Aunt Flo…Cousin Red…the crimson wave…on the rag…red moon rising – take your pick from what is an endless list of terms all referring to that special time of the month for females!
And while I’m sure that no one is sitting there saying, what special time of the month, just in case there are any male readers out there who happened to miss health class growing up, I am talking about the female menstrual cycle.
There are so many reasons that being born a woman is truly a gift. Most days, I thank my lucky stars that I get to live as part of this powerful and beautiful gender. However, the days leading up to and during my period, I am generally cursing my ovaries (and other female parts) with expletives that I will not subject you to. Pretty ironic that the very thing that scientifically defines us as women, is often what we hate the most about being female.
A Quick Health Lesson on What Causes Night-Time Menstrual Cramping
Let’s get the sciency stuff out of the way first.
While all females are forced to endure the inconvenience of getting a monthly period for the better part of their lives, not all periods are created equal. Menstrual cycles can vary significantly in length and intensity.
Menstruation occurs when a woman sheds the nutrient rich lining of her uterus that has been thickening over the previous weeks. In the weeks leading up to a woman’s period, the body is preparing for a pregnancy.
When no pregnancy occurs, the uterus must rid itself of the thickened uterine walls in order to start the entire process over again. In its entirety, the menstrual cycle varies between 27 and 32 days, with actual menstruation general lasting 3 to 7 days.1
The dreaded cramps that are often associated with menstruation (scientifically labeled dysmenorrhea), pose merely as a minor inconvenience for some women. However, for others, menstrual cramps can be severe enough to significantly affect their day to day life during their period.
Painful menstrual cramps are classified as either primary or secondary dysmenorrhea. Primary dysmenorrhea describes pain due to basic muscle contractions in the womb.
Doctors believe that some women experience these contractions more severely than others due to the overproduction of prostaglandins, hormone-like chemical messengers. Basically, with cramps due to primary dysmenorrhea, the simple fact is that some women have a higher tolerance for pain than others.2
Secondary dysmenorrhea is a different story entirely. Cramps classified as secondary dysmenorrhea are due to an underlying medical condition. Most commonly the severe pain stems from benign (non-cancerous) growths within the womb such as fibroids or polyps. Growths such as these are easily removed with laparoscopic or robotic surgery.3
Another possibility for secondary dysmenorrhea is a medical condition called endometriosis, meaning that the uterine lining begins to grow outside of the uterus in places like the abdomen.
The scary part about endometriosis is that most women are not diagnosed for many years and it can eventually cause infertility. This lack of getting diagnosed often happens because most women who experience severe menstrual cramps simply believe that they were dealt the unlucky hand of getting intense periods and learn to suffer through it. While there is no cure for endometriosis, it can be managed and controlled with medication once diagnosed.4
The moral of this health lesson: if your cramps have you home from work or school, clutching your throbbing uterus, go to the doctor!! Uterine fibroids and endometriosis are not something that you can self-diagnose, nor something that should be ignored. So, drag your aching ovaries to the gyno sooner rather than later and get checked out!
Cramping Your Sleep Style
A couple of days spent at home from work or school due to severe menstrual cramps is probably not the end of the world. Even though you may be uncomfortable, you might even find some pleasure in easing your pain by snuggling on the couch for a good old-fashioned Netflix and Ben and Jerry’s binge-fest. It’s amazing just how well those two things go together.
However, when menstrual cramping interferes with your sleep, the term uncomfortable doesn’t even begin to cover it. Being on your period often causes fatigue and exhaustion as it is. Add missing out on crucial hours of shut-eye due to pain and discomfort, and a dangerous cycle can begin—and this time, I’m not talking about your menstrual cycle!
Lack of sleep naturally lowers your tolerance for pain. When you are in pain, it can be very difficult to sleep. When you sleep less, you feel more pain, making it even more difficult to sleep. And on and on it goes. Pain leads to less sleep which leads to more pain which leads to even less sleep…well, you get the idea.
How to Curb Nighttime Cramping for Better Sleep
How do you stop period cramps from cramping your sleep schedule?
