Understanding Period Pain

February 12, 2018
period pain, menstrual cramps, period pain relief, toronto naturopathic doctor, menstrual pain

Talking about period pain isn’t easy – especially when most women believe that it’s a normal part of the experience. I remember when I first learned about periods, I was told that experiencing menstrual cramps were to be expected. Luckily, there are things that provide period pain relief!

What is period pain?

Dysmenorrhea is a fancy word for painful periods. In fact, painful periods are the most common gynecological symptom affecting almost 45-95% of women! While many women think that pain is a normal part of their menstrual cycle, it can have negative effects on their daily activities (forcing them to stay home from school and/or work). 

When you’re on your period, the lining releases prostaglandins which causes the uterine muscles to contract. Too many prostaglandins will ultimately cause period pain – like menstrual cramps and feelings of pressure. 

Types of dysmenorrhea

Primary Dysmenorrhea

Primary dysmenorrhea is pain without a pathology (ie. a structural cause), and can be due to prostaglandin production, nutritional deficiencies, and diet and lifestyle factors. This usually happens after a woman first experiences her period that has ovulatory cycles. It may be present right at the beginning of her period and will improve over time. 

Secondary Dysmenorrhea

Secondary dysmenorrhea is pain due to an underlying condition which increases during menses. Causes can include: endometriosis, adenomyosis, fibroids and cysts, infection, and even IUDs. This usually occurs in a woman’s 20s to 40s, and worsens over time. Not to mention, she might be experiencing her pain before, during, and after her period. 

For the purposes of this post, I’ll be focusing on primary dysmenorrhea

Is PMS the same thing as period pain?

Dysmenorrhea isn’t quite the same as PMS. Dysmenorrhea occurs during your period (typically on your heaviest days). Symptoms can include abdominal and lower back pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, and dizziness and headaches.

Whereas, PMS (premenstrual syndrome) occurs a few days before your period and may continue a few days in. It’s an mix of psychological and physical symptoms that may encompass dysmenorrhea including: depression, anxiety, irritability, bloating and painful breasts. In order to ‘diagnose’ PMS we should be recording our symptoms for at least 2 cycles using a symptom chart.

Period Pain and TCM

You know I love bringing in Traditional Chinese Medicine into the mix of things. Here are some causes of menstrual cramps from a TCM perspective:


When the body is cold, it can cause the blood to stagnate. Think of it this way, when you’re freezing you want to curl up with a wool blanket and not move. You may find that warmth relieves period pain and gravitate towards warm foods and drinks. 


Similarly, when women are experiencing heat signs like early, bright or dark red periods, a yellow-coated tongue, and constipation, they usually find relief with cold foods and drinks. 

Period Pain Remedies

Remedies are wide ranging, and would best be tried after exploring the root cause of why the cramps are happening. Nevertheless, we may want to begin by reducing prostaglandins. 


Cow dairy may cause inflammation within the body that leads to feelings of pain. While it is recommended to avoid cow dairy – have no fear, goat, buffalo and sheep dairy is just as delicious!


Too much histamine in the body may result in an increase in estrogen (resulting in a deficiency of progesterone) as well as inflammation. Increased inflammation in the body can translate into pain. Reducing histamine would be indicated, which means limiting histamine producing foods (dairy and alcohol) as well as histamine containing foods (bone broth, cheese, fermented foods like kimchi and red wine).  


Magnesium is one of the body’s most essential nutrients. It reduces prostaglandins and relaxes the smooth muscle of the uterus. There are many forms of magnesium, but my favourite is magnesium bisglycinate. It doesn’t cause loose stools, and it’s absorbed by the body to help promote muscle relaxation. 


Whenever I’m having trouble with my period (thanks to stress!), I immediately book an acupuncture appointment. Acupuncture helps get the qi and blood flowing smoothy throughout the body and is a calming treatment which focuses on the mind and spirit.  


Ginger can be used in a variety of ways – supplements, teas, tinctures, etc. By nature it’s a very warming herb and can help with blood circulation and inflammation. Most of all, if you experience nausea with period pain – this is the herb for you! With menstrual cramps, ginger is primarily used a few days before the menstrual cycle and a a couple of days into it. This is because it targets the prostaglandin production, and acts as an anti-inflammatory. 


This is the one herb that I always have diffusing in my home. A study showed that women who inhaled lavender essential oil experienced significantly fewer symptoms of dysmenorrhea.  


Sometimes you just need to stretch it out. Because menstruation is part of the ‘yin’ phase of the cycle, it’s recommended that you take it easy. Going for a walk, or even doing a couple of yoga poses can help promote pelvic circulation and decrease pain!

Final Thoughts

Yes, this post was jam-packed with info! But, I hope it gave you an idea of the difference between period pain and PMS, as well as gave you some options to help manage your period pain. Like always, I would recommend working with a Naturopathic Doctor, so they can help you figure out why your period pain is happening and the most appropriate treatments for you. 

Lastly, if you found this information helpful, please sign up for my monthly newsletter called The Flow for more informative content like this!

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