Most women greet their monthly period with Eeyore-like apathy. “Oh, bother. Here we go again.” But menstruation is a normal, healthy part of life; something to celebrate rather than dread. While that doesn’t mean getting the confetti out, your menstrual cycle is a dependable reminder that your body goes through phases and requires more attention at certain times. Many experts believe it’s not healthful to shun this natural aspect of being female—and they help explain why your period is yet another opportunity to become a better listener to your body’s messages.
In fact, ignoring those messages is why some of the menstrual-related symptoms women experience become so severe in the first place, says Christiane Northrup, OB/GYN, women’s health advocate, and author of Goddesses Never Age: The Secret Prescription for Radiance, Vitality, and Well-Being (Hay House, Inc., 2015). While it’s not always possible to slow down when your monthly period arrives, there are ways to relieve the pain and discomfort. And it doesn’t involve buying every painkiller—or candy bar—in sight.
What to eat for relief
Many of the lifestyle tips you hear often—move more, reduce sugar intake, eat more vegetables and calcium-rich foods—are even more important to adhere to as you start your period. That’s because those actions can help reduce inflammation and muscle spasms. Herbalist and women’s health specialist Amanda McQuade Crawford recommends drinking 1 cup of carrot juice (or eating up to five carrots) daily for a week before your expected first day. Carrot juice and carrots help thin the menstrual blood, ease the flow, and improve circulation, she says, which can preempt the discomfort and heavy feeling in the uterus that some women experience.
If you experience cramps, McQuade Crawford recommends trying an appropriately named herb called cramp bark, which is available where herbal medicines are sold as a liquid extract or capsules. She says cramp bark is a mild, effective way to reduce the pain associated with menstrual cramping.
You might be able to find some menstrual pain relief in your own kitchen, too. A February 2014 study in the Journal of Reproduction & Infertility suggests fenugreek seeds may help reduce the severity of pain associated with uterine contractions. Study participants who received fenugreek seed powder rather than a placebo also experienced a reduction in fatigue, headaches, nausea, and vomiting. In addition, fenugreek may have a diuretic effect that relieves pelvic congestion, breast tenderness, and weight gain.
Fenugreek also has antihistamine properties that can ease premenstrual tension. Other beneficial herbs include peppermint, aniseed, cinnamon, and basil—which can all be found in comforting herbal teas.
McQuade Crawford says fennel and ginger have been associated with menstrual pain relief, too. Eating fresh fennel or ginger may reduce bloating and nausea. There is some evidence that eating these foods can also help keep food cravings in check—which is helpful, especially if cravings for high-fat, high-sugar treats increase during your period.
Some studies have shown acupuncture and foot reflexology to be effective in reducing menstrual cramps. Northrup suggests identifying one pressure point that can help relieve cramping: Massage the indentation just next to the bump on the inside of your ankle. This spot is believed to be connected to the uterus and ovaries, therefore relieving pain in those areas.
Northrup says heating pads and warm baths will also help relieve pain from cramps, as well as Menastil, a topical treatment that utilizes calendula oil to relieve pain. Another option, says Northrup, is to have an orgasm: “Interestingly enough, an orgasm will often take cramps away,” she says.
If none of these work, or if you tend to experience severe cramps, Northrup says good old ibuprofen—or any other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug—may be what you need. But the key is to not wait until after your cramps arrive. Taking ibuprofen before cramps start is the best way to prevent the inflammatory chemicals that cause cramping, Northrup says.
If either leg pain or breast tenderness is your issue, you may want to give evening primrose oil a try. While the scientific evidence supporting pain relief from evening primrose oil isn’t strong, some women report relief when using it as either a topical massage oil or supplement capsule. There’s also limited evidence suggesting an herb known as chaste berry, or vitex, may help regulate hormones and, therefore, decrease some menstrual side effects.
