Let’s talk about cramps. For many, they are the worst part of having your period. They make you feel like your body is under attack and they all-around suck.
Before we dig into what cramps are, why you get them and what you can do about them, let’s clarify what they’re not. Cramps are NOT our bodies’ attempts to “practice for labor” (not a thing), they are NOT God’s punishment for Eve’s sin in the garden, they are NOT “just part of being a woman,” and they are NOT a necessary part of your cycle.
In this article, we’ll clear up centuries of misinformation about cramps, talk about what they ARE, and answer the following FAQ:
- What’s healthy in terms of cramps?
- What do cramps tell us?
- What does the severity of our cramps tell us?
- What does it mean if cramps are accompanied by other symptoms?
- What’s the difference between severe cramps and endometriosis?
- How can you work towards a cramp-free period?
- How can you relieve cramps?
What’s normal and healthy in terms of cramps?
It is extremely common that people with periods have menstrual cramps and many of us were taught to expect and accept them. But cramps are not part of a normal, healthy period. A healthy period is a pain-free period because when everything’s working as it should, your body doesn’t need cramps to shed your uterine lining.
What do cramps tell us?
If you have cramps you are NOT alone, it’s estimated that 80% of people with periods suffer from cramps. Over 30 million people with periods have cramps that are so bad that even drugs can’t impact their pain.
Cramps tell you that your body is having a hard time shedding your uterine lining. When your lining isn’t fully expelled after each cycle, you need a heavier flow and/or more spasm in the uterus to move things along. Cramps are the spasms – essentially, violent measures your body takes to get that lining out of you.
Think of it this way: you’re drinking a fruit smoothie through a straw. Everythings going well until a big chunk of frozen banana gets stuck. You suck, but nothing comes out. What do you do? Your best bet for getting that banana out of the way is to squeeze the sides of the straw, shake it or fling it around until the banana chunk comes loose and allows the smoothie to flow smoothly through your straw again. The banana chunk that got stuck is your uterine lining. The squeezing, flinging and shaking are your cramps.
It’s common for people with cramps to experience a, darker blood color, pale, scanty bleeding, or lots of clots – all are signs that your body is putting in extra work and resources to shed the lining.
What causes cramps?
You already know why you get cramps – to help shed the lining – but the specific causes vary. The two main things that cause cramps are constriction of the blood vessels and blood volume issues.
Let’s start with the constriction of the blood vessels. When the blood vessels are constricted for any reason, blood flow to the uterus will be slowed down or blocked. This constriction can come from either stress or lower body temperatures.
Let’s look at a few examples:
- When you’re stressed out, your body may tense up. That tension goes beyond your neck and shoulders. It can squeeze your blood vessels (aka constrict your blood vessels), which leads to cramping and clotting.
- When it’s constriction caused by coldness, your body temperature will be lower than average and you will literally feel cold. When you’re cold, your body tenses up in an attempt to stay warm, leading your blood vessels to constrict, which in turn impedes blood flow to the uterus.
Your blood volume can also contribute to the amount and severity of cramping.
What does that mean exactly? Ideally, you will have approximately four days of bleeding, soaking a regular tampon or pad every four hours (if you’re using a cup, a healthy flow means it’s about half full in 4 hours). When your period is scantier than that, there isn’t enough blood to keep it moving through your blood vessels and it gets gummed up. If your cramps are stemming from insufficient blood volume, you’ll likely have scanty pale-colored blood.
What does the severity of cramps tell us?
In short, the more severe your pain is, the more severe and complex the underlying issues are. Severe cramps can also indicate endometriosis, cysts, or fibroids, so it’s important to mention them to your OB-GYN at your annual check-up.
The one positive thing about severe cramps it that if you’re suffering, you have a LOT of room for improvement. Remember: cramps are not necessary and if you address the underlying causes you can take level-10-pain cramps down to a 2 or, with work on your overall health, avoid them altogether.
What does it mean when cramps are accompanied by different symptoms?
- Menstrual cramps AND back/leg pain: This is a matter of referred pain, meaning you’re feeling pain somewhere other than where the pain is actually being caused. There are shared nerve pathways that connect your legs and back to your lower abdomen where the cramps are wreaking havoc. When you feel pain beyond your lower abdomen, essentially it’s because your nerves get confused about what the cause of the pain is. Some people feel pain from their cramps all the way down in their feet.
- Cramps AND nausea: In those cases, nausea is just your body’s response to the pain. In other words, your cramps are making you nauseated.
- Cramps AND other pain associated with endometriosis: If you have endometriosis, your body has a reaction that causes you to produce endometrial cells outside of the uterus. They can form anywhere in your abdominal cavity, they can even form in your nose and your eyes. Whenever you get a flood of prostaglandins around your period, the prostaglandins trigger the endometrial cells, causing intense pain, which is different than the kind of pain you feel when you have cramps. It can feel as severe as a heart attack.
