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Right from my very first period, I’ve had cramps. Debilitating, nauseating, tear-inducing cramps. As a teenager (before the pill) my periods were also really heavy. Every time I would stand up I could feel the blood rushing out of me, and I was changing my super-duper pads every hour or two. The heaviness of my periods eventually went away, but the pain never did.
I was stuck popping Midol, Advil, Tylenol or anything that would work. I used heating pads, hot baths, massage, stretches and nasty thoughts about my uterus to try and quell the cramps. Often, I was so dizzy from them (even with meds) that it was hard for me to focus and work.
Luckily, after a few years of working on my personal health and balancing my hormones, my periods are nearly pain free, and haven’t been heavy in years. It’s so AMAZING to actually be able to function on my period!
I know that if you’re reading this, you likely have a similar story of pain and heavy flow. But where does it come from? And how can you fix it naturally?
That’s what I’m here to share with you.
Below I’m outlining four major contributors to painful and heavy periods. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I always recommend having tests done with your family healthcare practitioner to definitively find the cause.
Very common these days, and a major contributors to the section on endometriosis, etc, below. Estrogen dominance is simply having too much estrogen in relation to progesterone in the body. These two hormones have a very delicate balance which can cause a lot of symptoms, including period pain and heavy flow if left unchecked.
What this means is that you can be estrogen dominant AND have low levels of estrogen- if the estrogen is still higher in ratio to progesterone than it should be. Lab testing can be done to tell for sure.
How does it create pain and heavy flow? Part of estrogen’s job is to begin thickening the lining of your uterus, in case a fertilized egg needs to be implanted after ovulation. The egg needs a cushy, cozy home, and estrogen helps create this atmosphere. If you’re estrogen dominant and/or have irregular cycles, the lining can build and build.
When it finally sheds, the blood may be heavy, dark and full of clots.
Additionally, estrogen can build up in excess fat tissue. So, if you are overweight, you might be storing even more estrogen than you need. Eventually, this fat tissue becomes like an organ itself, producing AND storing estrogen, creating quite a vicious cycle.
While all of these conditions are separate, and require slightly different treatments, that all have common underlying contributors that lead to pain and heavy flow.
Endometriosis is often the most painful hormonal disorder, as the endometrial tissue (which normally lives inside the uterus) is elsewhere in the body- on the fallopian tubes, bowel, bladder, etc. When your uterine tissue sheds during a period, so will the misplaced tissue, creating boat loads of pain and sometimes heavy flow.
Uterine fibroids, polyps and ovarian cysts can also contribute to pain. Fibroids are extremely common in women with very heavy menstrual flow. A rupturing ovarian cyst can be very painful and cause cramping. You might consider these issues if you also experience bleeding or spotting between periods, extended bleeding (longer than 7 days) or irregular menstrual cycles.
The thyroid gland isn’t something we normally think about when it comes to our menstrual flow- cuz what does a gland in your neck have to do with your ovaries and uterus? Interestingly, they have a very intricate relationship, sometimes called the OAT Axis (Ovary-Adrenal-Thyroid Axis).
Having an underactive thyroid gland (either from hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis) can contribute to heavy menstrual flow, irregular periods and menstrual pain. Hypothyroidism can reduce clearance of estrogens (contributing to estrogen dominance). Thyroid imbalance may also cause a disturbance in LH or Luteinizing Hormone, which if chronically elevated, can delay periods.
Both inflammation and prostaglandins are huge contributors to menstrual pain. Prostaglandin imbalance can also cause you to experience loose bowels or diarrhea around your period time.
Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances that participate in a wide variety of functions in your body including muscle contraction and relaxation, modulating inflammation, regulating blood pressure, and dilating and constricting blood vessels. Where they differ from actual hormones is that they are not produced in a gland and sent out into your body, rather your body makes them at the needed site. Pretty freaking cool- unless this turns into menstrual cramps.
Prostaglandins are gut-muscle regulators and regulators of both ovulation and your menstrual cycle. This is where the connection begins. Having too many prostaglandins in production because of your internal inflammation brings extra bodies to the site- and may cause more pain than you’d like when Aunt Flo comes to visit.
The prostaglandins seem to be involved whether or not you have a pre-existing digestive complaint like Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Inflammatory Bowel Disease. An interesting thing to note is that the shits and tears you experience during your period may be connected as well!
Food is always the best place to start when you’re trying to balance hormones. The trick to getting these foods to work for you is to use them regularly. For example, the ginger tea recipe I’ve included below can be used daily, and increased during your period. Same goes for the rest!
Ginger is a fabulous medicinal herb that you might have kicking around your kitchen. I find that using fresh ginger is most effective in reducing pain and heavy flow, however dried ginger powder can be used in a pinch. And no- crystallized ginger does not count, its full of sugar!
Ginger has the follow properties that make it fabulous for cramps and heavy flow:
HOW TO USE:
CONTRAINDICATIONS: In some, ginger may increase bleeding, and in others, may reduce it. Tread carefully when using ginger during your period in large amounts. Discontinue if bleeding increases. Theoretically ginger may interfere with antacids, anticoagulant or anti-platelet drugs, and should not be used before, during or after surgery.
One of my favourite foods to recommend for women with reproductive issues, avocados are incredibly nutritious. While I personally am still working on loving the taste, I still find ways to include them into my diet regularly to get all the benefits. Unless you have a serious allergy, there’s nothing wrong with having one whole avocado daily, if you wish.
