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 (more or less – and may be especially problematic for women with endometriosis. Go here for more on that). The only thing that is required to do so 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.
My bestselling book on women’s health, Sexy By Nature, is another great resource for curing menstrual cramps with a healthy, paleo diet.
Paleo and menstrual cramps: other symptoms
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 very often cures the other. This is 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.
Paleo and menstrual cramps: Micronutrient deficiencies
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. (See my favorite magneisum supplement here.) 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.
These foods 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.
You can also make sure to get good electrolytes by drinking mineral water from time to time. I personally drink one bottle of this brand (renowned for having the best nutrient content) of mineral water.
Vitamin E has been shown by itself to reduce the pain of menstrual cramping. Good 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 meat than feed lot meat.
Paleo and menstrual cramps: Inflammation
The paleo diet is anti-inflammatory. This is in part because it eliminates inflammatory foods such as wehat, sugar, and omega-6 PUFAs which are found in almost all vegetable oils (canola oil, vegetable oil, corn oil, soybean oil, etc).
The anti-inflammatory benefits of paleo don’t stop there. Paleo is rich in foods that have inflammation-fighting effects. Grass-fed beef and bison, wild-caught seafood, fermented cod liver oil, and vitamin- and anti-oxidant- rich plant products are all great examples.
Menstrual cramps are typically the worst when the body is the most inflamed. During even a healthy menstrual cycle, the reproductive organs get inflamed. But it is manageable. When the immune system is in a state of hyper-activity with systemic inflammation, it becomes less manageable. The inflammation is magnified.
Therefore, reducing inflammation by eliminating toxic, inflammatory foods like grains, seed oils, and sugar and replacing them with nourishing foods from grass fed and wild caught animal products goes a long way toward soothing menstrual cramps.
Paleo and menstrual cramps: hormone balance
The final and arguably 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.
The way in which hormone balance affects cramps is through the role of hormones in building the uterine lining that eventually gets shed during menstruation.
Early on in the menstrual cycle, estrogen stimulates the uterine lining to thicking. With a larger lining, more tissue exists to produce prostaglandins (the molecules responsible for inflammation). This effect is further magnifieid because it means that more tissue needs to be shed: more material needs to be squeezed through a smaller space (women with narrow cervixes are more prone to menstrual cramping).
A thicker uterine lining also means, as I stated above, that the exorcised material will be heavier, and the period will last longer.
Estrogen is the hormone responsible for the thickening uterus. Therefore, estrogen dominance (read my post on estrogen dominance and how to overcome it here) is the primary problem that most women with menstrual cramps suffer from.
Estrogen causes reproductive organs to go into productive hyper-drive, and abdominal muscles suffer the results. If estrogen can be brought back down, a woman’s menstrual problems often cease.
Paleo and Menstrual Cramps: Exercise
One final way to restore hormonal balance and alleviate menstrual pain is with exercise. Exercise boosts serotonin levels, and serotonin helps moderate pain levels. This is just one of many of the excellent benefits of exercise. Some other health benefits from exercise include improved mood and mental clarity, improved glucose sensitivity, improved insulin sensitivity, stronger memory structures in the brain, more dense bones, weight loss, and more.
If you want to get all my thoughts on the best ways to exercise for heath and weight loss, my book Sexy by Nature (at Amazon here) is probably the best way to do it (there’s a kindle version, too!).
And that’s it for paleo and menstrual cramps! What do you think? What’s worked for you? What hasn’t? I’d loved to learn from your experiences!!!
Don’t forget that you can check out the BEST magnesium for menstrual cramping here, or if you prefer my current method, Gerolsteiner mineral water, here.
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I have found a combination of paleo diet / anit-inflammatory diet (gluten free is highly linked to a decrease in symptoms in many anecdotes), omega 3 (which reduces production of the prostaglandins related to cramps), vitamin D (interesting study done recently on vit D and cramps) and magnesium, plus exercise all add up to a significant reduction if not elimination of cramps in most women.
Excellent point on the vitamin D! Any chance you could direct me to that study?
Links to studies are at the bottom of the article
This is the only study on gluten and cramps in pubmed. Lots of anecdotes though. I have a collection!
vey thorough article…i’m glad that the word is finally getting out about estrogen dominance and the link to painful periods. thanks for writing this post!
