Can Menstrual Cramps Change Your Brain?

BlogHer Original Post
Woman with a headache

For almost ten years, I fed my body continuous birth control pills because periods hurt, and as a doctor-in-training, I was simply too busy to be bothered by even mild menstrual cramps. So by the time I stopped my pills in order to try to get pregnant, I had forgotten how much menstrual cramps suck. The first period wasn’t so bad, but by the third one, I was grabbing my hubby, throwing him on the bed, and screaming “GET ME PREGNANT – NOW!”

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t the sexiest come-on, but it speaks to the fact that menstrual cramps can change our behavior. They may even change how our brains work.

New Research Shows That Menstrual Cramps Can Change Your Brain

Researchers in Taiwan just published a study for which they scanned the brains of 32 women who experience severe menstrual cramps and 32 women who don’t. The women who had experienced more severe cramps demonstrated changes in the grey matter of the brain, particularly in areas related to processing pain and regulating emotions. These types of changes are similar to the types of brain changes seen in people with other types of chronic pain syndromes, suggesting that, like those with chronic pain, women who experience severe menstrual cramps may have brains that become overly sensitive to repeated pain stimuli, making the pain worse.

Say What?

What does all this mean? Well, first off, anyone who tells you that your menstrual pain is all in your head may be right, but not in the way that they think. (As far as I’m concerned, you can first tell those people that your grey matter is to blame, and then you can tell them to go to hell!) This study demonstrates that menstrual pain can affect the brain in the same ways as other chronic pain syndromes and needs to be taken seriously. There’s simply no reason women should suffer.

What Can You Do?

So your grey matter is altered. Now what? The traditional Western medical approach calls for high doses of Motrin or Aleve, started before you expect your period to begin. Birth control pills (as well as Nuvaring or the Mirena IUD) can also help, especially when used continuously so that you limit the number of periods you actually experience. If cramps are severe, this can be a sign of endometriosis and may need to be evaluated and/or treated surgically.

If pharmaceuticals aren’t your cup of tea, there are natural things you can do to reduce your menstrual cramps.

Natural Tips for Reducing Menstrual Cramps

  • Eat a healthy, whole foods diet.
  • Cut out caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and salt. Cutting back on gluten may also help.
  • Make sure your diet is high in B vitamins, particularly B6 (but not more than 100mg/day), as well as calcium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Use a heating pad.
  • Take a hot bath.
  • Do gentle yoga poses specifically aimed at helping with painful periods.
  • Do gentle exercise, like walking or swimming.
  • Drink lots of water.
  • Meditate and breathe deeply.
  • Use lavender or geranium essential aromatherapy oils.
  • Get a massage.
  • Practice guided imagery.
  • See an acupuncturist.
  • Visit an integrative medicine practitioner to find out if you are estrogen dominant. If so, supplements to balance your hormones can help.
  • Bioidentical hormones can mimic the benefits of birth control pills – naturally.

While the pain of menstrual cramps may change your brain, there’s no reason they have to change your life in a negative way. Make sure you seek help so you can get on with the business of celebrating the fact that you’re a woman – with all the beautiful gifts that accompany being female.

What about you? Do you suffer from menstrual cramps? Have you found ways to overcome them? What tips do you have for your fellow girlfriends? Dish…

Uncramping my style,

Lissa Rankin, MD

Dr. Lissa Rankin is an OB/GYN physician, an author, a nationally-represented professional artist, and the founder of Owning Pink, an online community committed to building authentic community and empowering women to get- and keep- their "mojo". Owning Pink is all about owning all the facets of what makes you whole- your health, your sexuality, your spirituality, your creativity, your career, your relationships, the planet, and YOU. Dr. Rankin is currently redefining women’s health at the Owning Pink Center, her practice in Mill Valley, California. She is the author of the forthcoming What's Up Down There? Questions You'd Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend (St. Martin's Press, September 2010).

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