I remember when I used to try a different supplement each month hoping to find the magic bullet that would get rid of my period pain for good. I tried what seemed like every possible option from cramp bark and evening primrose oil to eliminating dairy and drinking ginger tea and everything in between. However each cycle would begin with yet another heavy painful period.
I was missing the point for years. Heavy and painful periods are telling you that something is wrong. Whether it is a hormonal imbalance, thyroid issues, estrogen dominance, or PCOS, problematic periods are your body’s way of notifying you that something is wrong. For decades now women have been submitting to a chemical band-aid “solution” for problematic periods. Medical doctors do not seem to have any wisdom to offer women who want to actually address the underlying factors that cause painful periods and other menstrual issues. Anything that is period-related will get you a prescription for the birth-control pill.
In the meantime, whatever health issue that is causing the problem is allowed to continue in the background unchecked, and by taking hormonal contraceptives you have basically disabled your body’s alarm system. A great analogy is that you’ve taken the batteries out of your smoke detector because your house is on fire. Counter-intuitive since if your house was on fire you’d probably want to put out the fire instead of disabling the alarm!
So what actually works?
Well, first of all, there is no magic cure that you can take that will take away your pain overnight. However there are dietary and lifestyle changes you can make that, over time, can eliminate your period problems for good. If you are looking for ways to address the underlying issues that are causing your period problems, the first step may be seeking out a practitioner of natural or holistic medicine like a Naturopathic Doctor or a functional medicine practitioner so that you get the proper support and information you need as you work towards improving your period health.
Below is a list of dietary and lifestyle changes that are helpful in balancing your hormones and providing your body with the nutrition it needs to heal. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but it is a great place to start. Hopefully it also helps to create a shift in mindset from trying to seek a magic supplement to making lasting changes to improve your overall health.
Kick “vegetable oils” to the curb
Vegetable oils or polyunsaturated fats, once promoted as health foods, have been silently reeking havoc on our bodies for decades now. Oils to stay away from include margarine, canola, soybean, and vegetable oil among others. You will also find these harmful oils in most processed food. As I discussed in this article, vegetable oils are highly unstable and cause inflammation which contributes to painful periods and other health issues. These oils are highly unstable to begin with, and using vegetable oils for cooking further destabilizes the oils causing even more inflammation in the body. In the article “9 Tips to help balance hormones” Katie Wellness Mama describes the problem with vegetable oils:
The problem is that polyunsaturated fats are highly unstable and oxidize easily in the body (if they haven’t already oxidized during processing or by light exposure while sitting on the grocery store shelf). These oxidized fats cause inflammation and mutation in cells.
When these oils are incorporated into cells in reproductive tissue, some evidence suggests that this can spur problems like endometriosis and PCOS. In short, the body is made up of saturated and monounsaturated fats, and it needs these for optimal health 
Eat more saturated fat
So what do you eat after you give up the vegetable oils? First of all, our bodies actually need fat to function properly! Not only are our bodies comprised primarily of saturated fats, but cholesterol is the precursor to all steroid hormones including the sex hormones  [ 2] . Our bodies need the cholesterol in saturated fat to manufacture hormones. Cholesterol is found in every cell in the body, and plays an important role in maintaining the integrity of each cell membrane. You can cook with healthy saturated fats like coconut oil, butter, lard, duck fat or tallow (preferably organic or grass-fed) when possible, and if you eat dairy products, stick to the full-fat options when chosing yogurt, kefir, sour cream, cream cheese, cheese and milk (preferably organic) instead of those gross tasting low-fat dairy products.
Get more Omega 3 fatty acid
Omega 3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential for the body. Omega 3 fats protect the body against a number of diseases by reducing inflammation in the body, and omega 3s balance out the inflammatory effect of omega 6 oils.  Omega-3 fats are especially important for fertility because they help to regulate hormones in the body, increase cervical mucus, promote ovulation and overall improve the quality of the uterus by increasing the blood flow to the reproductive organs.  Not to mention that omega 3 fats contain DHA and EPA, two fatty acids that are essential for neurological and early visual development of growing babies.  Wild fresh water fish are an excellent source of these essential fats. In this article I discussed the difference between plant and animal sources of Omega 3 fats. Although you can get Omega 3’s from plant sources such as flax seeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds, our bodies have to convert plant-based Omega 3’s into a usable form, so it’s a good idea to get your Omega 3 fats from both plant and animal sources.
Ditch the Xenoestrogens
Xenoestrogens are synthetic or natural chemical compounds that mimic estrogen in the body.  By mimicking estrogen in the body xenoestrogens act as endocrine disruptors because they mess around with our endocrine system. Our endocrine system influences every cell organ function in our bodies, and is made up of glands including our thyroid, pituitary, adrenals, pancreas, and our reproductive glands, the ovaries and testes, among others.  A healthy functioning endocrine system is essential for optimal fertility. Since our hormones are the chemical messengers that determine each and every stage of the menstrual cycle, when the delicate balance of these hormones is disrupted by environmental estrogens it can contribute to hormonal balances that can affect your fertility and your period health.
