Ever think that menstrual cramps are just a fact of life? That every woman has them? And even if they don’t, that you are just one of the unlucky ones? I call BS! Cramps are actually a symptom of an underlying problem. They can be cured. The only thing that is required for that is to look at the underlying causes. Once those are taken care of, the cramps almost always go away, or at least are eased considerably.
An important side note before getting started is that the same problems that cause cramping are the ones that cause a heavy menstrual flow. Managing to cure one almost definitely cures the other (presuming that what is being handled is primary dysmenorrhea, not a form of secondary dysmenorrhea caused by an underlying physiological abnormality). This would be helpful for a lot of women. Heavy blood flow reduces iron levels and can make women weak, woozy, and anemic. What’s worse, a heavy period is arguably the biggest pain in the ass on the planet.
There are three respects in which a natural, paleo approach can ease the pain of and even cure menstrual cramps. They are curing micronutrient deficiencies, cooling inflammation, and restoring hormonal balance.
Micronutrient deficiencies, cramping, and a Paleo diet
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. Magnesium especially. With adequate intake of each of these nutrients, as well as the whole slew of micronutrients and vitamins that are enriched on a paleo diet, the intense pain of abdominal muscle cramping can be eased.
A paleo diet maximizes micronutrient intake by the simple fact of keeping a woman’s diet within the range of whole foods. This helps first by eliminating sources of empty calories. Empty calories include all desserts, breads, baked goods, sodas, and wheat products. They contain almost nothing of nutritional value, except for perhaps some B vitamins and a bit of these micronutrients, but all of these nutrients can be obtained from animal and other plant products in much higher quantities.
Moreover, empty calories, particularly wheat-based calories, have downright negative effects on nutrient absorption. Wheat foods contain proteins called lectins, which bind with micronutrients strongly enough that they prevent normal digestive chemicals from being able to absorb the micronutrients themselves. For this reason, empty calorie foods such as bread can actually make an individual’s micronutrients pass right through her. When a woman replaces these empty, or even micronutrient-stealing calories with vegetables and animal products, she naturally increases her intake of just about every vitamin and mineral. Foods that are particularly rich in magnesium include nuts, cruciferous vegetables, and halibut. Foods rich in calcium include sardines, dairy products, cruciferous vegetables, and meats. Foods richest in potassium are bananas, avocadoes, tomatoes, cruciferous greens, and salmon. Organic vegetables have higher proportions of nutrients than inorganic ones.
Vitamin E has been shown by itself to reduce the pain of menstrual crampingGood sources of vitamin E are cruciferous vegetables such as spinach, turnip greens, broccoli, and chard, almonds, peppers, asparagus, tomatoes, and carrots. Vitamin E is also available in high amounts in meat products. Most importantly for paleo dieters, vitamin E is four times as concentrated in grass fed meats than feed lot meat.
Inflammation, cramping, and a paleo diet
A paleo diet is inherently anti-inflammatory. Inflammatory agents include gluten, other wheat proteins, sugar, particularly fructose, and omega-6 PUFAs which are found in almost all vegetable oils. A paleo diet is absent of these. As a matter of fact, calling a paleo diet an “anti-inflammatory” diet is spot on. The whole point of adopting a paleo diet is to reduce the inflammation that comes from eating toxins. Yet the benefit of a paleo diet is not just in toxin removal; it is also in the addition of helpful molecules. Paleo diets active include anti-inflammatory foods such as grass-fed ruminants, seafood, and vitamin- and anti-oxidant- rich plant products.
Reducing inflammation reduces the body’s hyper-reactivity to uterine physiology. With a calmed immune system, a woman’s body will not leap into inflammatory hyper-drive.
The most important molecule to focus on in a discussion of muscle contractions and menstruation is prostaglandin. Prostaglandin is an inflammatory eicosanoid, and it’s responsible for the contraction of muscles around the uterus at the time of menstruation.
The precursor to prostaglandin is arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid. Arachidonic acid has positive effects in the body, since the inflammatory process is necessary for homeostasis and maintaining optimal health, but when consumed in excess, it provides ample material for the body to mount inflammatory processes. Arachidonic acid is found naturally in animal products, particularly meat and egg yolks. This has caused many conventional nutritionists to demonize meat and egg yolks. Yet AA is also derived from the consumption of linoleic acid, another fatty acid, and linoleic acid is found in great amounts in soy, corn, and vegetable oils. A natural level of consumption of AA is optimal, and should be ingested in the natural, animal forms. With this kind of diet, the ratio of omega 6 fats to omega 3 fats is ~ 3:1 or 2:1, which is considered by most researchers today to be the optimal ratio. When vegetable oils are regularly consumed, the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fats can spike to average American levels, ~ 20:1. That incites the painful, inflammatory response. No questions about it.
Hormone balance, estrogen dominance, stress, and a paleo diet
The final and most important piece of the puzzle is hormone balance. When hormones get out of balance, which is really easy for women today, many things can go wrong. A woman’s reproductive system is not to be messed with.
What goes wrong with menstrual cramping is that the uterine lining becomes too thick. With a larger lining, more tissue exists to produce prostaglandin. Moreover, more tissue needs to be shed, so more and more material needs to be squeezed through a smaller space (women with narrow cervixes are more prone to menstrual cramping). This also, as I hinted at above, means that the exorcised material will be heavier, and the period will last longer.
