Menstruation is a normal physiological process that women experience cyclically (approximately every 28 days, but this varies from woman to woman). It is governed by a series of hormonal signals and inflammatory chemicals that predictably rise and fall throughout the cycle. The whole process is set up so that the uterus is prepared to be the perfect environment for a fertilized egg to develop and grow. However, if fertilization doesn’t occur, the result is menstruation. For some women this occurs with minimal and manageable discomfort, or no pain at all (awesome!) For others, the pain is so intense that pain medications, or even staying home from school or work are required. Month after month, this can become exhausting and stressful. Traditional medical interventions like prescription pain medication and the birth control pill aim to treat the symptoms. However, to nip the pain in the bud once and for all it is important to address the underlying cause. Here are 5 possible causes of dysmenorrhea.
1. Endometriosis or Fibroids
Endometriosis is a condition where the endometrial tissue that normally grows inside of the uterus is found outside of the uterus (in the pelvic or abdominal cavity, attached to your ovaries, etc.). Fibroids are benign growths within or on the uterus. Both can cause severe menstrual pain.
2. Hormonal Imbalance
Remember I said that the menstrual cycle is governed by hormones? If these hormones are out of balance, or rise and fall at the wrong time during the cycle, they can contribute to pain. Furthermore, if the hormonal detoxification pathways are compromised in anyway, an excess of hormones like estrogen may develop which can also lead to dysmenorrhea.
3. Nutrient Deficiencies
Our uterus is a muscle, and like all muscles it can contract and relax. This is necessary for the endometrial tissue to get out of the uterus if it is no longer needed. Muscles need particular nutrients like calcium and magnesium to allow full relaxation after contraction. We also need certain vitamins and minerals for our detoxification pathways to work properly to prevent that build up of hormones in our body.
4. Excessive Inflammation
Those contractions I was talking about – they are due to inflammatory chemicals our body releases called prostaglandins and leukotrienes. When these chemicals are present in large quantities, they are going to cause more intense contractions that can starve the uterine muscle itself of oxygen, and therefore cause more pain.
I often look to Traditional Chinese Medicine to give me clues as to the underlying cause of different symptoms. In TCM, menstrual cramps may be due to something called Qi Stagnation. Qi (“chee”), akin to energy, is supposed to flow freely through the body. When the flow isn’t smooth as it related to the menstrual cycle and the movement of endometrial tissue out of the uterus, it can lead to cramping and pain. Why does Qi stagnate? From anger, worry and stress, inactivity, poor diet, and poor sleep, among other things.
Want to learn more? Join me this Thursday, February 12th at 6:30pm for my Menstrual Cramps 101 Seminar. Sign up HERE or by contacting the reception team at the Integrative Health Institute.
Photo Credit: Vanessa Bazzano via Flickr CC