From a fully-qualified, experienced and diligent menstrual pain sufferer...
Ok, jokes aside, period pain or "dysmenorrhea" as doctors call it - sucks - big time! It's incredibly difficult to put into words how it feels to those who have never experienced it. For me, it varies month to month and has got a lot better over time since I've made gradual changes in my life. But in the past it looked like this:
I'd feel "the call" in my body that my period was coming that day. That felt like a deep sinking feeling, some panic, aching in my lower back and a dull achy pull in my womb. Then, in the worst times, it would hit me out of nowhere and all of a sudden my whole body would feel weak and lifeless. I knew that I could possibly faint if I didn't lie down and breathe soon - usually in bed or in a public toilet cubicle somewhere.
Gradually, the cramps would start in my womb and could even be felt in other parts of my body like my legs. I would be dizzy from the pain and weakness that all I could do would be to focus on breathing - in and out, in and out, telling myself it would pass. And then, my body would get incredibly hot to the point where I have actually stripped down to nothing, which after a while would then feel very cold and shivery.
The cramps would then come and go in waves - some more painful than others. After some time, they would ease and I would be left exhausted for the rest of the day and almost high from surviving the ordeal.
Painkillers didn't make much difference when I experienced it to this level of intensity. A therapist once told me it sounded like an 'adrenal response,' which made a lot of sense to me. It was as if my body had indeed gone into shock.
With that said, as it's important for me to name what can happen, here is a list of some period pain remedies that have helped me throughout the years.
You've probably read lists like this before and read heaps of advice on period pain. That was me too and I more or less tried everything from diet changes and acupuncture to horribly strong painkillers and the pill. The self-care list got too long as I was looking to "fix" myself and it became incredibly stressful. In the end, with some support from loved ones, I made a long list of all my 'remedies' and crossed out those I wasn't fully committed to. Only a few remained, which felt a lot more manageable.
We are overloaded with advice and self-care tips so, first and foremost comes our freedom of choice, our intuition and our critical minds.
I've heard most of my mentors, including Alexandra Pope of Red School, speak often of soothing the nervous system - that is - bringing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline down. This can be done in many ways such as meditation, restorative yoga, breathing exercises, being in nature, balancing blood sugar levels, reducing caffeine intake and managing personal and energetic boundaries.
The intention is to feel safe, comfortable and grounded in our body, in this world. Find what you love here and enjoy just that.
For me, I love yoga throughout the cycle and especially restorative yoga around the pre-menstrual time. I'm a big fan of Yoga with Adrienne. I also love the work of Liz Koch, who works with the Psoas muscle and teaches all about releasing this stress holding muscle rather than stretching and strengthening.
Mindfulness meditation is a biggie for me too as are breathing exercises. Some of my favourite teachings on Mindfulness meditation are from Mark Williams.
3. Maya Massage Therapy
This is a very healing abdominal massage therapy by a qualified practitioner who then teaches you how to apply this yourself at home. I practice this regularly with a massage oil I blended with clary sage, lavender, ylang ylang and marjoram. You can find local practitioners online in either Maya Massage or Mizan Therapy, which is similar and there are plenty of websites with lovely massage oil blends. My therapist was the lovely Adrienne Egan based in Dublin.
4. Golden Thread Breath
One of my teachers, Uma Dinsmore-Tuli, teaches a breathing practice for birth, which for me has really helped with period pain. You can check it out here.
Finding the right painkillers that work for you and agree with you is important. For me, I like Feminax but I am reluctant to take more than two each period as the codeine can cause constipation and that is then a vicious cycle for period pain.
Christiane Northrup writes in Women's Bodies Women's Wisdom that if you need to take painkillers, it's best to take them at the onset of menstrual cramps, otherwise the prostaglandins (inflammatory chemicals) have already increased and are released, which are difficult then to numb with painkillers. This works for me!
7. Castor Oil Packs
I was taught about these by my Maya Massage Therapist. She recommends them a couple of times a week when first starting out for about 20 mins except during menstruation as it can increase blood flow. It was a bit messy for me and I am no longer in the habit of them but I did find them helpful and would love to return.
8. Warm drinks
For me, I love the soothing and cleansing effect from fresh lemon and ginger in hot water. I also love chamomile tea and marjoram tea.
In winter, throughout my cycle, I drink glasses of warm water throughout the day rather than cold water as it's heaps more soothing and I drink more that way. Just pour a third of the glass with cold water first and top it off with freshly boiled water.
Keeping our bowels healthy and moving is vital if you suffer from period pain. Water intake is the first thing to think about here.
There is so much diet advice out there so it's really a matter of finding what works for you and not being too hard on yourself. Beware of the inner critic here! I suggest to only trust diets that don't compromise your blood sugar levels and hormones, which encourage eating as much fruit and veg as you like.
I quite like Alisa Vitti's book WomanCode and she has a great blog and videos. She also writes about oestrogen dominance, which can happen as a result of parabens in our cosmetics and household cleaning products.
Gut health is important here too. Avoiding anything that could constipate you, especially pre-menstrually would be a good idea. Plenty of fruit and veg, good fibre and fluids.
10. Feeling safe to bleed
When on my period one time, it occurred to me to tell my body that:
it's safe to release, it's safe to be a woman, it's safe to menstruate.
There is a lot of shame culturally around the menstrual cycle, especially menstruation. We've all seen the adverts growing up and most of us didn't have a great time as teenagers, being taught either directly or indirectly that we need to hide the fact that we are menstruating and that it is dirty. These toxic beliefs can have a detrimental effect on our nervous system leaving us feeling stressed and tense without realising - literally 'holding on' to our periods inside.
Giving yourself a space, a time and a moment to tell yourself that it is safe to bleed is a beautiful gift to self.
11. Share and get support
Don't suffer in silence. Share your experiences with loved ones you can trust - not to get advice, but just to be heard and to be loved.
12. A hot water bottle and good sleep
Last but not least - a good old hot water bottle, PJs, a movie and sleep. Take whatever time you can to be still with yourself and get cosy.
Sleep sleep sleep - super important - all year round, all cycle round. If anything, this is the most important point and will write a blog post about this separately.
What remedies work for you? Share them in the comments below... Have you ever put your period pain experiences into words? How would you describe it?