Heather Corinna replies:
Since becoming sexually active, I feel like my menstrual flow has changed and that my cramps have been worse. Before, I hardly had any cramps but now I really feel pain during the first day of my period.
If anything, sexual activity can sometimes improve menstrual symptoms, but only if you're reaching orgasm. It's the uterine contractions and chemical changes in your brain due to orgasm -- not the activity itself, so much -- that can do that. On the other hand, if you're sexually active and not reaching orgasm, unresolved vasocongestion (when your pelvic area fills with blood due to sexual arousal) which happens while you're on your period could certainly intensify cramping, but only for a little while, and not in any permanent way.
Otherwise, unless a pregnancy or an STI occurs from sexual activity, it can't alter your reproductive system. What your period is like, and what your PMS and menstrual symptoms are is primarily about the chemical changes due to your whole fertility cycle, which occur via your hypothalamus and endocrine system and your internal reproductive system -- your ovaries, fallopian tubes and your uterus -- none of which someone else's fingers, mouth or genitals can alter.
Lifestyle issues and your overall health -- what your diet is like, how much caffeine you drink, how much rest and activity you get, any other health conditions you may have, if you're stressed out (and sex can stress people out some!) -- will impact your cycles, too.
It's typical in your teen years to have changing menstrual symptoms as your body settles into your menstrual cycle. It's also typical for things like cramps and PMS symptoms to be more profound in the first few years you have your period. Here are a few things you can do or bear in mind which might help you out, from Stamp Out Cramps!
- Uncramp your diet. What you eat overall is always important, but it's even more important to take a look at what you're eating just before and during your period if you're having troubles with cramps. Some foods and drinks that can particularly wreak havoc with menstrual cramps are: anything with caffeine or refined sugar, any kind of booze, salt, very processed, simple starches (AKA: chips, white breads, white pastas, etc.), very rich or greasy foods, heavy dairy products, and fatty meats. All those leafy greens, fresh veggies, fruits, lean proteins and whole grains you're supposed to be making most of your diet, anyway? They're your pals when it comes to cramps and manageable flow, too. Keeping your meals as fresh and light during your period, and eating a handful of smaller meals during the day, rather than a couple heavy ones, is always helpful. And don't forget to stay hydrated with plenty of fresh water.
If your daily diet isn't so great and has a lot of those things in it, your overall health is going to be massively helped by at least limiting them, and if you can't swing that, at the very least, limit them just before and during menses.
- Consider some supplements. Some supplements which have helped women with cramps include Omega-3 fatty acids (which you can purchase in supplement form, or eat by eating salmon, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies: if you're vegetarian or vegan, you can get these oils through flaxseeds or flax oil, walnuts or tofu), magnesium, calcium (which again, you can also eat through calcium-rich foods, just only choose those foods which are dairy-free or skim dairy) and B and E vitamins. Vitamin C interferes with progesterone and appears to increase estrogen levels, balancing those two hormones out: this is important because sometimes, or in some part, the drop of estrogen and the increasing levels of progesterone that happens with your period (or, more accurately, which begins right after ovulation and continues through menstruation) is the why of cramping and other menstrual complaints, also including flow issues and PMS, so a good C supplement is a great idea, beyond all the other benefits vitamin C provides.
- Move it, lady. While it can be easy to become a couch potato those few days before your period and during your period, the more listless and inactive you are, the more likely you are to have issues with cramping. You don't have to go run marathons before and during your period to get that activity. You don't want to keep your hips and pelvis too still when you're cramping up: you want to get them moving. Some gentle exercise, like stretching, light yoga or a good walk once a day, will usually make a difference. And the more active you are overall, daily, and the better the physical shape you're in, the easier your periods will usually tend to be.
- Just quit it. If you're a smoker, you should quit regardless, and if you're a very young smoker, believe me when I tell you that it will never be this easy for you to quite again as it will be if you quit right now. But smoking also often makes cramps worse, so it's just one more good reason to empty that ashtray for good.
- Be a hottie. I know sitting with a heating pad or hot water bottle may seem old school, but heat really works. You could also just take a hot bath: if you can manage to take one before the cramps even start, that alone can keep them at bay for a while.
- Mama Nature's Medicine Cabinet. Some herbs and plants which are often helpful include ginger, red raspberry leaf, coriander, sesame, rosemary, motherwort, cramp bark (yep, it's really called that), marjoram, cammomile, wild yam root, skullcap, parsely, dong quai, black cohosh, chasteberry, red clover and valerian (nature's Valium). If you look in the tea section of your local natural foods store, you can often find teas intended to be used to help with cramps that have some combination of some or all of those plants. If you do any chinese medicine or are open to it, the chinese formulas (I'm listing their english names here) Calm In The Sea Of Life, 4 Substances For Women and Free and Easy Wanderer can be helpful. You can get them in "teapill" form -- the powdered versions you drink in hot water are more powerful, but they taste so intense, it can be hard to chug them down -- at most natural foods stores or apothecaries.
- NSAIDs or aspirin. In other words, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Ibuprofen and naproxen are the two most common, and you can get them over-the-counter at any pharmacy. These work because they stop the body from making prostagladins, a chemical in your body that causes contractions of your uterus. Ideally, if you can take these just before your period even starts, you can sometimes prevent cramps from even happening at all. If you can take or prefer aspirin, that can also work. Some women also find that a once-a-day aspirin regimen which they begin the week before their period, and continue a few days into the period, helps alleviate PMS symptoms.
- Acupuncture or acupressure: Both can be incredibly helpful when it comes to cramps. If you can find a practitioner of either (and if you're insured, this may even be covered by your insurance), and get a treatment the first day of your period, or at any time you get crampy, you can usually get pretty instant relief. You can even do some acupressure for cramps on your own by placing your both palms on your hips bones, with your fingers point towards your vulva, and then gently but firmly pressing your fingers inward where they're sitting. Pressing your fingers into your inner thighs might also do the trick.
- Have an orgasm...heck, have three. A whole lot of women find that getting off helps with cramps. So, either through masturbation or partnered sex, having orgasms not only is awesome when it comes to keeping the stresses manageable, it relaxes the muscles of your back and pelvis, and that nice dose of endorphins afterward is great natural pain relief. And if you have a super-fantastic sex partner who is willing to give you a massage to boot (you can always give them a raincheck for same the next time their back hurts), all the better!
- Take care of yourself. Really heavy flow and cramping is often due to just not having the best habits when it comes to your overall health. That everything-in-moderation stuff? It's always smart. Dieting or overexercising are common reasons for heavy flow or cramps, as can be OVEReating (or just eating very poorly) or being really sedentary. You also want to make sure you're managing your stresses well and getting enough rest. These kinds of things may sound like no-brainers, but more people than not just don't get enough rest, are too stressed out, and aren't eating and staying active in balanced ways. All the things that benefit your general health and well-being are also huge deals when it comes to your reproductive health.
By all means, if you're having severe menstrual symptoms that none of the above helps alleviate, talk to your gynecologist or other sexual healthcare provider. And if you're not getting tested for sexually transmitted infections once a year or more, now that you're sexually active, you'll want to see that person to do that too, and also to make sure an infection isn't the why for new menstrual symptoms.
If you want to understand more of how your menstrual cycle works, and what really drives it, have a look here: On the Rag: A Guide to Menstruation.