While there are no definitive cures or ways to avoid menstrual cramps 100%, there are a handful of things that you can do to try to prevent and reduce the pain of nighttime cramping. Reducing the onset of pain will allow you to sleep more, which in turn, will raise your pain tolerance and shift that cycle in the other direction.
Before we cover tips for how you can sleep more comfortably while you are experiencing nighttime menstrual cramps, lets discuss some ways that you can be proactive and try to stop nighttime cramps before they start.
Take Your Vitamins
Getting the proper and recommended daily dose of vitamins is important for everyone, not just women on their periods. Frankly, it has never been easier or more enjoyable to take your vitamins with all of the delicious candy-like vitamin gummies on the market these days. I was always a Flintstones girl myself, but to each their own.
There are a few specific vitamins that may be helpful in reducing menstrual cramps. Meaning that even if you religiously pop a multi-vitamin on a regular basis, you might want to try supplementing a few specific vitamins right before and during your period to help with cramping.
Fish oil supplements, vitamin B1, vitamin E, and magnesium have all been linked to a reduction in menstrual cramping. A couple of days before your period begins, try adding the following to your daily vitamin routine:
- 500 mg fish oil daily
- 100 mg B1 daily
- 500 IU vitamin E daily
- 300 to 1200 mg of powdered magnesium (add to water)
If popping this many pills has you feeling like a walking medicine cabinet, you can try upping your consumption of these vitamins through the food that you eat. While you may not be able to consume levels as high as you would by taking the pills, it is definitely better than nothing.
Natural sources of Omega 3 (fish oil)
Fish oil is found in the tissue of fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, pacific herring, and oysters.
Natural sources of Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
Vitamin B1, or thiamine, is naturally present in beef, liver, dried milk, pork, eggs, nuts, and legumes. Foods such as rice, pasta, bread, and certain cereals are often fortified with vitamin B1 as well.
Natural Sources of Vitamin E
To consume more vitamin E, you will want to eat almonds, raw seeds, and various leafy greens.
Natural Sources of Magnesium (Mg)
Magnesium is found in many of the same foods as vitamin E such as beans, nuts, seeds, bananas, and leafy greens like spinach, swiss chard, kale, or collard greens.
Whether you choose to hit your local vitamin shop or the farmers market, increasing your intake of these specific vitamins before and during your period may help cut back on those painful cramps.
You Are What You Eat (or at least your cramps are)
The importance of a healthy diet and well-rounded nutrition is nothing new, so I won’t waste your time by explaining the long list of health benefits that come from eating right. For the purpose of curbing your menstrual cramps though, there are certain changes to your diet that may be useful.
First and foremost, cut back on sugary foods.
Obviously consuming less sugar is something that we should all aim for on a regular basis, but doing so during your period is especially important.
WHAT? But all I want is endless chocolate bars and an entire pan of cupcakes to myself during my period.
I know, I know…the cravings for sugary foods during your period can be intense and relentless. I have been known to inhale several bags of chocolate covered pretzels myself.
This presents a bit of a catch-22 in that while all you want to do is to stick your face in a bag of refined sugar, over-consumption of sugar during your period can trigger cramps.5 So, what can you do?
Try not to roll your eyes as you continue reading since you probably already know what I’m going to suggest. When those sugar cravings hit hard, try reaching for a piece of fruit or even an all-natural frozen fruit bar.
If you simply cannot avoid chocolate, go for dark chocolate with a 60% or higher level of cacao. Dark chocolate with higher percentages of cacao offer you high levels of antioxidants and are an overall healthier option.
Just don’t eat it too close to bed. Chocolate contains cocoa, which naturally contains caffeine. And we all know the effect that caffeine can have on your sleep.
Some other crave-busting recipes that I use are sugar-free hot chocolate with a little soy milk or mashing up a banana, almond butter, a few packets of stevia, and a pinch of cocoa powder then freezing it to create an ice cream-like treat. It’s not Ben and Jerry’s by any means but you also won’t wake up feeling that guilty ice cream hangover.
Eat Anti-Bloat Foods
Aside from avoiding sugar during your period, you want to be purposeful with the foods that you consume – focus on foods that will keep you from bloating. Bloating can be uncomfortable no matter what time of the month it is, but during your period, excessive bloating can worsen the pain of period cramps.