Avocados have the following properties that make them great for cramping and heavy flow:
HOW TO USE:
Depending on the source, some may say that flaxseeds are great for pain, heavy flow and estrogen dominant conditions, and others say the opposite. At this point, unless the woman has a history of estrogen-dependent cancer, I haven’t seen any adverse effects from using flaxseeds.
Flaxseeds are what’s known as a phyto-estrogen, or a plant-based estrogen that has a weaker effect than the estrogen our body makes. This is beneficial for us because these phyto-estrogens will bind to estrogen receptors with a weaker effect, reducing estrogen dominance. Flaxseeds also contain lignans, the compound with the phyto-estrogenic effect, also has anti-inflammatory benefits. Flax is also very high in omega-3 fatty acids, those fats which are most beneficial for menstrual pain, but are often lacking in our diet, which tends to have too much omega-6.
Flaxseeds shouldn’t be eaten whole- they are so small, your body isn’t going to break them down well, and it’s what inside that will give the hormonal benefits. Typical amount is 1-2 tbsp daily. Flax should also NEVER be heated, as you’ll damage the omega-3 fats. Store in the fridge or freezer.
HOW TO USE:
Another nutrient-packed seed, sesame seeds should be in every Hormone Diva’s repertoire. Sesame seeds can be used for the second phase of seed-cycling, if you wish. Like flaxseeds, a good daily amount is 1-2 tbsp. Again, you can store in the fridge or freezer for a longer shelf life.
Here’s a few reasons why sesame seeds could help reduce pain or flow:
HOW TO USE:
One of the best fruits for women trying to get healthy, raspberries could lighten your flow and help with pain if used correctly. If you want to use this food therapeutically, I would recommend consuming about 1/2 cup daily, fresh or frozen. Sorry- raspberry jam doesn’t count! Reduce your toxic exposure and focus on getting organic raspberries only.
Here’s a few good reasons to get more raspberries:
HOW TO USE:
Mix into smoothies
Second to last on the list but no less important, the use of wild-caught salmon could be very beneficial for your pain and flow. It’s important to get wild-caught salmon whenever possible, as much of the salmon you get is farmed, and they often inject dyes to make it look pink. The farmed fish are often so malnourished that their flesh is nearly white, not pink. Wild-caught salmon on the other hand has eaten a traditional diet (versus some GMO fish food) and hasn’t been subjected to overcrowding, antibiotics or similar nasties. Aim for a couple salmon servings weekly when you can. I provide several salmon recipes in my 21-Day Happy Hormones Diet program because I believe it’s so amazing.
Here’s why you need this fish:
HOW TO USE:
Lastly, we have spinach. Spinach is really a wonder-green. Green leafy veg like spinach are an indispensable part of a Hormone Diva’s diet. Spinach in this sense can be swapped out for any other leafy green like kale, collards or swiss chard. ALWAYS choose organic, as leafy greens are heavily sprayed.
Here’s the goodies:
HOW TO USE:
Every woman will spend approximately 3,500 days on her period. That’s just over 9.5 years!! That is an incredible amount of time to be bleeding and PMS-ing- am I right? But how do we know if we have a normal period? What should our menstrual cycle really look like?
Length of Cycle
Every woman varies, but generally a normal period cycle can last between 21 to 35 days, with the average menstrual cycle lasting 28 days.
Within that time, each cycle has 4 phases. They are menstruation, follicular phase, ovulation and luteal phase. A normal period cycle starts with 4 to 7 days of bleeding. After this finishes, we enter the follicular phase- when our body is preparing for ovulation. The follicular phase lasts on average 7 to 10 days. You then have 1 day of ovulation, followed by approximately 14 days of the luteal phase.
This doesn’t look like you? It didn’t look like me either, when I was beginning my PCOS healing journey. Most women with abnormal cycle lengths will experience a very long follicular phase, but the luteal phase generally remains the same. So, it might take you longer to get to ovulation, but after this the timeframe is mostly 14 days.
Color & Amount
What about the colour and amount of flow? An entire menstrual period usually releases less than half a cup of blood, including clots. How can you tell how much flow you should have?
Try my favourite- The Diva Cup! This is a reusable menstrual cup that is eco-friendly, sanitary, won’t dry out your vag AND have measurements on the side.
Not ready for a menstrual cup just yet? Find out how to tell using pads & tampons HERE.
Now for colour- please, please, please with sugar on top- look at your menstrual flow! Just like you look at your poop to see if it’s healthy (you’re doing this, right?), you need to see if you have normal period flow colour.
Bright red is the BEST. Brown flow is okay at the end of your period, but if you always see brown, it could be a lack of water or nutrients.
If you’re having more of a pinkish flow, that could mean you’re low in iron (as many of us menstruating women are!) or have a poor diet. There’s also black flow, which could indicate TONS of clotting (a no-no) or poor diet and lack of essential fatty-acids (i.e.: your Omega-3s).
Pain & Other Symptoms
So now we know that your flow is normal (phew!), but so many of us are struggling with other symptoms associated with the dreaded PMS, or pre-menstrual syndrome. Although 90% report suffering from PMS in our lives, and 40% of women say its shitty enough to interfere with our daily lives- having excessively painful or bothersome periods is NOT normal.