I did a Google search on this very topic and this was the first thing that came up. This article really gave me food for thought, but I’m on the fence about it. I have had horrible, and I do mean horrible, cramps since the very first day I got my period (I tend to have a light flow). I’ve been on birth control for most of my life to control the pain, but I went on a vegan diet a few years ago because of an article I read that said red meat and dairy tend to exacerbate the pain, and my cramps went away. The vegan diet was great, but I have a family history of diabetes and after reading Gary Taubes book Why We Get Fat, I started exploring a Paleo diet. I started eating more red meat and dairy and my cramps came back. I’m not really sure what to do. It seems like eating Paleo is a much healthier way of eating and it raised my energy levels, but I absolutely can’t deal with painful periods anymore and I want to get off birth control. I would love to get your feedback. Thanks.
I see that you are grouping red meat and dairy together. You might want to try separating them. There are a couple of issues with dairy that make me think it is your main problem. the first is that it significantly alters hormone levels. It’s the most androgenic food out there, which is the primary reason it gives a lot of people acne. It also contains inflammatory proteins that many people have issues with. If diary really is upregulating your body’s expression of inflammation, then it is going to make your inflammatory response to menstrual cramps all the greater. I’d try that first.
All that being said, just because you seem to have problems with dairy and or red meat does not mean that you should be eating toxins that vegans sometimes eat (ie, omega 6 oils, lots of sugar, etc). I would argue that you’re health is probalby maximized on a paleo diet, but it can also be quite good on a vegetarian/vegan type diet, so long as it is done properly and with whole, nourishing foods.
Trenia and Stefani, It could be the birth control causing the cramps since bc creates a hormone imbalance. I’ve been doing paleo almost a year, take vit D, E, and magnesium and never did get rid of the cramps. I am recently off the birth control (menopausal) and look forward to not having those cramps. Doctor reported my hormones are perfectly balanced.
If you have painful cramps with bc and without bc, your doctor needs to help you find the balance.
Don’t be afraid to try different kinds and methods.
Interesting! I actually found the opposite happened to me, though at the time I didn’t put 2 and 2 together because I thought my vegan diet was the healthiest way to eat since I believed all the vegan propaganda.
I was vegetarian for many years then became more and more vegan and my cramps got worse and worse. Adding flax oil helped them be a lot less awful (manageable with advil whereas before waiting for the advil to kick in was TORTURE!). But then when I went paleo they got even better. Not gone completely though. I’m still wondering what I can do to make them go away altogether. But I think a part of it may be that I need time to heal. I was vegetarian/vegan for so many years that I figure I can’t expect things to be perfect right away.
Thanks for the information, Stefani. I’ll start with the dairy and see if that works.
Excellent article (I’m so glad I found your blog)! I see that you wrote moderate exercise is helpful. If you ever got around to it, I would love to read a post by you on what you consider moderate exercise and how to know when you are over exercising/over training and no longer helping yourself. Thanks and awesome work!
In all honesty I can’t really say, since each individual has a unique set of genes and a unique story. Nonetheless, I am working on it… 🙂
I’ve reduced my cramping greatly by taking high doses of Carlson’s Fish oil, magnesium (cal/zinc), and DIM for clearing up some of the estrogen, which gave me a few extra days each cycle from 26-28 to 30-32.
I would be curious if any one has any info on how to reduce the bloating sensations that occur. Paleo hasn’t seemed to keep that symptom of the cycle at bay. Any word on this would be greatly appreciated.
I have been paleo for over a year, but lately my periods have been very heavy. I don’t get the bloating or cramps i used to get but this massive flow is difficult to deal with.
It seems to have coincided with when i began eating a homemade Paleo muesli for breakfast. It contains nuts, seeds and coconut oil. Is this a likely cause?
I’m shocked if it can make this much difference as before the muesli my periods were very light.
A likely cause? Definitely something worth experimenting with. A lot of people handle phytoestrogens just fine– but personally, even a few cups of peas will give me a noticeable hormonal difference.