As you know, your stomach is located in your abdominal region, putting it very close to your uterus which is the source of those painful period cramps. By putting bloat-inducing or stomach irritating foods in your belly, you are simply adding to the overall discomfort in your abdominal region.
Furthermore, a low-fat, vegetable based diet has the potential to noticeably affect menstrual cramps.
Says Aldo Palmieri MD, an ob/gyn at UCLA Health and professor of ob/gyn at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine in Los Angeles. Decreased inflammation means decreased cramping.6
Make sure to start your day off right with a solid breakfast loaded with protein, calcium, and fiber. Starting the day with these nutrients will help cut back on bloat and encourage you to continue eating these types of foods throughout the day. Breakfast foods that fit the bill for reducing bloating may include eggs cooked in olive oil, low fat turkey bacon, low fat milk, Greek yogurt, or even a fruit smoothie made from scratch.
As for the rest of the day, try to keep it low-fat, high in protein, and lots of nutrient rich produce. Some healthy and anti-bloat worthy foods include:
- Leafy greens: kale, spinach, lettuces
- Olive oil
- Whole-grain breads
- Brown rice
- Fatty fish like salmon or mackerel
- Cucumbers, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus
- Apples, berries, watermelon
Don’t forget to wash all of these delicious meal choices down with lots of water. Do all of this, and you will be on your way to beating the bloat and curbing the night-time cramps.
Get Moving<>p>Going along with the healthy living theme including consuming less sugar and eating more nutritious foods, getting a moderate amount of exercise during your period may help with cramps. Multiple studies show that women who include at least 30 minutes of moderate daily exercise into their routine, experience a reduction in menstrual cramping.
This is another one of those tips that kind of serves as a catch-22. Generally, when I have my period, I barely want to move from the coach to the refrigerator, let alone go for a jog.
Personally, the thought of engaging in any kind of physical activity with severe period cramps sounds like downright torture. But, if you can tolerate the initial pain, research does claim that physical activity will help subside cramping.
Aerobic exercise prompts your body to release endorphins
Says fitness expert and strength-and-conditioning coach for ASICS, Michelle Lovitt. Since endorphins provide that feel-good natural high, they naturally help to reduce the pain felt by cramps.7
Still not convinced? Rather than heading out for a high-intensity jog or bike ride, try some of these lower impact ideas instead:
- A light walk around the block
- Light stretching
- Low-impact cardio such as an elliptical machine
If Prevention Just Didn’t Work…
You ate every anti-bloat food available, cut sugar out completely, went to yoga class, and popped all the appropriate multi-vitamins but you just can’t kick those nasty cramps before you hit the sack?
Well, it’s time to explore some ways to simply cope with and reduce the pain of menstrual cramping so that you can try and catch some shut eye.
Pain Relief in a Pill
It’s no secret that prescription pain pills can help knock out the pain caused by almost anything, including menstrual cramps, but most people simply do not have access to them. If you are part of that majority, try taking NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) instead. These specific pain alleviating pills have been proven to be extremely effective in fighting menstrual cramp discomfort.
The active drug, ibuprofen, can be found in many OTC brands such as Advil, Motrin, or even generic grocery store brands. Ibuprofen should be taken right away at the onset of menstrual cramps and the dosage specified on the label should be carefully followed.
If you have an intolerance to NSAIDS or are taking other medication that may have dangerous interactions, you can certainly turn to other pain relieving drugs such as acetaminophen (found in Tylenol or Midol) or naproxen (found in Aleve).
The natural approach to night-time period pain
If you prefer a more natural approach to relieving the pain of menstrual cramps, there are several options. Since cramps are essentially muscle spasms in the uterus, anti-spasmodic herbs may offer some relief.
The term holistic often elicits images of free-spirits dancing around in flowy skirts with flowers in their hair-many people simply to not regard holistic treatments as being legitimate. But don’t turn your nose up at these all-natural remedies just yet, many holistic herbs can be extremely potent and effective in fighting menstrual cramping.
A great thing about natural herbs is that they are available in a variety of forms, not just a pill. Often, you can find an herbal remedy in the form of an oil or tea.
