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Menstrual cramps are experienced by over 80% of women at some point in their lifetime, and are the leading cause of absenteeism from work, school or social activities. While mild discomfort during a woman’s period is normal, menstrual cramps that require pain-relieving medications and that interfere with a woman’s ability to work, go to school or engage in sport or social activities is not normal, and often indicates there is another aspect of the woman’s health that needs to be addressed. Menstrual cramps are conventionally treated with anti-inflammatory pain medication and/or oral contraceptives. However, many women I see are often looking for alternatives, either because they cannot tolerate these medications, they do not provide adequate relief, or because they prefer not to use any medications.

When treating women for menstrual cramps, my approach is to understand and address the underlying cause of the pain, while also offering natural solutions that provide immediate relief. Oftentimes cramps are a sign of excess inflammation in the body, a hormonal imbalance, a nutrient deficiency or insufficiency, or may be due to a structural cause. Treatment is a combination of dietary changes and supplementation with herbs and/or nutrients.

The most common dietary change I recommend is to limit consumption of excess sugar, processed/packaged food, and fast food, especially the week before a woman’s period is expected. These foods are high in arachidonic acid, which drives inflammation and causes uterine contractions and pain.  Medicinal foods that are anti-inflammatory in nature and good to include in the diet include salmon, halibut, sardines, fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds (especially flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and chia seeds), olive oil and flaxseed oil.

Ginger and boswellia are my two favourite herbs for menstrual cramps. Women often notice the most relief when they start their herbs 3-5 days before their period is due. The most common nutrients I find low in women and often recommend are vitamin D, magnesium, iron, and omega-3s. With the right treatment plan, most women notice improvement in their pain within 1-3 months of treatment. Like anything, patients should only take supplements prescribed by their health care practitioner to ensure it is prescribed safely and effectively.