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Stamp Out Cramps (Without the Pill)

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Cassandra asks:

Is there anything other than birth control that will help lighten my period and relieve cramps?

Heather Corinna replies:

There sure is!

Per your cramps, it partially depends on why you're having them. So, the first thing you will want to do, especially if they are severe, and if you have other menstrual issues, is to check in with your gynecologist or other reproductive health professional and make sure you don't have some other issue -- like endometriosis or PCOS, for example -- that is causing or exacerbating your cramps.

If you get the all-clear there, and you and your doc are sure you're just dealing with run-of-the-mill menstrual cramps, you can try the following things, all of which should at least help, if not make your cramps pretty obsolete:

  • 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 people with menstrual 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. 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 young smoker, believe me when I tell you that it will never be this easy for you to quit 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 people 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 pointed towards your groin, 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 folks 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.

Too, over time, your cramping will likely decrease with age. However bad your cramps are now, it's entirely possible than within just a few years, they'll be better, all by themselves. A lot of people forget to tell young people that the menstrual issues they have now aren't an indication of what they'll have going on once they're well into adulthood, and that it's very typical for bad cramping you have the first few years of your period to be temporary, or at the very least, less intense once you get a little bit older.

Do understand that the pill doesn't really lighten your period, because the pill changes your cycle so that you don't HAVE a menstrual period. You will have, on most pills, what is called a withdrawal bleed, which is a bleeding and release of some endometrial tissue accumulated during the month (and given how the pill works, there is far less to shed) caused by that week of placebos, and thus, no hormones. Because it is not a period at all -- even though it looks, and in some ways acts, like one -- and because one of the ways the pills works is to decrease the growth of the endometrium -- that's why that monthly bleeding is lighter on the pill.

I don't intend to knock birth control pills here, either: they are excellent, effective and safe ways to prevent pregnancy which -- while certain side effects aren't so desirable -- can have some very desirable side effects which often include reducing cramps and a monthly flow that is lighter. But they do tend to be given often as a quick fix for menstrual complaints, many times without a doctor even looking into the WHY of those issues, or first suggesting other items like the above, which usually do the trick AND have very real benefits to your overall health. They also carry risks which remedies and habits like the above don't have at all.

More to the point, even for those on the pill, all of the above are not only great things to do to help with menstruation and reproductive health, most are vital ways you need to be caring for your whole body, every day.

• For more information on your menstrual cycle, check this out: On the Rag: A Guide to Menstruation
• For how the pill works, see this.

written 05 Nov 2007 . updated 20 Jan 2014

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