Xenoestrogens are everywhere and it’s hard to completely eradicate them, but we can dramatically reduce our exposure to these chemicals by simply reducing the estrogenic compounds we expose ourselves to in the personal care products we use every day. Reducing your daily exposure to xenoestrogens can have a measurable impact on your period health by lightening the estrogenic load on your body.
Here are some examples of where your xenoestrogen exposure may be coming from:
- Hormonal contraceptives | the birth control pill, patch, shot, ring, implant, etc.| – hormonal contraceptives by definition contain synthetic versions of estrogen and progesterone that disrupt the endocrine system
- Conventional dairy and meat products – conventional dairy and meat products contain synthetic hormones that are administered to the animals. Where possible choose organic or local hormone/antibiotic-free meat options!
- Lotion, soap, body wash, bubble bath, etc. – does your hand lotion smell like strawberries? Lotions and other personal care products are notorious for containing a diverse array of estrogenic chemicals. Switching to beauty products that contain fewer ingredients or only contain ingredients you recognize is a great place to start
- Perfume – It may be time to re-evaluate using scented products. Anything with a chemical smell or “fragrance” contains synthetic chemicals that have an estrogenic effect on the body
- Dish soap, laundry detergent, fabric softener, household cleaners – Using unscented and natural alternatives where possible can dramatically reduce your xenoestrogen exposure
- Nail polish, polish remover, makeup – You can actually find less harmful versions of these products in health food stores, although opening a window or sitting outside to do your nails could be a great place to start
- Bisphenol A (BPA) and plastics – storing food and water in bottles and containers that are not made of plastic is a great place to start, also reducing the amount of canned food you eat may help as most foods are canned in cans that are lined with BPA 
- Conventional Pads and Tampons – Pads and tampons have been found to contain dioxins and other chemicals. Not to mention the fact that they are derived from synthetic materials and are often bleached for that pretty white color. Look for menstrual products that are made of natural cotton and have never been bleached, or seek out other alternatives like the diva cup which is made from silicone and does not contain dyes, fragrances, dioxins, BPA, etc.
- Pollution – that gasoline smell when you’re in traffic contributes to it too!
- Pesticides – This could be the stuff you spray on your lawn to make it “perfect” looking, as well as the pesticide exposure from non-organic food. It’s a good idea to opt for organic options when possible!
- Soy – soy has an estrogenic effect on the body and therefore acts just like other environmental xenoestrogens
Add more veggies to your diet | Try juicing!
Eating more fruits and vegetables is a great way to get more nutrients, i.e. more vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals into our diet. Fruits and vegetables play an important role in repairing the body’s tissues, helping the body to detoxify harmful chemicals, and balancing hormones naturally. Fresh green veggie juice can also help to reduce inflammation in the body which in turn can play an important role in improving menstrual pain.
Juicing fresh vegetables is a great way to supercharge your vegetable intake for a few important reasons:
- Juicing can have a positive impact on your fertility. Juicing has a balancing effect on hormones and the menstrual cycle, it encourages healthier blood flow to the uterus, supports the liver, and increases hydration in the body. 
- Juicing vegetables allows you to incorporate a wide variety of vegetables you may not normally eat into your diet, and juicing basically ensures that you are getting your 6-8+ servings of vegetables each day in a highly absorbable and efficient way.
- Drinking fresh veggie juice allows you to easily absorb all of the nutrients without having to break anything down. You’re giving your digestive system a break. Drinking fresh vegetable juice is like giving your body an intravenous infusion of vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that helps your body to heal, detoxify, and balance your hormones. 
Consider making a few dietary modifications
- Cut down on the refined sugar and processed flour products (including sugary drinks, pop, soda, candy, cakes and processed foods)
- Reduce your caffeine intake
- Reduce your alcohol consumption
- Consider reducing your dairy intake, or at least switch to organic milk, yogurt and cheeses
Up the vitamin intake
Your body requires a steady influx of essential vitamins and minerals to function properly. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can contribute to menstrual cycle irregularities and sub-optimal fertility. Part of healing your body, balancing your hormones, and fixing your period involves supplying your body with the vital nutrients it needs to function properly. As stated in this article in Paleo for Women:
Micronutrient deficiencies are a problem for menstrual cramping because micronutrients are key components in the contraction and relaxation of muscle tissue. Electrolytes in particular, which would be potassium, calcium, sodium, and magnesium, all have well-known muscle-relaxing effects. In fact, deficiencies in any of these nutrients is the primary cause of muscle cramping elsewhere in the body. 
During menstruation, your uterus contracts to expel its lining, a process that’s triggered by hormone-like substances called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are associated with both pain and inflammation, and higher levels of these substances are linked to more severe menstrual cramps. 
