Our periods were not nicknamed the curse for nothing. They are often painful and many women live in dread of their monthly raging hormones. As our lives are longer, and we have fewer children than previous generations, the majority of us have over four hundred periods to cope with during their lifetime which can sometimes feel like a nightmare.
I usually associate period pain with the physical pain that many women experience as I’ve been advising women on how to overcome period problems for most of my adult life. But today I got a completely new perspective on pain that periods bring to young women in the Third World. I had no idea that 27 Million girls in India for example drop out of school at puberty and in Uganda a staggering 50 per cent miss school for a week because they don’t have sanitary protection so are too embarrassed to leave the house. They often revert to using torn cloth rags or newspaper to absorb their blood loss at a time when they are considered impure and feel compelled to hide away until their period has run its course.
As the Girl Effect study, supported by the Nike Foundation, shows that when given $100 an educated female will give 90 per cent of her income in her family compared with 35 per cent for a boy. It therefore seems alarming that, in this day and age, so many millions of young women are missing out on education and the opportunity to be valuable members of their communities because of their periods. Rather than celebrating their worth and the fact they they are able to facilitate the miracle off birth, they stay home feeling ashamed.
Living my fast paced Western life, with sanitary protection so readily available in both retail outlets and online, I never stopped to think about our less fortunate sisters whose lives are dominated by the emotional pain of their periods. My heart goes out to them and I applaud the work that companies like Thinkx are doing to redress the problem.
Whilst sadly my personal skills can’t solve the problems of monthly shame our Third World sisters feel, I can provide tips that will eradicate the physical pain our periods so often bring.
Those lucky women whose periods come and go unnoticed are actually in the minority. For at some stage in their lives, most women suffer with either painful or heavy periods, which are often irregular. For some periods can be so heavy and their timing so unpredictable that they wreck the social calendar for at least a week each month, and are sometimes the cause of us to be afraid to leave the house.
Conventional medical solutions have been offered to either mask or overcome period problems, all of which are either drug or hormone based. However, the medical profession has overlooked the weight of scientific evidence supporting the non-drug approach to overcoming period problems successfully. Tweaking your diet, taking scientifically based nutritional and herbal supplements at the appropriate time and participating in a moderate exercise programme can make a huge difference to both the timing and flow of periods and can wipe out physical period pain altogether.
Period pain usually affects younger women, but not exclusively, as periods can become painful later on in life. Period pain or to use the medical term, dysmenorrhoea, most often occurs because of excessive muscle contractions of the uterus with each period. Four common gynaecological problems may, however, cause the periods to become painful and they include:
- Infection of the tubes or ovaries
- Fibroids (an overgrowth of fibrous tissue)
- Endometriosis, where the lining of the womb is found in other tissues such as the wall of the uterus or around the ovaries, or
- A deficiency of the mineral magnesium, the most commonly deficient nutrient in women of child-bearing age, which is needed for optimum muscle function.
Whilst often no cause is found and the pain is attributable to the period, if you suffer with pain other than at period times, it is important to have a thorough check-up.
Period pain often lasts for the first 24 or 48 hours of the period and perhaps even for the day before the period begins. Period pains are often felt as mild to severe cramp-like pain or discomfort in the lower abdomen. It can also be felt as low back pain or aching down the legs and, when severe, can be accompanied by giddiness, faintness, nausea and even occasional vomiting. These other symptoms are probably due to the hormonal and chemical changes that occur with our periods.
Symptoms of premenstrual syndrome such as irritability, mood swings, depression or breast tenderness may also be present, but are not particularly related to the presence of period pains, although they may both have the same underlying nutritional cause.
What your doctor has to offer?
A variety of treatments already exist that may be helpful, and could be suggested by your doctor when you seek advice.
- Magnesium check – Measure your red cell magnesium, to see whether you have a deficiency. This is a simple blood test, and should be readily available although it often isn’t.
- Pain-Killers – Your doctor may recommend the use of certain types of painkillers or hormonal products. Some mild painkillers may not be very effective for severe pain but a more powerful sort which are either prescribable, (mefenamic acid-Ponstan) or are available on the advice of your pharmacist can be particularly useful. It may be necessary to try a number before finding the most effective one for you.
- The Oral Contraceptive Pill – A number of hormonal preparations are available but often the most useful, particularly in young women who require contraception, is to use the oral contraceptive pill. The more modern low dose pills have much fewer side effects than older preparations.
- Iron -Your doctor can prescribe iron supplements if you are anaemic as well.
There are a number of avenues you can explore to help reduce painful periods:
- Physical exercise may sometimes be helpful with a variety of gynaecological problems, and may help your tolerance of pain. Try to exercise three or four times per week.
- During a painful period try to do some gentle yoga exercises instead of strenuous exercise.
- Heat seems to have a soothing effect. Applying a hot water bottle or a thermal heat pad can be very soothing.
- Changing and improving your diet can help also with minor hormonal abnormalities some of which are thought to underlie a variety of gynaecological problems. Ensure that you consume a well balanced diet without an excessive amount of fatty foods, and with a good intake of fibre from fruit and vegetables may help control hormone metabolism and can reduce some of the excessive hormonal swings that occur during the menstrual cycle.
- Eat a diet rich in essential fatty acids, especially fish oils. (Green leafy vegetables, unsalted nuts (except peanuts) and seeds, wholesome oils like sunflower, safflower, evening primrose and flax, and the oily fish including mackerel, herring, pilchards and sardines). Women with period pains are known to have a lower intake of these oils, which have anti-inflammatory, and painkilling properties.
- Some minerals may also be helpful. Magnesium is particularly important in muscle and hormonal function and is the most common mineral deficiency women experience; our studies showed that between 50 – 80 per cent of women of childbearing age had low levels of red cell magnesium. Its balance with calcium influences the contraction of uterine muscle and one study suggests that taking supplements may help reduce period pains. Good dietary sources of magnesium include all vegetables, especially the green leafy variety, nuts, seeds, beans, peas and lentils. Sugar, sweets, cakes and biscuits are low in this important mineral.
- Cinnamon and ginger have been shown to reduce period pain. It’s easy enough to sprinkle cinnamon on your cereals, in yogurts and both work well in hot drinks. Chopped fresh ginger can be included into cooking and marinated in hot water with a slice of lemon or with black Redbush tea.
- Traditional herbs including F. vulgare and Z. officinale have been found to be as effective as pain killers like mefenamic acid in the treatment of period pains so are worth a try too.
- Many women find acupuncture a valuable tool to ease period problems, but if you go this route try to make sure you consult an experienced practitioner.
You can find more information about period problems in my book The Model Plan which is free to download here.