Painful periods used to be the bane of my life. As in, I’d have to lie down on pavements because I couldn’t make it home, and I burnt myself with a hot water bottle to the point of causing blisters three months in a row because I felt so much internal pain that I had no idea that I was burning myself.
Thankfully, I haven’t suffered from period pain for the last six years and it’s made a huge difference to my experience of my cycle and quality of life. I no longer live in fear of coming on and no longer wonder if my uterus has got something wrong with it. I also know that even extreme period pain can be improved or resolved entirely (yes, really) and I want to share my favourite tips and tricks for dealing with it with you because a lot of you have been asking for advice on how to reduce the pain you’re experiencing, and it’s no wonder that so many of you have been asking, because it affects up to 84% of us¹.
And it’s important to know that painful periods are not normal and are a sign that something needs to change. We are conditioned to believe that it’s our lot in life to put up with them. It isn’t.
So why the hell does it happen?
Just before your period starts, the lining of your uterus – your endometrium – begins to break down and will be shed during your period. When this happens your body wants to minimise blood loss, and to this end, it produces hormone-like substances called prostaglandins which make your uterus contract and limit blood loss.
Prostaglandins are a good thing, but they also prime the nervous system for pain and heighten the pain response, causing painful contractions and an increase in pain signaling to the brain. And if you experience period poos or nausea around the time of your period starting, then you can thank your prostaglandins for that treat.
Some menstruators can secrete high levels of prostaglandins, resulting in an increase in pain, and some have stronger or abnormal uterine contractions which result in an increase in pressure inside your uterus and a decreased ability to get oxygen to the contracting muscles which results in more pain. The contractions of a menstruating uterus can even be as strong as those that occur towards the end of labour, and as someone who’s experienced both, I’d take giving birth over painful periods any day of the week!
Speak to your GP
With any kind of pelvic pain it’s important to speak to your GP so that they can assess you and refer you for further investigations where appropriate.
The birth control pill is often prescribed as a first line treatment for period pain, but although it can reduce period pain, it does not and cannot treat it, because it acts as a band-aid by stopping you from having periods altogether. The so-called ‘periods’ that you have on the pill are actually withdrawal bleeds and are entirely different from periods, which require a full cycle of hormonal activity in order to happen, the most significant of which is ovulation, which always precedes menstruation (your period) by fourteen days or so.
In my personal and professional experience, painful periods can be helped massively by dietary and lifestyle changes, especially with the help of a qualified practitioner.
Here are my top seven tips for improving them (there are 19 in my book):
This is hands-down my favourite approach (pun intended). Masturbation releases feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin and lowers levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, all of which can reduce physical pain. In Chinese medicine, pain is often a result of stagnant energy, and practitioners will use needles and other techniques to encourage blood to flow smoothly, but another way of doing this is by masturbating and/or having sex throughout your menstrual cycle in order to get the energy in your pelvis moving more freely. Traditional Chinese medicine recommends avoiding penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex when you’re on your period, but there are plenty of other forms of sex, and as most of us require clitoral stimulation in order to orgasm, isn’t that what our pleasure should be focused on anyway?
2. Cut out dairy.
Ok, so this one isn’t so much fun because let’s face it, butter and cheese are delicious, but it’s an important one, so bear with me. Dairy can cause or contribute towards period pain be because it triggers inflammation in some people, likely because of a protein present in the majority of cow’s milk called A1 casein, and my clients often find that cutting out dairy improves their period pain.
I recommend cutting dairy out entirely for three menstrual cycles and assessing what changes take place, and then reintroducing dairy which has A2 casein in it, such as that which comes from Jersey cows as well as dairy from sheep and goats, because it tends to be better tolerated and may not result in period pain and other hormonal and reproductive issues.
The good news is that feta, halloumi, manchego, pecorino, ricotta, Roquefort and goat’s cheese (which comes in cheddar form too) are all A2.
3. Start using supplements.
Ok, before we get stuck into this, let me first state that you can’t supplement your way out of a bad diet. Taking supplements without addressing your diet as a whole is not the route to go down, got it?
But, supplementing your diet can be beneficial, especially if you’ve taken the birth control pill, which is well known to cause vitamin and mineral depletion², such as folic acid, vitamin B2, B6 and B12, vitamin C and E, magnesium, selenium, and zinc (this is why I always recommend waiting before trying to conceive after coming off the pill, you need time to restore your body’s nutrient status before getting preggers).
