Today I saw a young lady in my clinic who reminded me of me…albeit a couple of decades ago.
It was her period trouble that brought her in to see me. She’d suffered extreme pain since she first started her cycle in her teen years, and now a decade later she still was not having any relief. She felt exhausted, sick of not being able to do what she wanted to do, and fed up with the impact her pain was having on her life. She had tried several different types of medical treatments, none of which had made much of a difference, and the best thing she could say about painkillers was that they ‘took the edge off’ her pain.
Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common story – and one that I see in my clinic time and time again.
Why We Need To Stop Normalising Period Pain
One of the things that really gets my goat about our modern society is the way that period pain has been dismissed, rationalised, minimized or even ridiculed as a weakness of the female body. I have come across so many women (including myself, before I was a naturopath) who have been told that our pain is ‘all in our head’, ‘just part of being a woman’, something to ‘put up with’ or even that it is a ‘curse’. Grrrrr.
Let me make one thing clear – period pain that is bad enough to cause you to miss work, school, social events or activities you enjoy, IS NOT NORMAL. It is a clear sign that something is out of whack in your body – a message, if you will, that your body is trying to send you that all is not well. A period should cause a little discomfort (after all, your uterus IS a big muscle that is doing some major housecleaning) but it should certainly not make you feel like you have been hit with a ton of bricks.
It is important to recognise that not only is period pain not normal, the possibility exists for serious conditions such as endometriosis to be involved. Endometriosis is a painful disorder of the reproductive organs that is thought to affect 1 in 10 women, and whilst awareness is increasing, according to Endometriosis Australia it still takes on average between 7-12 years between onset of symptoms to diagnosis. This is simply not good enough, for our ladies who are suffering abnormal pain that is impacting their ability to lead a full and enjoyable life. (By the way, you can read about my endometriosis story here)
What Causes Period Pain?
There can be quite a few different contributing factors when it comes to period pain. And the interesting thing is - they all link together.
- Hormonal Imbalance
When it comes to female hormones, when we experience a natural cycle (ie when we are not taking hormonal medications such as the Pill, implant or intra-uterine device/IUD), we have two main players taking centre stage in the cycle. The first hormone, oestrogen, takes the spotlight during the first half of your cycle and is responsible for gearing your ovaries up to release an egg at ovulation. The second hormone, progesterone, takes over in the second half of the cycle, and is trying hard to ensure that any egg present has the best chance of growing into a baby (if it has been fertilized). These two, in an ideal situation, perform a lovely dance each month that would put the world’s top ballet productions to shame.
The trouble is, it is quite easy for these two hormones to become out of sync with each other, which can tip the body into a state where there is more likely to be higher levels of pain. You may also experience symptoms of Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) when the hormones are out of balance – such as mood swings, breast tenderness, poor sleep, breakouts and fatigue.
Inflammation is becoming recognised as one of the main underlying causes of many health conditions – particularly those that involve pain. Our lovely female hormone progesterone that I mentioned above is capable of reducing inflammation in the body – so if our hormones are out of balance we are more likely to be experiencing inflammation.
Stress, poor gut health and carrying too much weight can all contribute to inflammation. Also, overdoing certain foods (such as refined/processed foods, sugar and alcohol) can also drive inflammation within the body.
- Gut Health
Funnily enough, the gut really isn’t the first place we’d think would have an impact on period health! But the gut does play a crucial role in period pain, and here’s why…
Our body needs to remove excess/spent oestrogen when it is no longer needed. It does this via your detoxification pathways, which involve your liver, kidneys and your gut. Your liver packages up your oestrogens and passes them over to the gut to be ‘taken out with the garbage’ with your bowel movements. Unfortunately though, if your gut bacterial populations are not in good shape, unhealthy types of bacteria can produce an enzyme called beta-glucuronidase that pulls the oestrogen back out of the garbage and reabsorbs it back into your bloodstream. Just like I’m sure you don’t really want your garbage coming back into the house once you’ve put it out in the wheelie bin, we don’t want unwanted oestrogen re-entering the circulation as this can contribute to further hormonal imbalance and pain.
Our gut is also one of the places we detoxify some of the environmental toxins that can play havoc with our hormones, as you will read about next. So it makes sense to look after our gut health as much as possible.
- Environmental factors
We now know that certain chemicals in our air, home environment and food supply can interfere with our hormones – so much so that these are officially known as ‘endocrine (hormone) disruptors’. Synthetic chemicals have been linked to fertility problems, early menopause, irregular cycles, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, fibroids and early menopause.1 With this in mind, it is a good idea to minimize your exposure to these chemicals, by switching to naturally-based personal care products, using glass containers instead of plastic, and choosing organic foods where you can.
The Problem With Treating The Symptoms..
For most women suffering from period pain, the first stop is usually the doctor, to see what treatment options are available. And while there are some very effective pharmaceutical methods of addressing period pain (such as the oral contraceptive pill/implant/intra-uterine device), there is one big problem with all of these. And that is that they do nothing to address the reason why period pain is occurring in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it is great that we have options available these days – whether pharmaceutical or natural – and the pill in particular has moved women forward in an unprecedented manner over the past 70-odd years since its invention, due to the fact that women can choose when (or if) they have a family.
However, what many women don’t realize (and usually aren’t told) is that these medications don’t actually fix anything. They don’t ‘regulate your hormones’ (a common but misguided statement) - all they do is switch your natural hormone production off, and replace your hormones with synthetic versions that are similar, but not quite the same. And this can be a big problem for several reasons:
- You actually need your hormones for more than your cycle. Oestrogen helps you build bone and muscle, boosts your metabolism and your libido. Progesterone is calming to the brain and helps you regulate fluid balance within the body (one of the reasons why you can feel bloated and anxious before your period!). Unfortunately hormonal medications do not convey the same benefits
- The pill and other hormonal treatments can deplete your body of vital nutrients such as zinc and magnesium. They can also disrupt your gut health, which as we know from earlier, can then further impact your hormonal balance…making it more difficult to rebalance your hormones later.
- Because they don’t actually fix the underlying problem, in most cases your issues will still be present when you go off the medication.
Relief From Painful Cycles – Working With The Natural Rhythm
When I am working with ladies in the clinic, we take a whole-body approach to relieving pain, reducing inflammation, re-balancing hormones and building good gut health. We also take the approach that your hormones are meant to be around – not shut off – for your overall health and well-being, and your future wellbeing too. This means that we work with the natural ebb and flow that you are meant to experience as a woman. There are a range of nutritional, lifestyle and herbal strategies available that support this process, and my clinical experience has been that in most cases hormones respond very well to this kind of strategy. I’ve seen many women (including myself) go from pain-filled to pain-free with the right approach.
I firmly believe that it is the birthright of all women to experience a pain-free period – and that you shouldn’t have to put up with pain.