Warning, oversharing ahead...
I lie on the floor, behind our orange velvet couch. Curled up like an infant, I gripped my belly in pain. My only thoughts, "I'm dying, I don't want my mom to worry. I'll just die here behind the couch." Melodramatic much?
My mom found me. And it turned out I wasn't dying. I was just having my first period. Oh!
Now, before you judge me, my mom, or the California school system, just know I had already read and reread the menstruation pamphlets from my pediatrician's office at least 10 times. My mother had already had "the talk" with me. And my teacher had already walked us through the wonders of puberty.
But somehow, everyone forgot to tell me how much it might hurt. And I failed to connect the dots. Blood in cotton bloomers and cramps = period, not death. Good to know.
After our first meeting, I was afraid of my period. I dreaded its arrival. Excruciating pain, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting certainly didn't fill me with the warm fuzzies.
Unable to use tampons, I had to wear bulky pads. Which may have been ok if I wasn't an active kid. In the SoCal heat, a bulky pad was far from comfortable.
It wasn't until I was 19, that I was able to successfully insert a tampon. While the menstrual product problem was solved, the painful cramps and tummy upset continued to kick my butt.
My HCP offered me the usual: birth control pills and NSAIDs. Though I turned down the BCPs, I happily accepted the suggestion to pop painkillers at the first sign of my period.
First I tried Midol. Total waste of time and money. Then Tylenol. A little better but I needed more. Finally, I tried Aleve. It worked like a charm... until it didn't.
After years of bliss, Aleve turned against me. Suddenly, it stopped putting a dent in my pain. Worse yet, I would vomit nearly immediately after I popped that once magical little powder blue pill.
I was 26. I had suffered for 15 years. And I was over it.
Tired of the pain, tired of missing work, and tired of assuring people I wasn't pregnant when I inevitably upchucked at work, I finally took matters into my own hands. I turned to the three things that never fail me in a crisis: prayer, Google, and PubMed.
You know the saying, "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail?" The same can be said about dietitians and nutritionists. Give us a health problem and everything becomes a nutrient deficiency. I was convinced food could play a role in alleviating my pain.
I found some interesting studies. Real ones, not questionable web articles that vaguely refer to studies and researchers. Armed with info, I started making changes.
Slowly, I started to see some improvements. Nothing miraculous at first, but it was certainly better than before. And as the symptoms started to subside, my view of my monthly visitor began to change.
It became a reminder to be grateful for my body's different systems and how they work in unison to keep me well. It also became my "fifth vital sign"- one more way my body gives me clues about how it's doing and what I can do to better support it.
The real turning point was when I started to find podcasters, bloggers, and herbalists who actually spoke about a woman's period like it was this mystical, magical process. A far cry from the painful, life disrupting, mood altering icky discharge it is depicted as in pop culture.
You may be wondering what sort of changes I made. Well, I'll gladly share them with you.
My aim was to make changes to the five areas many other health complaints stem from:
- unmanaged stress
- lack of movement
- unsupportive food choices
- negative mindset and expectations
- endocrine disruptors
Build Resilience to Stress
The effect of stress on health is well established. It has been linked to menstrual cycle issues as well. You may notice when you've been stressed out (or traveled or aren't sleeping as much as usual) your period comes later than expected. It's super common and further proof that stress affects our menstrual cycles. For me, stress sometimes pushes my period back a few days and almost always ends in painful periods. No bueno.
The truth is, we can't avoid stress this side of heaven, but we can totally build resilience to it. Our bodies were built to handle stress. We just have to support its innate ability.
How I built up my stress resistance:
- prayer, meditation, and alone time
- journaling, both structured and stream of consciousness
- incorporating self-care into my week
- DIY mani-pedis
- DIY facials
- Using essential oils throughout the day as needed
- Taking tea time
- Listening to soothing music
- Spending time in nature as much as possible
I've by no means mastered this, but I've made great strides and it has really helped.
The Road to Resilience is a great resource with helpful info about the role of resilience in stress management.
Get Moving in Enjoyable Ways
There's some cool research (look here, here, here, here, and here) suggesting physical activity reduces PMS symptoms (I also found a study that suggested physical activity increased the risk of PMS, though I think that's because the researchers didn't differentiate between extreme exercise which causes inflammation and moderate activity.) Even if that research didn't exist, there's more than enough proof physical activity enhances feelings of well-being, helps us manage stress, and is great for our mental health. All things that are super important for anyone who struggles with PMS.
Now, I don't and won't do the gym. It's just too boring to me. But I do love to stay active. Fortunately there tons of ways to stay active without heading to the gym.
My favorite ways to stay active without going to the gym include:
- dance of all sorts
- West African
- belly dance
- yoga, aerial and otherwise
- aerial arts- hoops, silks, pole
- walking in the park
- cheerleading (yes, there are adult cheer classes and even teams)
I wrote a post you can check out here if you want more fun fitness ideas.
