracting muscles in the uterus that cause cramp.
So, during your period get out your hot water bottle, take a hot shower or fill up your bath with warm water and bubbles then relax! This is one effective remedy for menstrual cramps that everyone can try!
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The health benefits of herbal tea have long been advocated – from hayfever to colds and flu, they can help a whole range of problems. However, one study conducted by Imperial College London found that chamomile tea could even reduce the severity of menstrual cramps.2
Although the study was small, involving just fourteen individuals, the researchers took great care to monitor the effects of chamomile tea on their participants. Each participant drank five cups of herbal tea every day for two weeks. Urine samples were then taken and tested both before and after drinking the chamomile tea.
The results showed that not only did chamomile have a positive effect on the immune system, but it also increased glycine levels too. This is an amino acid that has been shown to reduce muscle spasms. So, by relaxing the uterus, this may explain why chamomile tea seems to help relieve menstrual cramps.3
For some more information on drinks that can help period cramps, have a look at my blog.
Massage your tummy
A gentle massage on the lower abdomen is another simple remedy for menstrual cramps. According to the NHS, this relaxes the body and so helps to reduce period cramps.4 This is a particularly good option if your menstrual cramps are making it difficult to sleep - just make soft, circular movements with your hands on your abdomen in an attempt to ease pain.
There is also some evidence to suggest that when massaged into the abdomen, essential oils could provide relief for women who suffer from severe period cramps. However, one study concluded that a mix of lavender, sage and marjoram oils could reduce the duration of menstrual pain too.5
Up your vitamin B intake
Vitamin B could reduce period pain and PMS symptoms therefore it may prove useful to increase your intake of it during your period. However, don’t just take my word for it!
One study investigated the effect of vitamin B on menstrual cramps and found that taking a supplement actually helped to reduce them.6 78 women were recruited for this study which spanned three to four months. One group were given fish oil, another was given vitamin B and fish oil, and the rest took a placebo of regular oil. The women then filled out questionnaires rating their pain each month of the study and in the three months after it had finished.
The results showed that the women who took a combination of vitamin B and fish oil experienced less pain than the other two groups.7 Researchers said this was because this particular type of vitamin B lowered homocysteine levels, an amino acid that can contribute to inflammation. Also, the omega-3 found in the fish oil contained beneficial anti-inflammatory properties too.
You can find vitamin B in a range of foods including fish, chicken, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals and dairy products. Alternatively, you could try a natural supplement.
Drink plenty of water
We all know how important drinking water is – it keeps us hydrated, it maintains healthy skin and it can even help a hangover! However, did you know drinking lots of water can help period cramps too? Drinking water stops your body from retaining water and so it helps to avoid painful bloating during menstruation. Therefore, during your period make sure you are getting your recommended 1-2 litres of water a day.
During your period there a range of food and drinks that, if possible, should be avoided. Alcohol, caffeine, fizzy drinks, fatty foods and salty foods can all cause bloating which will make menstrual cramps more intense. As an alternative, why not switch to some beneficial chamomile tea or keep your water bottle on hand to stay hydrated? As for food, fresh is best during your period so stick to fruit, vegetables, fresh meat and nuts. You may crave sugary treats but these won’t do your body much good so wait until the cramps have passed!
If you need a little extra help to deal with painful periods then you may find Agnus castus useful. This is a traditional herbal remedy used to relieve period symptoms like menstrual cramps, breast tenderness, bloating, irritability and mood swings.
However, if you’ve tried all of the home remedies listed above and they still don’t ease your menstrual cramps, then it might be time to visit your doctor for some further advice.