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Painful Periods may be Linked to your Digestive Health 

By Natasha Turner, ND

If you are plagued by cramping with your menstrual cycle each month, you are not alone. Millions of women experience menstrual discomfort, making it the most common cause of missed school or work hours. For some, dysmenorrhea, or painful menstruation, may begin a few days prior to the onset of menstrual flow, while others experience it only on the first day or two. The symptoms of mild to severe cramping in the lower abdomen, low back, inner thighs or legs may last from one day to the whole length of the menstrual flow, up to six or seven days. Other symptoms such as fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fainting or headaches may also be associated in severe cases.

Associated Digestive Symptoms may Worsen Period Pain
Some studies have found that women who have digestive complaints, such as diarrhea or inflammatory bowel disease, rated higher levels of menstrual distress than women who do not have digestive symptoms. This has lead researchers to conclude a similar mechanism is present in the generation of the two. The answer lies in the presence of inflammatory prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are chemical compounds released by the uterine lining at menstruation that cause the contraction of the smooth uterine muscle, resulting in menstrual pain. Prostaglandins also increase the contraction of the smooth muscles in the bowels leading to diarrhea and abdominal pain. There is a delicate balance between the presence of a normal amount of prostaglandins necessary for healthy bowel and uterine function and excess levels linked to menstrual cramping and digestive complaints. Since an excess of prostaglandins is one of the major causes of dysmenorrhea and bowel disorders, any dietary or lifestyle modification that reduces the amount of prostaglandins may be helpful for symptom reduction.

Options to Help Reduce Your Pain
Dysmenorrhea typically does not affect young girls who are just starting their periods as ovulation often does not occur in these early cycles. Most women start to experience discomfort within a few months or years after menstruation begins. Although physicians do not yet understand why, the condition is most common between the ages of 15 and 25. For many women, the discomfort begins to fade as they reach their late twenties or early thirties, or after childbirth. Fortunately there are many remedies that may help to make your periods more comfortable.

The application of a hot water bottle or a heating pad to the abdomen during the first few hours may provide some relief. Adequate rest and exercise can also be helpful. Stress management is essential to maintain healthy hormonal balance which is important for reducing the likelihood of menstrual pain. Under chronic stress, progesterone levels may become depleted, causing premenstrual tension and increased incidence or severity of pain. Progesterone is a hormone which is naturally highest in the second half of the menstrual cycle (from ovulation at day 14 to the first day of bleeding). It is responsible for the thickening of the uterine lining each month in preparation for implantation of the fetus if you become pregnant. If you suspect stress to be a contributing factor to your PMS or menstrual pain, consider the use of products to decrease the negative effects of stress on your health, such as herbs like licorice, ashwagandha and vitamins C and B5.


 

Reduce Bat Fats
Identifying the cause of your digestive upset may be the most important step on the path to health and pain relief. Proper digestion begins in the mouth with good chewing habits and choosing the right types of foods for you. Certain foods are more inflammatory because of the fats that they contain. The fats in these foods are broken down into inflammatory prostaglandins; therefore limiting or removing them from your diet may be beneficial. These types of foods are dairy products, red meats, peanut products, anything containing vegetable oil and those high in saturated, hydrogenated or trans fats like muffins, pastries, chips, pizza and other processed foods. Choose fish, soy, chicken, turkey, eggs, almonds and healthy types of oils like olive, flaxseed and organic canola instead.

Increase Good Fats
Along with removing the source of inflammatory prostaglandins from your diet, you may also use products to reduce their production, such as fish oils (EPA/DHA in capsules or liquid) and the herb turmeric, throughout your cycle. Turmeric is best taken on an empty stomach to maximize its natural anti-inflammatory effect.

Up Your Fiber Intake
Ensuring proper fiber intake may also help bowel function. High fiber foods include whole grains like oatmeal and rye, lentils, chickpeas, vegetables and fruit. You may also want to consider a fiber supplement. Fiber intake, as well as the use of antibiotics, affects bacterial balance in the digestive tract. If you have taken antibiotics in the past or consumed an abundance foods containing sugar, you may benefit from supplements containing probiotics such as acidophilus and bifidus. Probiotics are the healthy type of bacteria living in our digestive tract. They are essential for the production of certain vitamins and healthy immunity. If you experience digestive upset along with your menstrual pain, or on its own, probiotic supplements taken daily on an empty stomach may bring you some relief.

When to Seek Treatment
In some cases medication may be necessary. Aspirin, as well as ibruprofen, reduce prostaglandin production and may bring relief for some women during their monthly period. Birth control pills have also been shown to help relieve dysmenorrhea, however they are associated with an increase in other health risks. The birth control pill prevents ovulation and the subsequent development of the uterus lining responsible for the production of the prostaglandins linked to menstrual pain. If the recommendations provided above do not bring relief, see your doctor for other possible treatment options. It is also important to see your doctor to rule out other causes of menstrual pain such as endometriosis or pelvic inflammatory disease.

References

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