Real talk: Cramps suck. Not to be dramatic or anything, but that contracting feeling in our lower abdominal area can be so painful that it makes us just want to curl up and never get up again. Of course, cramps are super common—so at least we know we’re not alone in thinking (and feeling) this.
“Menstrual cramping (dysmenorrhea) is one of the most common menstrual symptoms in adolescents and young adults,” OBGYN and Senior Director with Babyscripts Dr. Lauren Demosthenes tells Joyja. According to research done by Women’s Health Concern, about 80 percent of women will experience period pain at some point in their lives, and that for at least five to ten percent of women, this pain is severe enough to disrupt their daily routines.
So, how and why exactly do cramps happen when we have our period?
Well, the answer is fairly simple. During this time of the month, our uterus contracts to expel its lining. Dr. Demosthenes explains that while cramps don’t have one specific cause, the levels of prostaglandins and leukotrienes—natural substances produced in our body that act as mediators of inflammation and cause uterine cramps—are then triggered and elevated when we menstruate.
One of the most common ways to help regulate cramps is birth control. Dr. Demosthenes says the Pill, patches, rings, IUDs, etc. can interrupt the production of those inflammatory natural substances and are a good first line of defense against the pain. But going on birth control just to manage period discomfort isn’t always ideal.
The good news is: There are plenty of other ways to alleviate the pain—and the best of all, you can do them from the comfort of your own home. Read on for five of the best at-home remedies for cramps. Thank us later.
Try Heating Therapy
While Dr. Demosthenes says the data on heating pads and warm baths as effective measures for cramp pain is limited, there does appear to be a correlation there. A 2018 study found that women who applied heating pads to their lower stomachs scored low in pain tests compared to women who didn’t apply the same pads or any form of heating therapy in that area.
“Application of local heat can reduce muscle tension and relax abdominal muscles to reduce pain caused by muscle spasms,” the study reads. “Heat can also increase pelvic blood circulation to eliminate local blood and body fluid retention and diminish congestion and swelling, thereby enabling a reduction in pain caused by nerve compression.” There you have it! It’s definitely worth a try if you’re looking for extra relief—plus, who doesn’t love getting warm and cozy?
Squeeze In a Workout
We know, we know—doing any sort of physical activity is usually the last thing we want to do when dealing with cramps. But there is some evidence that proves exercise reduces period pain.
The endorphins you get while exercising are known to boost your mood and block the perception of pain. But exercising also helps increase blood circulation, and studies show that an increase in blood circulation is important for reducing pain during a menstrual cycle. (You can read more about this phenomenon here.)
You don’t have to do a HIIT workout or jump on a Peloton if that’s not your thing. Something more low-impact like yoga will do just fine to get those blood cells flowing.
Consider Over-The-Counter Medicine
Not interested in taking something with hormones? No problem. Dr. Demosthenes recommends nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen to help relieve the pain. NSAIDs, she says, block the formation of prostaglandins to help reduce painful cramps. As an over-the-counter medication that can be taken without a prescription, you can simply find them at your local drugstore and follow the instructions for safe use.
If you’re interested in taking a natural route, you’ll probably love this one. There are plenty of specific vitamins and supplements that can help reduce inflammation and cramp pain.
Vitamin B6: Studies show that vitamin B6 does it all—aka, it boosts serotonin and other stress-relieving hormones and helps the body produce more progesterone to even out the excess estrogen production that causes PMS symptoms.
Vitamin B12: Known to keep blood cells healthy, vitamin B12 will help replenish red blood cells that are lost when you have a heavy period if taken daily.
Fish Oil: Studies show that fish oil is just as—if not more—effective as ibuprofen when it comes to relieving painful cramps.
Vitamin D: Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, studies have shown that vitamin D may help ease cramps and regulate irregular periods.
Consult with your doctor or pharmacist to see which ones would be most compatible and beneficiary for you.
Skip the Junk Food
Typically, when we’re in pain, we reach for comfort foods. (As the name implies, our favorite foods literally comfort us.) But if that includes things like alcohol and salty snacks, we have some bad news for you: These could actually be making your cramps worse.
Studies have shown that excess sodium increases water retention and leaves you feeling bloated, and added sugar increases your blood sugar level, which can exacerbate PMS-related irritability. So, as difficult as it may be, it’s probably best to pass over the junk food, at least when you’re on your period. (After that, though, we say it’s fair game.)
If none of these remedies provide relief after three to six months, Dr. Demosthenes says there may be a bigger issue at play that needs to be addressed. As with anything, always consult a medical professional to figure out the best plan for your health and periods.