The emotional side
Often, however, the worst effects of menstruation aren’t the physical ones. “Because we don’t make sacred time and pamper ourselves for one to three days every single month, we wind up experiencing irritability, which is the number one symptom of 80 percent of women who have PMS,” says McQuade Crawford. “It would be simply resolved if we altered our culture to honor women. That’s a tall order, so we have herbs.”
To tone down anger and irritability, McQuade Crawford recommends taking skullcap. Skullcap is in the mint family, but don’t expect it to taste like mint. It can be taken up to four times a day.
Diet can also play a role in reducing irritability. Low magnesium levels may be the culprit for feeling anxious or angry. Try boosting your intake of magnesium, an essential mineral, by eating more leafy green vegetables, nuts, and beans.
Northrup says vitamin D deficiency can also manifest in women as irritability and depression. If you experience chronic irritability, it’s a good idea to ask your physician to order you a lab test for vitamin D deficiency and supplement with at least 1,000 IU daily. Northrup also suggests relaxing in an Epsom salt bath or taking an anti-stress supplement called Calm, a magnesium-infused powder you dissolve in water and drink.
To relieve more severe depression, McQuade Crawford recommends consulting your physician and taking St. John’s Wort and lemon balm on a consistent, longer-term basis, not just when you experience PMS.
And don’t dismiss the power of movement in relieving sadness and depression. Experts say endorphins, which are powerful little chemicals produced by the central nervous system, are released when the body has an increase in movement. Even low-impact exercises, such as walking or swimming, can significantly increase the release of those “feel-good” chemicals.
If the centering practice of yoga is more your style, certain yoga positions will help open the pelvic area and release tension, says Surya Little of Prajna Yoga in Santa Fe, New Mexico. To alleviate cramps and the feeling of heaviness, Little suggests employing the half moon pose, bridge pose, corpse pose, and wide-angle seated pose.
With or without a twist, wide-angle seated pose is also good for healthy menstruation overall, as are reclining bound ankle pose and head-on-knee pose. Finally, to offset some of the symptoms that surface before your period even starts, Little says to give the following poses a try: reclining bound ankle pose, reclining big toe pose, downward facing dog, shoulder stand, plow pose, and bridge pose.
Fight cravings, block bloating
One of the ironies of the menstrual cycle is that many of the symptoms you may experience—irritability, depression, and fatigue—can cause food cravings. Unfortunately, if you seek relief in the cravings you may end up with other symptoms, such as bloating, fluid retention, and more fatigue. Northrup says food cravings are probably a sign of the body seeking relief. The foods you tend to crave often, such as sugar, chocolate, alcohol, or bread, are things that can have an opiate effect on the brain and actually do provide some relief. That’s in part because those foods raise your blood sugar more and faster than other foods, Northrup explains. In the process, she points out, rapid increases in insulin secretion can cause fluid retention and bloating.
Northrup says the best way to ward off cravings is prevention. “You’ve got to have a strategy to deal with the cravings so you’re not just taking in more of the foods that spike blood sugar,” she says. “Here’s where doing something to counteract stress hormones will help you, such as a 10-minute dance break, short meditation, or deep breathing.”
On the herbal side, McQuade Crawford recommends dandelion leaf and root to relieve bloating. “Dandelion helps us digest our food and to eliminate more fully, so we’re not quite so backed up,” she says.
McQuade Crawford says dandelion may also help relieve fatigue because in relieving the bloating you will help free up some of the body’s energy. And while caffeine is thought to exacerbate some symptoms, it may be the answer for you. If your fatigue is severe, try getting a boost from green tea, which has less caffeine than coffee and comes with the benefit of an antioxidant boost.
You may find that a combination of food and supplements, topical agents, and exercise provides you with the most relief. But ultimately, it’s beneficial to recognize that menstruation provides a time for women to turn inward. “It doesn’t mean you call in sick, it means you move more slowly and be mindful,” McQuade Crawford says. View your menstrual cycle as a natural monthly reminder to slow down and nurture yourself.