This is the third post in our series exploring inflammation, how it plays into common conditions, and natural ways to ease inflammation. You can read all about inflammation, when it’s good, and why chronic inflammation is harmful here, and about how to ease emotional stress and aid workout recovery here.
Over 50% of women experience pain with menstruation, and many experience other cycle-related symptoms such as mood swings, headaches, and fatigue. Women with painful periods often experience less satisfaction with their lives when they are menstruating compared to when they are not and compared to women with less difficult cycles. In school and the workplace, painful and difficult periods are a factor in absenteeism. What to do if you don’t want Mother Nature keeping you from being a badass? Luckily, you can combat PMS and tough periods with foods, supplements, and holistic practices, no matter which phase of your cycle you’re currently in.
Progesterone: The Feel-Good Hormone
Ever wonder why women seem to just glow during pregnancy? High progesterone levels play a big role: not only is progesterone vital for maintaining pregnancy (inhibiting uterine contractions), it also boosts mood. In women who are not pregnant, progesterone plays an equally important part in mood and the menstrual cycle. Following ovulation, progesterone levels slowly rise, increasing the amount of blood vessels in the endometrial lining (the portion of the uterus that is shed during menstruation) in anticipation of conception. If conception does not occur, progesterone levels fall and menstruation begins.
Female Hormones: A Delicate Balance
Generally, when progesterone is in balance with estrogen, PMS and menstruation symptoms such as mood swings and pain are minor or nonexistent. Unfortunately, many foods and toxins can increase estrogen and amplify its effects in the body, creating an imbalance between these two hormones. Moreover, stress leads to lower progesterone levels (more on that in the next section), further tipping the scales. Low progesterone and high estrogen can result in cramps, heavy bleeding, depression, anxiety, headaches, and other PMS symptoms.
Stress > Female Hormones
Cortisol is a hormone that is released from the adrenal glands during times of stress. In addition to cortisol, the adrenal glands produce and release other hormones, one of which is progesterone. During times of stress, the adrenal glands convert progesterone into cortisol, meaning chronic stress can lead to chronic underproduction of progesterone and exacerbate PMS and menstrual symptoms.
If you’ve ever had a period start earlier than expected, it could be due to stress--physical and/or emotional--contributing to lower progesterone levels. Recall that adequate progesterone levels inhibit menstruation until the end of the cycle, meaning low progesterone levels can lead to spotting and a shorter menstrual cycle.
Stress, Hormones, and Inflammation
In addition to lowering progesterone production, physical and emotional stress increase inflammation in the body. Further, progesterone is used to make cortisone, an anti-inflammatory hormone that eases pain, so low progesterone levels are a factor in creating increased inflammation and pain. Women with painful menstrual cramps often have higher levels of pro-inflammatory chemicals than women who do not experience painful cramps. These inflammatory chemicals are produced in the lining of the uterus where they cause contractions and pain.
Inflammation from sources other than emotional and physical stress can impact PMS and menstrual symptoms. Have you ever noticed that your periods are worse following a high intake of alcohol or sugar? Inflammatory foods can increase inflammation in other areas of the body, including the uterus. Thankfully, this also means that foods, supplements, and practices that ease inflammation can positively affect PMS and menstrual symptoms.
What to Do
- Stress management. Reducing stress will help decrease inflammation and favor progesterone production. Remember that stress constitutes both emotional and physical stressors.
- CBD or cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive component of Cannabis sativa, may ease anxiety and depression, suggesting that it could have the same effect on mood changes that accompany PMS. CBD also appears to protect the brain from the negative effects of chronic stress and inflammation, and may modulate pain. There are multiple ways to use CBD, and we’ve listed our favorites here. Bonus: all of these products are made by female-owned, local Colorado companies that we love!
- Mary’s Nutritionals has a transdermal patch that delivers full-spectrum hemp extract for up to 12 hours. You can place a full or ½ patch on the inside of your wrist or on the top of your foot for “mind and body relief.”
- DRAM makes CBD drops that also contain adaptogens (compounds that “may assist the body in adapting to the stressors of human life”) such as ginger and rhodiola. We love their Gingergrass Adaptogenic CBD drops. Just add one dropperful to a Golden Root Turmeric Latte and you’re good to go!
Press Pause Project makes full-spectrum CBD oil with a refreshing peppermint taste that may help with “easing anxiety, sleep, and internal inflammation.” Bonus: peppermint oil may also ease inflammation and improve exercise performance.
- Make a ritual. As humans, we crave novelty but our nervous systems crave routine and predictability. Golden Root Turmeric Latte Mix is a great way to build your ritual. Turmeric gets all the hype for its anti-inflammatory properties but ginger is equally beneficial during your moon time. In addition to helping calm inflammation, ginger:
- Is an antioxidant (helps prevent cell damage),
- Helps calm uterine contractions,
- May ease pain (menstrual cramping and muscle soreness following workouts),
- May help stabilize blood sugar (blood sugar swings increase stress and inflammation), and
- Is an adaptogen, meaning it helps protect the body from the negative effects of short-term and chronic stress. Give those adrenal glands some love!
- Cut down on foods that promote inflammation. Sugar, alcohol, refined carbohydrates, and dairy can all spike blood sugar, which leads to inflammation. Meat and dairy from conventionally-raised animals have higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which are pro-inflammatory.
- Exercise, but don’t overdo it. Even light exercise seems to improve painful periods. While exercise tends to ease mood changes associated with PMS, competitive athletes tend to experience less relief, most likely because intense and prolonged exercise can increase inflammation (see our second post on inflammation).
- If you can slow down and take time for yourself, DO IT! When menstruating, Native American women used to retreat to a Moon Lodge to rest and be taken care of by other women. This was also a time for inspiration and renewal. In Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, Dr. Christiane Northrup shares patient stories detailing how taking time to rest and inwardly reflect greatly improved cramps and other menstrual symptoms (i.e. pg 122).
Further Reading on Hormones, Stress, and Natural Remedies for PMS & Menstrual Symptoms
Demaria, R. (2012). Dr. Bob’s Drugless Guide to Balancing Female Hormones. Westlake, OH: Drugless Doctor LLC.
Hudson, T. (2008). Women’s Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Northrup, C. (1994). Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. New York: Bantam Books.
Maria Capecelatro is a Master Nutrition Therapist at Dream Nutrition in Denver, CO. It took her years to figure out that stress and trying to do it all were exacerbating her periods. She started Dream Nutrition to help people like her who deal with fatigue, stress, low mood, and anxiety feel like their awesome, kick-ass selves again through nutrition and lifestyle changes. Contact Maria at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website.
Photo by: JoAnne Capecelatro Photography