Great Article Stefani and very enlightening. I am very glad I found your site. My daughter’s period very extremely painful and heavy. I started ger on vit d and other micro nutrients not knowing all this. Now she does not get any cramps and her periods are more towards normal but her cycle has changed from 30-32 days to 38-40 days. Should I be concerned. Thanks so much
I do not think so, no, but you would definitely want a professional opinion on that one, especially considering I have no idea what her blood hormone levels are like or anything.
Great article, Stefani!
Another cause of estrogen dominance is exposure to xenoestrogens. I write about them in this blog post:
Interesting. I have a whole host of problems with my cycle, but most of my issues have been resolved by taking Vitex/Chaste berry herb supplement. I wonder if it actually fixes some of these underlying problems or masks them?
I’m trying to read through most of your blog. I’m still trying to get enough discipline to go primal. I wish it didn’t involve a withdrawal period. A few years ago when I drastically cut down on breads and cereals I’ve felt amazingly better. But I can’t seem to completely eliminate them without feeling crappy. Its hard to forego when the rewards aren’t immediate, and really the immediate sucks. :S
Wow. What a great post with so much helpful information to ponder. As a woman entering menopause, I wonder how all you discuss here relates to menopause symptoms like hot flashes (immune reaction?). I’ve been eating Paleo for 1.5 years, my peri-menopause period. My periods have stopped but I’ve had no hot flashes or any other negative symptoms.
Also I wonder if any of these issues relate to the development of fibroids.
Thanks for your work!
My horrible cramps, insane breast pain, and the heavy flow all disappeared after I did a series of DIY fecal transplants. This was not a result I had even thought to hope for in my strange treatment. I had 6 completely painless cycles this month I did have a painful fist day missed work and I have had increased GI stuff. I would love to tell you my story and get your feed back
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I noticed a few years back (after being really busy one day and forgetting to eat!) that my cramps were a lot less painful. Overtime I realized I could eat salad and fruit (and sometimes a very light meal if I REALLY wanted to) and the pain would be greatly reduced. What do you think of this? I was actually thinking about this today and decided to search online to see what the science behind this phenomenon is- that’s how I came across your website. Also, I agree, dairy makes me feel really sick. I can eat small amounts from time to time, but I have to avoid it completely when I’m on my period. Anyway, for me, if I stick to eating salad/fruit the first day or two of my period, then I don’t have any pain!
Thank you! This is wonderful information. I am new to Paleo, but finding things out about myself along the journey. I added back in dairy a week ago and am now having PMS symptoms (severely) with no cycle to start.
I am over 40 years old and have been getting painful periods since I was 13. I experience severe pain in my lower abdomen and lower back, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea and have almost fainted a few times. Last year, I had to visit the emergency room 3 times. I’ve tried Premenstrual Tension from BrainSync Technology and I saw that if I listen to this for about 3-4 days before the strike I am more present more able to handle myself… and this helped immensely. Give it a try http://www.brainsynctechnology.com/shop/premenstrual-tension/ This has helped a lot.
Wonderful article that gets to the cause of cramps, but I’ve been on SCD/Paleo for three months (from a vegan/vegetarian for 3 years) and my flow is VERY different. I’m eating all wild and grass fed meats. My cycle has moved from 28 days to 30 days apart, and the flow from 5 days tops to now 7 – 8 days. Also, I used to have cramps for 1 to 2 days, and now I’m getting cramps from 4-5 days into the period. I’m 41 so I may be perimenupausal. So it looks like I’m still stuck with cramps and for longer, but I can’t take any pain killers due to the starch in them. Do you have any suggestions for pain control that will actually work for intense cramps that doesn’t involve an NSAID?
Thank you for this! I am having a light and pain free period this month. I was a bit freaked out but after reading this it all makes sense. I am certainly pleased. I suffer from very heavy and painful periods. So glad to know Paleo is helping my body in so many ways.
Hi and thank you for the research! I’ve been paleo for all of 2013, and was mostly paleo in 2011 and 2012. My cramps have definitely been much worse since going Paleo. They are now 24 days instead of 28 apart, and last 7-8 days instead of 4-5. Any theories on why this might be?
I think a few important things would be helpful to include. First, all plant foods have phytoestrogens. Healthy cruciferous veggies are some of the highest, so we would not want to miss those. A list including just legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy is very limited.