Note: Endometriosis can only be diagnosed with laparoscopic surgery, which visualizes the endometrial cells growing outside of the uterus. If you have severe pain, we recommend you consult with your doctor. You can also work on improving your overall health to reduce the inflammation and aggravation of the immune system, which produces the pathological growth
How to prevent cramps:
- Exercise regularly to improve blood flow. When your blood is flowing, your body will have an easier time shedding the uterine lining, which means less need for cramps. While you should make it regular, you don’t need to go hardcore. Research has shown that moderate, regular exercise is effective at significantly reducing cramps associated with menstruation. Even daily walks mixed with some yoga can get your blood pumping enough to reduce your cramping.
- Manage your stress. Stress leads to tension not only in your neck and shoulders but also throughout your body – it even squeezes your blood capillaries. This type of constriction is one of the causes for cramps, which means you can avoid cramps by managing your stress. There are countless ways to do so, from meditation and yoga to surfing and cooking – the trick is to find something that works for you and stick with it so your stress levels stay in check all cycle long.
- Improve your diet. Work on incorporating more nutritious foods into your diet, especially ones that are rich in protein and iron (essential nutrients for creating blood!) and magnesium (healthy magnesium levels make you less prone to experience cramps). Since cramping is often linked to inflammation, you can also help avoid or reduce cramping by consuming more anti-inflammatory foods (think turmeric, leafy greens, blueberries, and omega-3s) and avoiding inflammatory ones (like sugar, alcohol and heavily processed foods).
- Talk to your doctor.If you’re experiencing cramps, talk to your OB-GYN about it at your annual check-up. We know that there are many doctors who will tell you that cramps are normal, but there are also doctors who, like us, know that nobody should have to suffer because of their menstrual cycle. If your doctor is not helping you manage your pain in a way that you find acceptable, you might want to look for another doctor – one who knows that cramps are correctable.
How to relieve cramps:
- Exercise – and try this routine.
We already discussed how exercise can help you avoid or reduce cramps – for all the same reasons, it can also help you relieve them. Here’s a specific 3-pose routine that we recommend to relax the lower back and abdominal muscles: child’s pose, supine twist, & happy baby.
- Orgasm the pain away.
Orgasm increases blood flow to your reproductive organs while also releasing a cascade of feel-good chemicals in the body. Whether you’re taking the DIY route or getting help from a partner, both the increased flow and the rush of feel-good chemicals can help reduce pain.
- Try this mindfulness exercise.
Like exercise, stress management is key for both preventing and relieving cramps. If you make the right lifestyle changes, your cramps should eventually cease to appear. But if you’ve got them, you’ll be happy to know that mindfulness exercises have been shown to decrease pain. Try this one: Focus on your breath, and slowly begin to scan your body from top to bottom, noticing anything that you’re feeling. When you’re scanning a body part that has pain, like your abs, acknowledge the pain, but don’t focus on it. Continue to slowly move your awareness to other parts of your body and notice that the pain starts to fade away.
- Up your Omega-3 intake.
Omega-3’s have been shown to naturally reduce pain by improving blood flow. They can also help reduce the clotting (and some menstrual pain) with their anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-rich nutrients. As if that weren’t enough, Omega-3s also decrease prostaglandin production, which is related to both menstrual cramping pain and period poop.
- More Magnesium.
Studies show that supplementing with Magnesium can improve your cramps – and considering 80% of Americans get less than the recommended daily amount of Magnesium, chances are you can benefit from more. You can get more magnesium by taking supplements and/or by eating Magnesium-rich foods like leafy greens, beets, beans, shrimp and salmon. If your goal is to up your Magnesium levels, you should also avoid the things that leech it from you, like alcohol, caffeine, sodas, sugar, and processed foods.
- Herbs over painkillers.
Research shows traditional herbal medicine to be especially effective for menstrual cramps. An industry-leading Cochrane Systematic Review of 39 randomized control trials, including more than 3,400 people with periods, found that natural formulas like our Cramp Support Formula were almost twice as effective for treating menstrual pain as pharmaceutical treatments like over the counter painkillers or birth control pills (and without all the side effects). Formulas like ours also outperformed other natural treatments like acupuncture and heating pads. We know it may read like a shameless plug, but we wouldn’t be making our supplements if they didn’t work – our formulas were blended by master herbalists and have helped over ten thousand people fix their periods.
Tying it all together
If there’s one thing you take away from this article, we hope it’s that cramps aren’t normal, necessary, or healthy – and you’re not stuck with them. If someone tells you that you need to “just deal” with your cramps, they’re wrong. Cramps are correctable, and you can correct yours by unpacking the underlying issues, addressing them, and making lifestyle changes like the ones we recommended above. In our founder’s 20+ years of clinical experience fixing periods, 90% of the people she’s worked with were able to achieve healthy periods. There’s hope for you too.