Say cramps and most women—as in 80 percent of the female population—will likely cringe, with 20% of those experiencing “period pain” so acute it interferes with their daily activities.
While your menstrual cramps may not be severe enough to call in sick and stay in bed for the entire six seasons of Sex and the City, chances are you’re familiar enough with the agony to experience a visceral response to it.
Indeed, what with the bloating, breast tenderness, insomnia and mood swings on top of it, you may have a That Time of the Month Kit on hand, one that includes Kleenex, chocolate, possibly a punching bag—and Advil.
Frequently considered one of the top treatments for cramps, over-the-counter solutions can seem like a fast fix. As a culture, however, we’re growing more and more inclined towards making chemical (and side effect) free, organic choices. With that in mind, here are five remedies for those who'd rather go the natural route:
1. Get moving
Your head is pounding, you seemed to have gained seven pounds while sleeping, and your abdominal muscles seem to be downright throbbing. While this sensation is your body at work—the build-up of your uterine wall, in preparation of fertilization, is now shedding—it doesn’t mean you have to sit back, grin and bear it.
Rather, the opposite holds true: Time and again, research shows that physical activity is one of the best solutions for menstrual cramps.
“Exercise relieves cramps because it helps release beta-endorphins, which are internal opioids—your own ‘human morphine,’” reports OBGYN Gustavo Rossi, MD. “It produces analgesia (pain relief) and helps to burn prostaglandins—chemicals released during menstruation that cause muscle contractions—much faster.”
In other words, even if pulling on your yoga tights sounds as appealing as going swimsuit shopping, do so knowing that your body—and brain—will thank you for it. Keep in mind, too, that you shouldn’t aim for exercise only during your period: Studies demonstrate that working out regularly in the 27 days before menstruation can significantly reduce the intensity and frequency of symptoms. A few light options to try: restorative Hatha yoga, swimming—and plain old walks down your block.
2. Abandon your usual PMS splurge
Rising progesterone the week before your period might put you in a calmer state here and there (it’s those plunges in estrogen that render you emotional and reactive) but the hormone can also lead you to want to eat every salty, sugary, carb-y snack within a fifty-foot reach. And yet many of the foods you may let yourself splurge on when you’re PMSing—from bacon cheeseburgers to caramel sundaes—ought to be tossed out to save yourself from further anguish.
Why? Animal fats, such as butter, cheese and meats, are often in low in fiber—which, due to its ability to enhance estrogen metabolism, is a woman’s secret weapon in staving off period pain. What’s more, conventional, non-organic forms of these products may contain xenoestrogens—compounds that can mimic estrogen in the body, wreak havoc on your hormone system, and lead to an increase in cramping. Sugar, meanwhile, may lead to inflammation and bloating; both may contribute to and worsen menstrual cramps. So as tempting as that pizza-and-candy dinner you’ve planned may be, do know that you may have to pay a hefty price for it.
3. …but keep a stash of dark chocolate on hand
Now the good news: You can keep that bar of chocolate in your That Time of the Month Kit. Chocolate is high in magnesium—a mineral that was first discovered to assist in the treatment of menstrual cramps in 1956, when G.E. Abraham found that it can have a calming effect on the muscles of the uterus. A double-blind study confirmed this, showing that 250 mg of magnesium significantly diminished cramping, as well as headaches, water retention, anxiety and cravings. Just be sure to go for clean, dark chocolate: Anything less than 70 percent cacao is likely filled with those animal fats and sugar you ought to be dodging altogether.
4. Invest in essential oils
Essential oils aren’t just a lovely enhancement to spa treatments and yoga classes: They offer a range of potential health benefits, including relief from menstrual cramps. Particularly beneficial? Clary sage. The oil, extracted from the Mediterranean perennial, possesses antispasmodic properties, which makes it a terrific choice for soothing those clenching uterine muscles. Indeed, a 2012 study published by the National Institutes of Health showed that massage with aromatherapy using clary sage and other essential oils was effective at relieving cramps. Mix 2-3 drops of clary sage in an almond oil base and gently massage it on your abdomen when those spasms start—or prior.
5. Get a daily dose of flaxseeds
Remember those prostaglandins? Combat them with flaxseeds. Research demonstrates that the seeds—often considered one of the most powerful superfoods—can prevent the release of certain prostaglandins. (They’re also high in Omega-3s, fiber, and lignans—polyphenols that have antioxidant and plant-estrogen properties.) Aim for two to three teaspoons of ground flaxseeds daily, which can be swirled into a smoothie, added to salads and veggies, or sprinkled on top of yogurt. Or, better yet, satisfy that sweet tooth that loves to announce itself when you’re PMSing by making this uber-healthy Flax-Powered Very Berry Oatmeal. It, along with the tips listed here, may give you the comfort and relief you need—naturally.