As well, many herbal and other supplements are high in estrogen. For people who have trouble clearing estrogen faster than it is taken in, they can definitely lead to estrogen dominance. Dandelion root and evening primrose oil are quite high.
Also, animal products all have naturally occurring hormones, even if they are grass-fed,, free of added hormones, and some of the best you can get. While very healthy, if we’re talking about estrogen dominance and hormonal balance, those cannot be considered neutral foods.
Finally, dietary fat leads to higher estrogen production. Again, it is very necessary and healthy to have fat and the very last thing we want to do is return to the low-fat, high carb “Bagels are health food” days! But, if we’re talking about reducing estrogen, women should be aware that higher fat will lead to higher estrogen.
To maintain a diet that includes the above, one can focus on liver-clearing methods (the liver clears estrogen) and supplements like calcium-d-glucarate that help clear it.
Since going paleo 3 months ago, my menstrual cramps have COMPLETELY disappeared. I was stunned by this, since I have had painful periods for over 30 years, even on birth control pills, with an IUD, and early on I took prescription pain relievers. What a wonderful benefit to switching away from eating grains, sugar, and a lot of carbs!
Wheat-based empty calories? Give me a break.
Like a couple others, I too have abominable cramps that keep me in bed for at least 1-2 days a month AND have a very light flow.
Had no cramps the 4 years I was strictly organic vegan 2000-2004.
Went primal, no GMO in 2005 and had cramps that were manageable with NSAiDS and lasted maybe a day.
Since going paleo and no GMO in 2012 my periods are the worst ever. I know my nutrition is better now. Why are my periods worse?
Liz, please can you explain me what is the difference between primal and paleo? I read a book recently on Primal and liked it in different aspects but mainly as it exludes all sugar definatelly. Besides that point, as I cant find much information on primal in the website I feel confuesed. Will be very grateful for your help.
I’m an “expert” in the field and even I don’t get the distinction. Some people like to think there is one but there isn’t (if anything its a simple distinction between Mark Sisson’s beliefs and everyone elses.) In my opinion, any way of eating that focuses on ancestral, natural foods is paleo! There’s flexibility witihin the paleo world but more or less there’s lots of variety and they all fit the bill!
I’ve had the worst 2 cycles since being on paleo (started 1/2014). After reading this article I figured out what the problem was..well I don’t normally eat nuts (found out I was allergic after starting paleo) I did enjoy some macadamien nuts as a late night snack with my husband. Oh so good…like a solid piece of movie popcorn butter! Anyway, I have been layed up for 4 of the 6 days I’m on this mess. It has been very painful. It felt like labor pains. The nuts were the only new thing I’ve added from the other months. So I think I just gotta stay away from it. Otherwise I was getting lighter periods and no cramping. Which was blessing from above. I never thought I could live w/o Advil.
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Hi everyone! I’ve suffered painful cramps since I was 15, and can share some insight into what has helped. A lot of pain mitigation starts with the days leading up to your period. If you have regular cycles, mark your period days on a calendar, so when the next one is looming soon, you will go in prepared. =] During the days before your period: No dairy, sugar, salt, coffee, red meat, oils, or heavy carbs. Eat lots of greens, fish (especially salmon), and shellfish and drink water, pineapple juice, and unsweet green tea. Eat potassium and zinc rich foods. Taking a zinc supplement in the days leading up to your period will help immensely! Only start eating red meat during the lighter, non-crampy days of period and directly after to get iron levels back up. Light exercise, stretches, yoga, and meditation help, too. I definitely notice a difference when I do these things. =]
Hi All, I just want to ask if someone ever tried using medical cannabis as an alternative medicine? I’ve been reading some article about medical marijuana and how it can help you in terms of pain management, anxiety disorders and panic attacks, inflammation, even cancer and a lot more. Like this review on a certain strain on http://www.ilovegrowingmarijuana.com/purple-urkle/ it has a very high pain suppressing effect. Cbd and thc are also new to me and I don’t even smoke. Alternatively, they’ve also find new ways to infuse cannabis on food and beverages. If this is true I cant find any solid conclusive evidence that speaks to its efficacy. Any personal experience or testimonial would be highly appreciated. Thanks