Recently I was forced to take a good hard look at my body and my health. I work with women’s health in my clinic and know periods and reproductive health are a low priority of the body if its under stress. If cycles are going well then this is a sign the body is in a good place. With this in mind, I thought I was doing really well! My cycles were regular, flow had improved after attending to some sweet iron deficiency and other than the odd short lived, mild cramp – I had no real pain or discomfort to speak of – happy days!
That was until last month. Doubled over in pain between clients on a back to back day in clinic, zero pain killers on hand and no time to go get some, I had to just keep rolling with the (lower abdominal) punches!
Well this was an interesting wake up call… Though I do not jump for joy each time I get my period, I do see it as a report card of how my body is tracking each month. This was not a glowing report by any stretch.
Pain in its simplest explanation is inflammation. Some inflammation cant be helped (eg you accidentally cut your finger or brush up against some nettles) but a lot can be helped and reduced to keep your overall levels low.
Here’s my general check list of what could be causing inflammation/pain:
- Have I been getting enough sleep?
- Am I drinking enough water?
- Am I smoking or drinking?
- Are my stress levels too high?
- Am I consuming enough vegetables (especially green ones)?
- Am I consuming highly inflammatory foods like gluten, dairy and sugar?
This winter I’d really made sleep a priority, I drink loads of water and don’t smoke or drink alcohol. Despite my month being a little stressful, I’d been meditating almost daily, eating lots of fresh veg, which meant that the inflammatory foods were the most likely reason!
My gut health had been in a pretty good place for a while, so I had let down my guard. Also, confession time; I am a big fan of sweets. Huge actually. I have successfully quit sugar for more than a year before, but this tends to be my Achilles heel. Sometimes I lose the battle to this super addictive stuff and while I wont bore you with my excuses, lets just say that month wasn’t a particularly good one…
You often hear allied health professionals talking about cutting gluten, dairy and sugar for improved health. A super simple explanation of why these foods are inflammatory can be found here.
And this my friends, was my source of inflammation/pain. Armed and dangerous (but with good intentions) and prepared to go almost anywhere in the body.
So why do we get period pain specifically? (Its more complicated with Endometriosis). By now you might know I’m a big science nerd. As well as an Acupuncturist & Herbalist, I’m also a Human Biologist. I love understanding the mechanism of how stuff works and being able to simply explain the science of it, as well as giving you all some of the easy Chinese Med strategies you can do at home to help.
Its a human body, there’s lots of complicated things going on with pain in the body, not all of it is completely understood by science yet. This is a simple explanation of what scientists believe cause period pain. You can also check the research here here and here.
In the uterus there are these hormone like compounds that act differently at different times of the month and are involved with inflammation (and pain!) They are called Prostaglandins.
There are two main types involved here which have opposite effects and need to be kept in a pretty nice balance to avoid pain and heavy bleeding.
Prostaglandin F2 tightens your blood vessels and contracts your uterus to help shed the lining.
Prostaglandin E2 opens the blood vessels for better flow.
Too much PGE2 and you’d bleed too much. Too much PGF2 and there’s too much restriction in blood flow and pain.
You dont want too many of these guys (inflammation!) and you can see it’s a real balancing act.
One of the things I love about Chinese Medicine is that has very simple explanations, observable to the senses and can draw accurate conclusions without requiring fancy tests or a science degree.
According to Chinese Medicine theory, women get period pain for different reasons (or a combination):
- You are Deficient (run down). You can be deficient in Yin, Yang, Qi or Blood (stick with me here 😉) but basically are tired and unwell to varying degrees. Often there is pain towards the end of the period or after and is dull and low grade as well as a short cycle or light flow.
- You have Cold on the inside. Ever put an icepack on a swollen ankle and the swelling goes down? That’s because cold constricts the blood vessels, restricting blood flow, same deal for the rest of the body. Having cold water, salads, icecream, not enough warm clothes or adequate heating may all be reasons why you may have cold in your body. Less blood flow = stagnation of energy = pain in Chinese Med. This can manifest as dark or clotty periods and pain made better by warmth.
- You have Stagnation. This either comes from prolonged inactivity, stress or frustration which all increase inflammation (prostaglandins). Or it can come from long term deficiency or cold. It looks like: PMS, tender breasts, dark or clotty periods, sharp or intense pain before or during the first day of your period.
One of those sound familiar? Now what to do about it?
- Deficient type – Sleep lots, eat good foods constantly and have bone broth regularly. Then add in some warming and moving before your period.
- Cold type – Please no cold food or water, salads, juices, ice, icecream ESPECIALLY in the cooler months. Eat lots of warm slow cooked meals, fresh ginger in stirfries or sliced in hot water, have hot water bottles and wear more layers. Up this in the second half of the cycle and move to increase blood flow and pain.
- Deficient & Stagnant type– Do the above as well as walks, yoga (not hot), meditation, journaling, things that relieve stress without tiring you. Do these constantly and increase them before your period.
- Straight up Stagnation type – Run, do boxing, anything to get that frustration out! ( you will have to look at why youre so stressed or angry soon enough though) Increase this and add warmth before your period.
Tips for everyone:
During your period – rest as much as you can – your body is doing some serious housekeeping.
Before your ovulation – nourish nourish nourish – assists with rebuilding your lining and balancing stresses to allow your hormones (and ovulation) to happen as it should.
After ovulation – its time to move without exhausting yourself! And to keep warm. Keeping warm opens those blood vessels to keep Prostaglandin F2 from getting too high and causing pain.
And please keep cold food and drink to a minimum!
If you have period pain, the first thing to do is ask the question of why is there so much inflammation? Then do everything you can to keep levels as low as possible in your body.
The second thing to do is identify which body type you are, then make the above changes. Each person and their pain levels are different so will need a different approach.
Hope you have enjoyed this read and understand a little more about your body and now have new strategies to help.
Generally, 3+ months is whats needed to see a change (hang in there, its worth it!!) Acupuncture and herbs can really speed up this change and make a bigger shift so if you feel you need more help, then please get in touch.