Most women seek to help period cramps and find relief from period pain at some point in their lives. Whilst all of our bodies are different, period pain is very common.
A normal part of the menstrual cycle, whether you find period cramps simply distracting or completely debilitating, our experts share their advice below on how to help period cramps at home. These include ways to ease the cramps as well as help some of the symptoms, like home remedies for bloating or natural ways to get rid of a headache.
Usually, period cramps will feel like painful muscle cramps in the tummy, which can radiate to the lower back and thighs. However, sometimes the pain can be experienced in intense spasms. A YouGov survey revealed that around 40 percent of women go through intense period cramp during their menstrual cycle.
Each period will be different. Some may cause little to no discomfort, while others will be more painful. Arm yourself with the knowledge below on how to help period cramps so you can manage your pain more effectively each month.
How to help period cramps
Period cramps remedies to try for pain relief at home:
- Take Ibuprofen or paracetamol
- Try gentle exercise, such as Pilates or yoga
- Change your sleeping position
- Apply low-level heat to the pain using a hot water bottle
- Take a warm bath
- Use a TENs machine
- Try Livia
- Top up your supplements
- Have an orgasm
- Stop smoking
- Use massage
- Get enough sleep
‘It’s not uncommon to experience period pains, particularly during the first day or so of your cycle,’ says Dr Shree Datta, gynaecologist with healthcare brand, Intimina. When it comes to how to help period cramps Dr Shree recommends: ‘As well as focussing on your diet, take a look at your lifestyle and exercise. Over the counter medication can be helpful, such as Ibuprofen or paracetamol, as can light exercise – so try Pilates or a yoga session.’
Gentle exercise like Pilates or yoga
There are various yoga moves to ease period pain that you can try, including the child’s pose and reverse warrior pose.
‘Yoga helps to soothe period pain by easing the muscles in your body. It also relaxes your mind through physical poses called ‘asanas’ and conscious breathing exercises called ‘pranayama’,’ says leading yoga teacher, Sarah Highfield. ‘Yoga helps to sync your mind, body and breath, leaving you feeling calm and balanced. Many people find that gentle yoga stretches just before and during their period help to relieve mild period pain. However, if your period pain is more intense, it may be better to avoid yoga and rest instead.’
Try changing your sleeping position
‘Lying a certain way may help with period pain,’ says medical director of Healthspan, Dr Sarah Brewer. ‘Lie on your side with your knees pulled up (also known as the foetal position). This can help to take the pressure off of your abdomen.’
A TENs machine can help ease pain
A natural solution, such as using a TENs machine, could also help. ‘A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENs) machine is definitely something to consider,’ says Dr Shree.
A TENs machine is a small, battery-operated device that has leads connected to sticky pads called electrodes. It uses a mild electric current as a method of pain relief.
The pads are attached directly to your skin. When the machine is switched on, small electrical impulses are delivered to the affected area of your body, which you feel as a tingling sensation. These electrical impulses can reduce pain signals going to the spinal cord and brain, which may help relieve pain and relax muscles. They may also stimulate the production of ‘happy hormones’, endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.
Livia is a drug-free device which uses electric micro-pulses to tap into the body’s natural pain defences, and prevents menstrual pain from being felt. It’s similar to a TENs machine, but is specifically for period cramps.
Unlike pain medications, there are no side-effects to using Livia, and the female body cannot build a tolerance to it. You can even wear it discreetly under your clothes, meaning pain-relief at work and on-the-go. Research shows Livia provides pain relief for up to 9 in 10 women, quicker than medication and uses targeted micro-pulses to help block pain signals to the brain.
Supplements could be the solution
‘One of the most studied herbs within the area of female health is Agnus Castus,’ says gynaecologist, Dr Anne Henderson. ‘It can help to manage some of the common symptoms of PMS including bloating, cramping and irritability.’
Omega 3 is another supplement worth considering. ‘Studies show that omega-3 fish oil supplements can reduce period pain by more than half,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘If you are vegetarian, then omega-3s derived from algae oil is a good alternative source.’
Magnesium can also have a relaxing effect on muscles. It’s effective for reducing back pain and lower abdominal pain associated with painful periods – especially on the second and third days of menstruation. ‘Lack of dietary magnesium is common, with National Diet and Nutrition Surveys (NDNS) showing that average magnesium intake for women aged 19 to 65 years is just 229mg per day. This is significantly lower than the EU recommended intake of 375mg per day,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘Dietary sources of magnesium include whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, dark green leaves, seafood and dark chocolate.’