Supplements to consider for period pain include Omega 3 fatty acids such as fish oil, magnesium, curcumin, zinc, and B vitamins. But don’t just run off to your local health store and load your basket up with all of the above, it’s important that you have a nutritional plan which considers all of your health and current requirements, and that will vary from person to person. So your best bet is to see a qualified nutritional therapist or naturopath.
4. Get moving and grooving.
Remember what I said about pain being caused by stagnant energy in Chinese medicine? Well, we need to get that stuck energy flowing a heck of a lot better and the best way to achieve that is by moving. It doesn’t matter what you want to do – swimming, yoga, CrossFit, pilates, running, or dancing around your kitchen to Madonna – they all count and will help to shift the energy in your pelvis. Research shows that doing aerobic exercise three times a week (30 mins each time) for 8 weeks is associated with an improvement in period pain³.
5. Try castor oil packs.
Heat therapy (aka hot water bottles and hot baths) have been shown to be as effective as NSAIDs such as ibuprofen in relieving period pain⁴, but you can level up by using abdominal castor oil packs. To make your own DIY castor oil pack, you will need:
- A 250ml bottle of high-quality cold-pressed castor oil (preferably organic).
- A piece of cotton or wool flannel that’s large enough to cover your lower abdomen when folded in half (muslin baby squares work well).
- A hot water bottle or heating pad.
- Another muslin square, small old towel, or cling film to cover the pack with while you’re using it.
- Old clothes to wear and an old towel to place underneath you as castor oil does stain.
- A glass container with a lid to soak the flannel in the castor oil, and to store it between uses (glass Tupperware or a jar are perfect).
Your first castor oil pack could be a slightly messy affair, so don’t do it on your favourite sheets. Once you get the knack, it gets easier and there won’t be any mess. Here’s what you do:
- Fold your piece of cotton or wool cloth so that it is a size that will cover your lower abdomen.
- Place the folded fabric into your glass container (you can fold it up further so that it fits in there), then saturate the cloth with your castor oil. It doesn’t need to be dripping wet, castor oil is very thick so once you use it the increase in temperature from your body heat and the heating pad will make it runnier.
- Stick some relaxing music on or enjoy some silence.
- Lie down somewhere comfortable, with an old towel underneath you, and your hot water bottle/heating pad and your glass container with castor oil-soaked cloth in it all next to you.
- Turn your phone off.
- Carefully remove the cloth, unfold it, and place it across your lower abdomen.
- Then, cover the saturated cloth with another folded muslin or an old towel. You can use clingfilm (saranwrap) but this isn’t ideal because it’s plastic.
- Place the heating pad or hot water bottle on top of the cloth.
- Take some deep breaths, meditate, read a book, watch Queer Eye, or if you’re anything like me, fall asleep.
- Keep the pack on for 30–60 minutes.
- When you’re done, store the saturated cloth in the glass container. It can be reused around 30 times, though you may need to top it up with extra oil occasionally.
- Wipe off any excess oil, and if you prefer to wash your skin afterward, a diluted solution of baking soda and water will remove it easily (1 tsp to a pint of water).
My recommendation is to do the pack for three consecutive days a week (it’s lovely to do before bedtime), for 1–3 months and assess if you feel they’re helping you. One word of warning: oil gets hot easily and can burn you, so don’t use a just-boiled hot water bottle.
6. Reduce inflammation.
It’s not just dairy that can trigger inflammation and result in painful periods; not getting sufficient sleep, processed foods, sugar, alcohol, gluten, simple carbs (pasta, bread, pastries), and nightshades (aubergine, peppers, and white potatoes) can all create inflammation, so it’s really worth making sure that you get enough good-quality sleep and avoiding or restricting likely causes of inflammation in your diet.
Again, there’s no point spending money on supplements if you’re surviving on beige food and sugar, and sinking half a bottle of wine every evening.
7. Try acupuncture and/or the Arvigo Techniques of Mayan Abdominal Therapy
It goes without saying that I’m biased towards these therapies because they’re the main therapies that I use with my clients (as well as reflexology and aromatherapy), but I’m biased towards them for good reason – they work!
They both help by moving the stagnant energy that can cause painful periods and are great ways of supporting your fertility and digestive health too.
So there you have it, my favourite tips for dealing with painful periods, give them a go for a few months and let me know how you get on!
Want to know more about your cycle, how to attune daily life to suit the phases of your cycle and get a boatload of self-care tips?
There are some spaces available for my Womb Tang Clan three month programme which starts Feb 25th and is entirely online. Plus, you’ll save £250 and only pay £147 if you decide to do it now. You can get the full details and book your spot here. My books are closed to new clients until July/August so this is currently the only way of working with me.