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Complementary Treatments: Nutrition, Exercise, Heat, and Touch

By Jennifer Ashton, M.D., Ob-Gyn with Christine Larson
WebMD Feature by “The Body Scoop for Girls”

 

My patient Olivia had terrible cramps that started when she was about sixteen. When even prescription-strength ibuprofen didn’t work, I suggested the other standard prescription for severe periods—oral hormones (aka birth control pills).

Don't Try These at Home

Avoid any over-the-counter medication claiming to be specially formulated to reduce menstrual symptoms. These treatments simply don’t work, so don’t pay extra money for them. Just go get some Advil, try the techniques above, or see a doctor.

I also do not recommend herbal remedies reported to ease period symptoms, such as black cohosh, blue cohosh, and wild yam. Do not try these. Although they have powerful estrogenlike effects, they have not been well studied. In my opinion, the risks definitely outweigh possible benefits.

Other No-Nos

  • Don’t: Take vitamin E supplements, even though some studies suggest they might help. If you take even small doses of vitamin E while you’re also taking ibuprofen or other drugs in the NSAID class, your risk of uncontrolled bleeds increases— including bleeds in the brain.
  • Don’t: Take high doses of magnesium (more than 1000 milligrams) unless directed by a doctor.
  • Don’t: Take omega-3 fatty acid supplements (fish oil) while also taking ibuprofen or similar NSAID drugs. That’s because some fish oil supplements also contain high doses of vitamin E.

Olivia and her mother both looked a little nervous when I mentioned the pill. Even though it’s perfectly safe and often used for period pain they just weren’t comfortable with it. Olivia’s mother felt she was too young to be on the pill and Olivia herself wasn’t crazy about the idea either.

“I totally understand,” I told them both. I’d examined Olivia, and after she was dressed we all sat in the exam room. “There are lots of other remedies we can try.” After all, women have been having period pain since way before birth control pills and ibuprofen were invented.

Some people call natural remedies “alternative therapies,” but that makes it sound like you have to pick one or the other. Actually, with a few exceptions that I’ll mention, you can try these and ibuprofen or other treatments. Since most of these treatments can work together, I prefer the term “complementary” therapies. Many of them have helped my patients. They’re safe and usually easy to try yourself. And there’s an added bonus: If they work for you, they might also help you with other problems later in life! For example, if meditation helps ease your period pain now, it might help with arthritis later on. So see what works for your body.

Healthy Eating. Some nutritionists believe that restricting certain foods, including dairy, sugar, salt, wheat, and caffeine, can help reduce menstrual pain. In fact, entire books describe food and eating plans that might help PMS and painful periods. Specifically, some nutritionists advise the following:

  • Limit sugar, dairy, “empty carbs” like cookies, and white bread.
  • Limit processed foods (anything that comes ready-made in a package, from fast-food burgers to breakfast cereal).
  • Eat more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and seeds.
  • Drink a glass of blueberry, huckleberry, or other juice high in antioxidants and essential fatty acids daily (I really like acai berry juice, which has great anti-inflammatory properties).

While there’s not much scientific evidence proving that food choices can reduce period pain, there’s no doubt that sensible, healthy eating in general is good for you. So I recommend that all my patients give healthier eating a try.

“Even if it doesn’t help your pain,” I told Olivia, “it will promote overall good health for life.” I added that a food strategy like this could also help her stay at her healthiest weight for life.

Exercise. “Yeah, right, gimme a break,” you’re probably thinking. “I can’t even stand up straight on the first day of my period, and Dr. Ashton’s telling me to put on my running shoes?!?” You’re 100 percent right: Exercise is not a quick fix for period pain. But aerobic exercise—running, biking, swimming, anything that gets your heart pumping—produces natural substances called endorphins. These endorphins produce a mild physical euphoria (ever heard of the “runner’s high”? Or notice how happy you are after soccer practice?). When you’re in pain, these endorphins act like a healthy version of morphine—they help you relax and they take the edge off the pain.

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