Dr Sarah Brewer also recommends CBD (cannabidiol). This may help to reduce painful periods by having a relaxing effect, and by reducing pain perception. If you are taking any prescribed medicines, check with a doctor or pharmacist before taking CBD as interactions can occur. This is especially the case if your medicine is known to interact with grapefruit juice.
Have an orgasm
For best results, try massaging your lower abdomen with essential oils such as clove, lavender and rose in an almond oil carrier base.
Try to get enough sleep
Falling asleep and feeling well-rested can feel especially difficult when you’re experiencing period cramps. Research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that period pains can lead to disturbed sleep, poor ‘sleep efficiency’ (women were less likely to wake feeling refreshed) and make it more difficult to fall asleep.
Period pain can affect sleep even in women where there is no underlying medical problem, such as endometriosis, potentially making the pain more severe.
One study published in Middle East Current Psychiatry found that women who got an average of eight hours a night or more were 30 percent more likely to report premenstrual cramps that women who slept for eight hours a night or more. In addition, women with insomnia (actively having problems sleeping, rather than simply not needing eight hours sleep) were more than two-and-a-half times more likely to complain of period pains and over twice as likely to suffer from premenstrual cramping.
So, it’s important to take steps to improve your sleeping all through the month if you want to help your period pains. ‘Getting into a routine of going to bed and getting up at the same time (even at weekends) can help. As can a quiet, dark bedroom and banning electronic devices (phones, laptops, TVs) from the bedroom,’ says Dr Jarvis.
‘Plus, try avoiding caffeine after mid-afternoon for a couple of weeks to see if that helps. And don’t be tempted to drink too much alcohol, or to drink late at night. Alcohol may help you get off to sleep but that sleep will be less restful and you’re likely to wake early.’
What are the best foods to eat during your period to help with cramps?
- Starchy foods
- Anti-inflammatory foods
- Avoid foods high in sugar
- Avoid processed foods
- Eat plenty of fibre
- Foods rich in calcium
The exact cause of PMS is unknown, but it seems to be linked with a relative imbalance between the two female hormones, oestrogen and progesterone. Some researchers believe that progesterone hormone cannot bind properly to cell receptors when blood glucose levels are low.
‘Nibbling regular carbohydrate snacks raises blood glucose levels and helps progesterone bind to cells so it can work properly,’ says Healthspan’s head of nutrition, Rob Hobson. ‘In one trial, published in the journal, Nutrients, women with PMS ate starchy foods (eg bread, rice cakes, digestive biscuits, wholegrain cereals) every three hours from first waking up until retiring, over 50 percent gained relief from symptoms, with a further 20 percent experiencing some improvement.’ Dietary changes alone, with no additional medication, gave full relief of severe PMS symptoms in 19 percent of sufferers.
Following an anti-inflammatory diet is a good option and also good for your health in many other ways. ‘Foods that help to fight inflammation include fruits, vegetables, beans, pulses, whole grains, omega 3 rich foods (oily fish), lean proteins (poultry, tofu, fish), healthy fats (avocado, extra virgin olive oil, nuts seeds) and dried spices,’ says Rob.
Avoid foods high in sugar
Try to avoid foods that exacerbate inflammation, such as oils other than extra virgin olive, foods high in sugar, red meat and alcohol (coffee may also not be a great choice),’ says Rob. ‘These foods can also exacerbate bloating which can make cramps feel worse (sipping mint tea can help with bloating).’
Ditch processed foods but up your fibre intake
Processed foods should also be avoided as they are often made with oils rich in omega 6 which can encourage inflammation in large amounts. ‘There has been some research to suggest following a plant-based diet may help with menstrual pain,’ says Rob. ‘Also make sure you are getting plenty of fibre in the diet as this can help to remove excess oestrogen from the body which may help. You may also want to eat quite light if you’re struggling with cramps – higher fat, rich foods take longer to be digested in the body.’
