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Breaking the Cycle

Authored by Jasmine Feng

Cramps. Bloating. Fatigue.

You know the drill: heating pads, chocolate cravings, and the perpetual wish for a pause button on life. Dysmenorrhea, also known as period cramps, is the occurrence of lower abdominal pain before or during one’s menstrual cycle [1]. In fact, period cramps have become the leading cause of school and work absenteeism for women and teen girls, affecting their daily life and preventing them from performing normal activities for several days [2]. It’s a common struggle with “the prevalence of menstrual pain in women of reproductive age [being] 16.8–81.0% and with severe symptoms in 12–14% ” [2]. But what if I told you that relief might be closer than you think? Recent studies have discovered a relationship between lifestyle-related factors and the severity of menstrual pain, suggesting that behavioral adjustments can decrease pain and discomfort.

Period cramps occur when prostaglandins (hormone-like chemicals the body produces) are released to facilitate uterine contraction to expel the uterine lining. With increased production of prostaglandins, the more the muscles and blood vessels in the uterus contract and the more pain and discomfort one may feel. Women who experience an intense level of period pain have higher levels of prostaglandins, making the monthly menstrual cycle a particularly painful experience [3]. While medications such as ibuprofen and naproxen sodium are common treatments for period cramps, lifestyle changes may also alleviate menstrual pain. 

A study led by Naraoka observed a group of healthy 20-39-year-old women and their lifestyle habits, body composition, and menstrual health before separating them into two groups based on the severity of their menstrual cramps. Researchers observed that dietary intake played a significant role in period pain. For example, the study showed that those who experienced greater menstrual symptoms had a higher intake of sugar [2]. It is found that sugar disrupts the absorption and metabolism of necessary vitamins and minerals, which results in muscle spasms and pain [4]. Decreasing this intake may promote anti-inflammatory mechanisms and decrease harmful symptoms during the menstrual cycle. This same study also found that vitamins D and B12 help to minimize period symptoms. The group who experienced lighter menstrual cramps had significantly higher intakes of fish, which are packed with these nutrients. Other foods rich in these vitamins include dairy, eggs, and meat.

More surprisingly, certain foods eaten before or during menstruation have been correlated with decreased period pain. For instance, those who ate greater portions of vegetables prior to their menstrual cycle were less affected by cramps. Elevated blood pressure is associated with increased pain, but higher amounts of vegetable consumption prevent excessive blood pressure changes. Therefore, premenstrual vegetable consumption has often been recommended to minimize period symptoms [5]. 

In regards to lifestyle habits, many seemingly small and harmless habits are linked to greater menstrual pain. For example, it was shown that those who skipped breakfast are more likely to experience menstrual pain. A possible explanation for this is that skipping meals lowers your core body temperature, which emphasizes signals sent by pain receptors [2]. On the other hand, low-intensity exercise such as yoga, pilates, and stretching has been shown to alleviate pain. This is due to low-intensity exercise increasing blood flow to the abdominal region, which activates the thermoreceptors and reduces the pain signals from reaching the brain [6]. Other common lifestyle habits such as sleep have been shown to influence dysmenorrhea. In particular, lower menstrual pain was reported by women who went to bed before 10 p.m. [7]. Lack of sleep and poor quality of sleep can lead to hormonal imbalances that disrupt the menstrual cycle [8]. Therefore, those who went to bed at later hours and slept less may experience more painful cramps because of hormone imbalances that are needed to regulate the shedding of the uterine lining. Consequently, adopting healthy lifestyle habits such as regular meals, low-intensity exercise, and adequate sleep may help manage menstrual pain effectively.

 Overall, the monthly pain and discomfort that comes with menstruation is a pervasive challenge women face. However, emerging research offers a ray of hope by revealing a profound connection between lifestyle factors, dietary choices, and the severity of menstrual pain. Studies have found that sugar, vitamin, and vegetable intake all play a large role in affecting period pain and discomfort. Knowing these factors helps women make lifestyle choices that save them from this monthly struggle. As ongoing research sheds light on these connections, empowering women with this knowledge paves the way for more effective and personalized approaches to managing dysmenorrhea.

Works Cited

  1. Nagy, H., & Khan, M. A. (2023). Dysmenorrhea. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.

  2. Naraoka, Y., Hosokawa, M., Minato-Inokawa, S., & Sato, Y. (2023). Severity of Menstrual Pain Is Associated with Nutritional Intake and Lifestyle Habits. Healthcare, 11(9), 1289.

  3. Bernardi, M., Lazzeri, L., Perelli, F., Reis, F. M., & Petraglia, F. (2017). Dysmenorrhea and related disorders. F1000Research, 6, 1645.

  4. Bajalan, Z., Alimoradi, Z., & Moafi, F. (2019). Nutrition as a Potential Factor of Primary Dysmenorrhea: A Systematic Review of Observational Studies. Gynecologic and Obstetric Investigation, 84(3), 209–224.

  5.  Njoku, U. C., Amadi, P. U., & Amadi, J. A. (2021). Nutritional modulation of blood pressure and vascular changes during severe menstrual cramps. Journal of Taibah University Medical Sciences, 16(1), 93–101.

  6. Armour, M., Smith, C. A., Steel, K. A., & Macmillan, F. (2019). The effectiveness of self-care and lifestyle interventions in primary dysmenorrhea: A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 19, 22.

  7. Finžgar, M., Gošnak, R. D., Poljšak, B., & Starc, A. (2022). The Effect of Lifestyle on Primary Dysmenorrhea. Journal of Applied Health Sciences, 8(1), 47–55.

  8. Arafa, A., Mahmoud, O., Abu Salem, E., & Mohamed, A. (2020). Association of sleep duration and insomnia with menstrual symptoms among young women in Upper Egypt. Middle East Current Psychiatry, 27(1), 2.

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