Estrogen is responsible for the thickening uterus. Therefore, estrogen dominance is the primary problem that most women with menstrual cramps suffer from. Estrogen causes their reproductive organs to go into productive hyper-drive, and their abdominal muscles suffer the results. If estrogen can be brought back down, a woman’s menstrual problems often cease.
Estrogen dominance is caused primarily by two factors: it is caused 1) by the consumption of phytoestrogens, and 2) it is caused by stress.
Phytoestrogens are naturally occurring plant chemicals that resemble, but are not identical to, a woman’s natural estrogen. What this means is that phytoestrogens enter a woman’s body through her diet and act as estrogen in her body. In some ways this phenomenon enhances normal estrogen functioning, and in other ways it inhibits the activity and signalling of true estrogen, since it confuses the body’s normal accounting mechanisms. With both phytoestrogens and true estrogens in the blood, the reproductive organs and hypothalamic receptors do not know how much estrogen to produce. Sometimes the pituitary will detect the phytoestrogens in the blood and go ahead and decrease it’s production of estrogen, such that a relative balance between estrogen-like chemicals and the rest of a female’s hormones is maintained in the bloodstream, yet other times the pituitary does not detect the phytoestrogens, and it goes on pumping out as much estrogen as it had previously. In this case, way too much estrogen is floating around in a woman’s bloodstream, and it’s causing all sort of reproductive havoc. This results in menstrual cramping. It is also a factor in PMS, PMDD, mood disorders, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and breast cancer.
Foods that contain phytoestrogens are legumes, nuts, and seeds. These should be avoided by all women. The worst of all of them, however, is soy, and is should be avoided at all costs by all women. Sometimes soy and other phytoestrogens are recommended to women during menopause to mitigate their symptoms, and this does sometimes help with hot flashes and the like. However, almost always soy leads to decreased ovulation, irregular menstruation, and impaired fertility. Phytoestrogens may resemble estrogen, but they are not estrogen, and that confusion has plagued the medical establishment and struggling women alike for decades.
A paleo diet eschews soy, legumes, and goes light on nuts and seeds. For this reason, it is helpful in restoring hormonal imbalance. A paleo diet also eliminates the toxins I mentioned above which contribute to systemic inflammation, which in turn can incite estrogen production, so in this way it helps restores balance. And finally, a paleo diet emphasizes natural, grass-fed animal consumption against feed-lot consumption, which minimizes the amount of foreign hormones and foreign hormone disruptors that are often injected into or fed to feed-lot livestock.
A paleo diet also emphasizes organic vegetables, or at the very least washing and peeling vegetables. Conventionally-grown vegetables are often coated in fertilizers and such that contain potent endocrine disruptors. It is important, especially during a person’s developmental years, to be as removed from these toxins as possible.
A second cause of estrogen dominance is stress. Physiological stress from consumption of modern toxins as well as emotional stress from modern living results in a decrease in progesterone production and an increase in estrogen production. The term “estrogen dominance” was first coined by Dr. Lee , and what it means is that estrogen is higher than the other hormones in the body. In his book, he talks mostly about how much faster progesterone production falls off in menopause than estrogen production does (by 120 times!). Estrogen levels may rise in response to stress, but it’s also important to note that estrogen dominance can also mean that estrogen levels stay the same while progesterone and testosterone levels fall. The only way to insure that progesterone secretion does not stop is to have the healthiest possible functioning HPA axis. This means reducing stress, both of the emotional kind and the physiological kind.
This being the case, a paleo diet is the optimal course of action. It markedly reduces all kinds of stress: it eliminates toxins, for example, but it also restores blood sugar balance by eliminating sugar from the diet, which improves mood, and it optimizes dopamine, serotonin, and GABA functioning, all of which are necessary for being in a good mood and having a healthy HPA axis, too.
A caveat: the female response to stress is complicated, and it does not always result in estrogen dominance. It can, for example, result instead in adrenal fatigue, or in stress-induced hypothalamic amenorrhea. In both of these cases, hormonal disruption does not lead to estrogen dominance. Yet in women with menstrual cramps, it is almost certain that this is the case, since excess estrogen is what causes uterine excess.
As a final note on hormone balance, being overweight contributes to estrogen dominance. Almost all human cells carry an enzyme called aromatase. What aromatase does is convert testosterone into estrogen. This means that if aromatase activity has increased in a woman, her estrogen levels will spike, but her progesterone levels will remain the same. The reason this happens in overweight women is because aromatase is highly active in fat cells. Worse than that, however, is the fact that aromatase activity begets more aromatase activity, such that being overweight can create a vicious cycle of fat gain and estrogen production. Many overweight women exist in a state of constant aromatization and estrogen production. One way to mitigate this problem is to stop consuming aromatase-exciting foods such as soy, and to instead eat foods such as cruciferous vegetables which activate enzymes in the liver responsible for clearing excess estrogen out of a woman’s body. Another way to mitigate this problem is with natural, non-restrictive weight loss. A paleo diet provides just such a template.
One final way to restore hormonal balance and alleviate menstrual pain is with exercise. Exercise boosts serotonin levels, and serotonin helps with the pain response. Moreover, moderate exercise improves mood and mental clarity, improves glucose sensitivity, and better prepares the body to handle other stressors that come its way.
All that said…
hormone balance takes time. Sometimes results can be seen immediately, but sometimes the body needs months to heal and to readjust the sensitivity of its hormone receptors. For this reason, all of these steps help with menstrual pain, but patience and stress-reduction are possibly the most crucial steps of all.