Even when we take care to notice and appreciate our cycles, menstruation can be a tricky phase. This is partly to our advantage: our bodies do a lot of work during our periods, and sometimes we need a reminder to rest, reflect, and re-energize.
Especially in the busy modern world, that can be a tricky thing to leave space for. Sometimes work, family, or other responsibilities limit our ability to rest the way our bodies would like, and add stress that makes period pain worse.
Most women experience some sort of symptoms at the end of their luteal phase (the last phase of the cycle before the bleed) and during the start of menstruation. Many of those women may be undiagnosed with a serious condition with symptoms that show up at that same stage (for example, endometriosis), so be sure to talk to a doctor you trust about what you are experiencing. But for others, normal period pain can be merely unneeded suffering. Painkillers and other drugs help, but they come with both hefty price tags and intense side effects. Here are some other ideas along with the data to inform your decision-making:
1. Fennel seeds
Fennel seed were used historically in the Mediterranean area to relieve menstrual cramps. There is a lot of exciting research on this, I’ll let Dr. Greger, M.D., break it down for you:
Highlights from the research:
- The seeds were tested on a group of women who all rated their pain a six out of 10 at the start of the trial. Over the next four hours, the fennel seed group stayed above a four out of 10 the whole time, while the seeds go down to an average of 1.84 (Omidvar et al., 2012).
- 52% of women who were given fennel seeds rated the treatment “excellent” while only eight percent of the placebo group did. (ibid.)
- Against a prescription pain medication that Greger cites as the “treatment of choice” for cramps, the fennel seeds performed just as well or better (Modaress & Adadipour, 2006). The seeds also seemed to help with nausea, lower backache, headache, and weakness during menses, which the drugs do not.
Ginger has been shown to help significantly with multiple menstrual symptoms, using a dosage that costs only about 6 cents per month.
It reduces the amount of period blood in a cycle: ginger treatment cut the blood from 113mL (1/2 cup) to 60mL (1/4 cup), while the group who didn’t use ginger only went from 113mL (1/2 cup) to only 110mL (Kashefi et al., 2015). Many women suffer from health issues due to blood loss during their periods, so this could be very helpful.
The dosage was only 1/8 teaspoon of ginger powder, taken three times a day during the period.
Ginger helps that end of the luteal phase, too. 1/8 of a teaspoon twice per day the week before menstruation helped with mood, physical, and emotional symptoms (Khayat et al., 2014).
Many women report better and easier orgasms during menstruation, and even relief from cramps through clitoral stimulation and orgasm. That can happen with or without a partner, depending on individual preferences. In a recent study on sample of 1,900 women, out of those who reported masturbating in the past three months about one out of ten reported using masturbation for cramp relief (Ellison, 2000).
If you feel up for giving it a try, physiology is definitely on your side.
The orgasm itself releases oxytocin (Lloyd, 2006, p. 187) and endorphins, which are “natural” pain relievers generated by the body (MacLeod). Furthermore, the physical contractions and eventual release can relieve tension in the uterus by increasing blood flow – the lack of which is part of the cause of menstrual cramps (ibid.).
As an aside: Orgasms help other ways, too: they are also shown to relieve migraine pain, not as well as drugs but often more quickly (Evans & Couch, 2001) and period orgasms specifically correlate with the prevention of endometriosis: “women who did not develop endometriosis were more likely to report having engaged, sometimes or often, in sexual behavior during menstruation … [and] were also more likely to report having experienced orgasm during menstruation” (Meaddough et al., 2002).
Many women use yoga for relief from a multitude of premenstrual and menstrual symptoms: anxiety, depression, and cramping. However, yoga is tricky to study empirically for a particular reason: reliable experiments depend on a placebo group – a group who believes they are receiving the treatment, but aren’t actually. Easy to do with a pill, but it’s hard to give someone a placebo yoga practice!
But that brings up a good point about studies negated by a strong placebo effect: it’s a strong testament to the power of the mind. Yoga, especially, capitalizes on this mind-body union. The focus, attention, and stillness we find in yoga poses does wonders for the mind and the body. Yoga works, in part, because we know we are doing yoga and focus on what we want it to help us with. Does it matter that our knowledge that we could be helping our bodies factors into our ability to do so?
Studies on yoga typically compare a yoga practice treatment to no yoga practice, which, though not as empirically strong as comparing a “real” yoga practice to a “fake” placebo yoga practice, is still a worthwhile measurement. One such study clearly shows helping relieve menstrual cramps (Rakhshaee, 2011).
Here are a few to try…
Start with Balasana/Child’s Pose
Lift into Marjaryasana/Cat Pose
Move into Adho Mukha Svanasana/Downard Dog
Settle in Viparita Karani/Legs up a Wall
Recline into Ananda Balasana/Happy Baby, releasing and relieving the lower back
And end with a nice deep Paschimottanasana/Seated Forward Fold, maybe extending one leg and then the other, gently.
Ellison, C. R. (2000). Women’s Sexualities. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Ghodsi Z., & Asltoghiri M. (2014). The effect of fennel on pain quality, symptoms, and menstrual duration in primary dysmenorrheal. Journal of Pediatric Adolescent Gynecology, 27(5), 283-6. doi: 10.1016/j.jpag.2013.12.003
Kashefi F., Khajehei M., Alavinia M., Golmakani E., & Asili J. (2015). Effect of ginger (Zingiber officinale) on heavy menstrual bleeding: a placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial. Phytotherapy Research. 29(1), 114-9. doi: 10.1002/ptr.5235
Khayat, S., Kheirkhah, M., Moghadam, Z. B., Fanaei, H., Kasaeian, A., & Javadimehr, M. (2014). Effect of treatment with ginger on the severity of premenstrual syndrome symptoms. ISRN Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2014(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/792708
Lloyd, E. A. (2006). The Case of the Female Orgasm Bias in the Science of Evolution. Harvard University Press.
MacLeod, N. (N.D.). PMS and Orgasms. Retrieved from http://www.menstruation.com.au/periodpages/pmsandorgasm.html
Meaddough, E. L., Olive, D.L., Gallup, P., Perlin, M., Kliman, H.J. (2002). Sexual activity, orgasm and tampon use are associated with a decreased risk for endometriosis. Gynecologic and Obstetric Investigation, 53, 163–9.
Modaress, N. V., & Asadipour, M. (2006). Comparison of the effectiveness of fennel and mefenamic acid on pain intensity in dysmenorrhoea. Eastern Mediterranean Medical Journal, 12(3-4), 423-7.
Omidvar, S., Esmailzadeh, S., Baradaran, M., & Basirat, Z. (2012). Effect of fennel on pain intensity in dysmenorrhoea: A placebo-controlled trial. Ayu, 33(2), 311-3. doi: 10.4103/0974-8520.105259