Your anti-inflammatory menu
- Boiled eggs on wholegrain toast and wilted spinach
- Slice avocado on toast
- Chopped fruit with nuts and seeds (yoghurt optional if it doesn’t upset your stomach)
- Grain-based salad with lean meat and plenty of brightly coloured vegetables
- Bean or lentil based soup with rye bread
- Sushi – shop-brought pack
- Grilled fish or chicken with brown rice and veggies
- Bean-based stew with topped with slice avocado and a dollop of light yoghurt
- Quorn of tofu stir-fry with plenty of green veggies (avoid too much spice)
Foods rich in calcium
‘Women who have low levels of calcium have been shown to experience worse symptoms of PMS so keep you levels topped up by eating foods rich in this mineral such as dairy, fortified dairy alternatives, tofu, beans, pulses, green veggies, dried fruit,’ says Rob.
Eat a balanced diet and don’t skip meals
‘When it comes to vitamins, some studies suggest taking vitamins B and E, along with thiamine, pyridoxine, magnesium and fish oil to relieve pain. Meal skipping and following diets to lose weight can have an impact on the severity of your symptoms, so try and focus on eating a balanced diet regularly during your period.’
Don’t forget that your diet and lifestyle in the days leading up to your period can have an impact on the symptoms you get during your period, so make a note to change your diet before your period, not just during it!
What drinks help period pains?
- Ginger or turmeric tea
- Coconut water
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine
‘Firstly, make sure you are well hydrated by drinking plenty of water,’ says Dr Shree. ‘Consider hot drinks such as ginger or turmeric tea, for their anti-inflammatory properties which can help soothe muscle pain and swelling.’
Dr Brewer recommends coconut water. Calcium-rich coconut water can help to relieve spasms, bringing relief to digestive issues common during menstruation such as like flatulence and diarrhoea. It can also prevent water retention. ‘If you live in a hard water area, then tap water is a great source of magnesium which can relax muscle cramps,’ says Dr Brewer. Some studies have also suggested rose tea drinks.
Drinks to avoid include caffeinated drinks, which can cause water retention and bloating, and alcohol, which can lead to dehydration.
Can hot water reduce period pain and how does heat help?
‘Heat works by relaxing the muscles of the womb, increasing blood flow and circulation, which can ease cramps,’ says Dr Shree.
Experts say hot water bottles and warm baths are key. ‘Don’t underestimate the benefits of continuous low-level heat from a hot water bottle, heat pads or a warm bath,’ says Dr Shree. ‘This can relieve pain locally by relaxing your muscles, which causes period cramps, but make sure you apply for a significant amount of time.’
Research carried out by scientists from University College London found that placing something warm on the skin can alleviate abdominal pain – such as that caused by cystitis or menstrual cramps – in a similar way to painkillers for up to an hour. This is because heat helps to block pain messages to the brain.
Why are my periods so painful?
- Potential primary dysmenorrhoea
- Heavy flow
- Family history of painful periods
- Stress, smoking and alcohol
- Being overweight
Potential primary dysmenorrhoea
‘Painful periods are incredibly common,’ says Dr Shree. ‘Studies suggest anything between 16-91 percent of women experience pain when you come on, but it can be extremely debilitating, affecting your ability to concentrate or to work. If you’ve recently started your period, you may have primary dysmenorrhoea, which is caused by prostaglandin hormone release stimulating your womb muscles to contract and usually improves within the first three days of your period.’
Over-production of prostaglandins
And that’s not the only part hormones play. ‘Painful periods are related to over-production of hormone-like chemicals (prostaglandins) in the lining of the womb (endometrium),’ says Dr Brewer. ‘These trigger uterine spasms which, normally, help to close blood vessels and reduce menstrual losses. Excessive painful cramps occur when you make more prostaglandins than usual, or become more sensitive to their effects.’
As the bowel is also sensitive to prostaglandins, painful periods may be accompanied by diarrhoea, nausea and even vomiting. ‘The pain of dysmenorrhoea is thought to be linked with lack of oxygen reaching womb tissues during these contractions. Painful periods occurring within two or three years of starting to menstruate have been linked with an unusually narrow cervical canal. This usually improves by the age of 25 and is rare after having a baby,’ says Dr Brewer.
Keep a diary of your symptoms
If you’ve never had period pains before but have recently noticed them, keep a diary to monitor your symptoms. ‘Risk factors include starting your period at a young age, heavy menstrual flow and a family history of painful periods,’ says Dr Shree. ‘Stress, smoking, being overweight and a high intake of alcohol can also trigger period pains to monitor these factors.
If the pain still occurs after three-six menstrual cycles, make sure you are referred to see a gynaecologist – possible causes include endometriosis, fibroids or infections such as pelvic inflammatory disease. Don’t forget that if you’ve recently had a coil inserted this can also lead to painful periods.’