Here is a list of some of the nutrients that may help to improve menstrual pain over time:
- Magnesium – is responsible for over 300 enzyme reactions in the body and is found in all of your tissues. Magnesium can help to reduce menstrual pain due to its role as a muscle relaxant, as well as its role in lowering prostaglandins that contribute to menstrual pain 
- Vitamin A – is an important catalyst for a variety of biochemical processes in the body, and it plays a crucial role in reproduction and promoting full-term pregnancy 
- Vitamin D – helps to reduce prostaglandin production in the body as well as decrease inflammation 
- Vitamin B12 – is responsible for creating red blood cells and DNA, and it is possible to be deficient in B12 even if you eat meat every day  
- Folate – plays a key role in health and fertility. It is crucial for proper brain function, it aids in the production of DNA and RNA, it works closely with vitamin B12 to help make red blood cells and help iron work properly in the body, and it is essential for women who are pregnant or planning to get pregnant to get enough folate to prevent birth defects. 
- Iron – heavy bleeding can contribute to iron deficiency, and increasing your iron intake was found to decrease symptoms of PMS in this study 
- Zinc – has also been found to reduce the severity of menstrual cramping 
Although it may be tempting to run out and buy a bunch of supplements, it is a good idea to get the majority of your nutrients from food when possible. Nutrients like Vitamin A, Iron, and B Vitamins like B12 and folate can be obtained through food sources like liver and organ meats (from organic or local hormone-free, humanely raised animals), clams, oysters, and fish eggs among others. Vitamin D can be obtained from cod-liver oil, fresh water fatty fish and eggs. Magnesium can be obtained through dark chocolate and dark leafy greens, and food sources of zinc include oysters, fish eggs, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds.
Incorporate a few supplements
There are a number of supplements that can help to balance hormones, reduce inflammation, promote healthy menstrual cycles, and improve fertility. Remember to consult your health care practitioner before implementing any health changes. Also keep in mind that meaningful and lasting changes in your menstrual cycle won’t be accomplished by simply taking any one supplement without making any other changes to your diet and lifestyle.
- Vitex/chaste berry – is an herb that has been shown to balance fertility hormones, regulate the menstrual cycle, and reduce symptoms of PMS 
- Turmeric – is an anti-inflammatory agent that can help to reduce menstrual pain 
- Maca – has a hormone balancing effect, it supports the endocrine system, supports the thyroid and improves fertility 
- Evening Primrose Oil – helps to reduce inflammation and PMS symptoms 
- Probiotics – increasing your intake of probiotics either by taking probiotic supplements or eating fermented foods (sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, or other fermented foods/beverages) helps to maintain a healthy gut flora. A healthy bacterial balance in your digestive system supports the breakdown and elimination of estrogen in the body, and can play a role in improving your menstrual cycle health 
Support your liver
When it comes to restoring the delicate balance of hormones in your body, healing your menstrual cycle and improving fertility your liver plays an important role in breaking down and detoxifying excess estrogen in addition to all the other toxins that you are exposed to each day. As outlined in this article from Natural News:
The liver is our largest internal organ, weighing in at around 3 pounds (1.5 kg). A strong liver is needed for good health and a strong immune system, as it plays a main role in keeping all of our body’s systems in balance. The herb milk thistle has been used for many centuries as a powerful way to protect, strengthen, and revitalize the liver.
The liver is a multitasking organ. Just some of the many liver functions include filtering and purifying the blood, producing bile for proper fat digestion, storing numerous vitamins and minerals, breaking down excess hormones, and removing microbes and parasites from the bloodstream. 
There are a few things you can do to support your liver:
- Milk thistle – protects and supports the liver, improves its function, and enhances its ability to regenerate 
- Leafy green vegetables – contain high levels of chlorophyll, and chlorophyll helps to clear environmental toxins from the blood. With their distinct ability to neutralize heavy metals, chemicals and pesticides, these cleansing foods offer a powerful protective mechanism for the liver. 
- Cruciferous veggies – like broccoli, spinach, brussel sprouts and cabbage help to support detoxification in the body as well as help to reduce inflammation 
- DIM/Diindolylmethane – is a phytonutrient that occurs naturally in cruciferous vegetables that helps metabolize and break down estrogen in the body, which promotes balanced hormone levels. 
Acupuncture has a balancing effect on the body. Studies have shown that acupuncture is effective in reducing menstrual symptoms such as nausea and back pain as well as menstrual pain.  Acupuncture has also been shown to improve the outcomes of fertility treatments dramatically.  Something to consider if you have been suffering from painful menstruation and are looking for natural alternatives to ibuprofen or tylenol.
Go to Sleep
Sleep plays an essential role in balancing hormones, optimizing fertility, and maintaining overall health. Disrupted sleep patterns can cause hormonal imbalance, low basal body temperature and suppress ovulation.  Although sleep is often overlooked and possibly the last thing that one would relate to menstrual cramps it is important to consider the vital role that sleep plays in hormone balancing, fertility, and overall health.
Get some exercise then relax
Excessive exercise can put a great deal of stress on your body and potentially impair fertility if you are trying to conceive so it is important not to overdo it, but it is important to find a way to incorporate regular exercise into your day-to-day routine. Regular exercise helps to reduce excess estrogen in the body, helps to reduce stress, and has a host of other important health benefits.
Speaking of stress, incorporating daily habits that help you to relax and reduce stress also play an important role as you work towards improving your menstrual health. You may want to do Yoga, take time to pray and/or meditate, go for a walk and enjoy nature, read, or take time to journal. Whatever brings you peace and helps to reduce your stress.