Rubbing Clary Sage essential oil on the lower abdomen when pain starts has been known to work wonders. “It works just as well as an ibuprofen or acetaminophen, but safer,” suggests Cindy Santa Ana, an AADP Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and the author of “Unprocessed Living”. “It regulates estrogen and acts as an antispasmodic.”
Another popular herbal remedy is evening primrose which has chemical components that have been proven to reduce uterine contractions. Evening primrose can be taken as a pill or try it in oil form, rubbing it on your belly.
Steeping fennel, raspberry leaf, or cramp bark in hot water to form a tea are all popular options as well, often reducing muscle spasms and soothing painful contractions.
The list of herbs that have been proven to be effective in treating menstrual cramps is extensive, but here are the most popular:
- Cramp bark and black haw
- Evening Primrose
- Chaste Tree Berry
- Raspberry Leaf
- Black Cohosh
- Dong Quai
- Wild Yam
- Sweet Fennel, Sweet Marjoram, or Ginger
If you find yourself doubled over in pain and taking an NSAID or traditional pain relieving pill is not your style, try using one of these herbs to make yourself a relaxing cup of tea, rubbing the oil form on your lower abdomen, or taking an herbal supplement lower menstrual cramp pain and get a good night’s sleep. I personally use chamomile tea myself, it has the added bonus of helping me sleep!
Sleep Like a Baby…Literally
If you are like me, I have spent many nights curled up in a ball, clutching my lower tummy like it is going to implode during my period. To alleviate pain, I naturally tend to situate myself in the fetal position when I am experiencing excessive period cramps. I had no idea until writing this article that sleeping in the fetal position is actually a well-known method to reduce painful cramps.
Sleeping in the fetal position takes pressure off the abdominal muscles
Says Dr. Lisa Mindley. Basically, the fetal position prompts the skeletal muscles surrounding your abdomen to relax which results in less strain on your abdomen. Less abdomen strain equals less painful cramping.1
Added bonus: sleeping in the fetal position can reduce annoying leakage that may occur throughout the night, another unpleasant aspect of sleeping with your period. No one wants to wake up in a pool of blood, so if cramps aren’t your issue but leakage is, side-sleeping in the fetal position is a simple solution to save your sheets.
Regarding the emotional link between the fetal position and pain relief, Dr. Bob Adams, family practice and sports medicine specialist, says “It’s a natural defensive posture. When we have bad news, pain, or something’s really stressful, we hunch up. It probably goes back to when we were in the uterus.”
So, for those nights that pain pills and warm tea just aren’t cutting it, try reliving your days in the uterus by curling up like a baby in the fetal position. Aside from easing your period pain, you might just find that you actually sleep through the night like a baby.
Increased Heat for Decreased Pain
One of the oldest methods for relieving muscle pain is to apply heat to the area. This tried and true technique is not just for gym rats after a hard day of bench presses-applying heat to your aching ovary area can work wonders.
Heat acts to relax muscles of any kind, so applying heat directly onto painful cramps will assist in relaxing the muscle spasms and ultimately alleviating the pain. This menstrual cramp remedy has been around forever, and it makes sense because it is simple and works time and time again.
I can clearly recall my middle school days, spending many afternoons doubled over with shooting menstrual cramp pain. The first thing that my Mom always did was plug in our ancient floral heating pad. I remember perpetually rolling my eyes at her, thinking, it feels like someone is stabbing my uterus, how is a little heat going to help? But, the saying holds true that Mom knows best and thanks to her I still break out that ancient floral heating pad once a month. If you do go the heating pad route, just don’t sleep with it.
If you can’t seem to get comfortable or find relief from a heating pad (or even a bottle filled with hot water), a warm bath may have a similar effect on pain relief. Try adding one of the previously mentioned herbal oils or even Epsom salt to your bath to intensify the pain relieving properties.
No matter how you decide to apply heat, whether it be via a heating pad, hot water bottle, or soaking in a warm bath, turning up the heat on your cramps will surely help to dial down the pain.
As women, we must stick together and constantly find new and innovative ways to overcome the struggles of menstruation. How do you cope with painful menstrual cramps in order to get a good night’s sleep? Please share your own remedies for sleeping more comfortably with period cramps!