Focus on Nourishing Foods
Let me start out by saying, there's no one magic food that will rid you of PMS. If there was, I would eat it daily. But I have seen focusing on eating as many anti-inflammatory foods as possible while avoiding foods that cause inflammation makes a big difference in my cramps.
And there's some research showing following the typical Western Diet, also called the Standard American Diet (SAD), increases the risk of dysmenorrhea.
There are some universal foods that cause inflammation (trans-fat containing foods, foods with loads of added sugar) and there are also foods that may not make you feel well that are completely unique to you. I had to do some investigative work to figure out what those foods were for me. Well not really investigative work, I just had to pay attention to the headaches and bubble guts that followed eating some of my favorite foods. I encourage you to do the same. Listen to your body.
The foods I chose to eat the most were:
- chia and flax seeds
- fresh and frozen fruit
- fresh and frozen colorful vegetables
- nuts and nut butter
- fermented vegetables
- intact whole grains
I still ate pretty much everything (except for chitterlings... never chitterlings,) I just made sure the majority of my meals were made of the items above.
Get Ya Mind Right
Can we please talk about the role our thoughts, expectations, and perceptions play in our health? It seriously doesn't get enough attention.
Now, please hear me on this, I'm in no way implying PMS is all in your head. It's very real AND our thoughts about and expectations about our periods do affect how we experience it.
Things like yoga combined with meditation and relaxation and cognitive-behavioral therapy have been shown to alleviate PMS symptoms. And there's some research suggesting how we experience PMS is to some degree affected by what society has led us to believe about premenstrual women.
You've seen it, women on their period have been depicted as unstable, snippy, and contentious in nearly every sitcom. Perception definitely affects reality.
Fortunately, we can reframe our relationship with our period. Here's what I did:
- I audibly thanked my uterus and ovaries every day for all the hard work they put in (I also thanked God for perfectly designing my body to work in amazingly complex ways)
- I repeated, "I love my body, I love my uterus, I love my period" multiple times a day, every time it crossed my mind
- I listened to podcasts and read books that affirm the goodness of our bodies and cycles
- Whenever I found myself dreading my period I stopped myself and replaced the thought with something positive
Choose Fertility Friendly Products
There are a ridiculous number of endocrine disruptors in our environment. Those hormone mimicking and altering chemicals can really throw a monkey wrench in our cycle.
No reason to panic, though. We can do a lot to minimize our exposure to them. We can also support the built-in detoxification mechanisms our bodies have to handle them.
It's not about completely avoiding them (that would be impossible and drive you bonkers if you tried.) The goal is to reduce the load.
Here are some of the things I did to minimize my exposure to endocrine disruptors:
- Filtered my water using a filter that removes pharmaceutical drugs
- Switched to organic menstrual products
- Opted for organic and pasture raised animal products when possible
- Chose produce from the clean 15 list or bought the organic variety of produce on the dirty dozen list
- Avoided products with synthetic fragrance
- Washed my hands after handling receipts
- Stored and warmed up food only in glass containers instead of plastic
- Switched out my plastic bottles for glass and stainless steel
Some months (especially following stressful times, sleepless nights, and food choices that aren't right for my body), the PMS comes back. When that happens, I pull out my favorite quick remedies. They help calm my tummy, provide some relief from cramps, and relax me. Hopefully, they do the same for you.
Natural Fast PMS Relief
Lemon Ginger Tea
This one can be sipped any time, not just when you're dealing with nausea or cramps but it's been my go-to for those time when my period and I aren't seeing eye to eye.
- Add 1/2 to 1 full tsp of ground ginger and the juice from 1/2 a lemon to 1 cup of steaming hot water. Sip and relax.
An oldie but a goody that doesn't get enough praise. A warm water bottle is great if you have one. Don't have one? No worries. You can always pop a dry towel into the dryer for a couple of minutes, then place it on your lower abdomen. You can also run a small towel under hot water, wring it out, and place it over any achy spots.
Aromatherapy Massage Oil
This combo has saved me more times than I can count! Simply add three drops of lavender oil and three drops of peppermint oil to 1 tablespoon of coconut oil (or any carrier oil like olive oil, apricot oil, or avocado oil you have) and massage it into your back, abdomen, and hips.
Restorative or Yin Yoga
I turn to these two forms of yoga because they're gentle and definitely elicit the relaxation response. And as we already covered, relaxation goes a long way in improving PMS symptoms.
When all else fails, I go to sleep.
Before you go...
I repeatedly visited my physicians throughout this whole process. I didn't try to self-diagnose or assume it was just PMS. PMS symptoms can be a sign of a number of conditions. If you're experiencing cramps, nausea, headaches, or any other issues, it's always a good idea to speak with your health care provider.