The female body is magical, mysterious, and sometimes maddening. At least that’s what I thought when I first started my cycle one Christmas morning.
Like any 12 year old, I was full of scared questions about the changes taking place. Thankfully, I was surrounded by sisters and aunties who offered much reassurance and helped me understand the woman I was becoming.
But no amount of familial advice could explain the massive pain emitting from my lower abdomen. Friends said it was “normal,” while TV commercials and beauty magazines advised me to just pop a painkiller and grab some chocolate. Healthcare providers pretty much said the same. Some even recommended low dose birth control, which I declined.
So for years, ibuprofen was a pocketbook staple. I carefully followed my calendar, stalking the EXACT moment when I should pop two 200 milligram pills to ward off the impending doom of debilitating, vomit-inducing cramps. And every month, bedtime wasn’t complete without a heating pad and ginger ale. (Mom would call to make sure I had a pair of fuzzy socks on my feet, and for some strange reason, that always seemed to help.) Not to mention I ran through overnight pads. In fact, I couldn't remember a time that I didn’t use them. But during Ob/Gyn visits, pelvic exams, tests and beyond, I always checked out as “normal.”
For me, this was my monthly routine for over 20 years, which serves as proof that, while helpful at alleviating symptoms, these run-of-the-mill coping mechanisms do nothing to address the root causes of persistent period pain. But finally at age 32, armed with personal experiences and emerging research, I have a monthly game plan that I feel is worth sharing.
I Started with the Building Blocks of Hormonal Health
It’s not news that the hormone estrogen is responsible for the reproductive processes that occur in a woman’s body. But what I did learn was how too much of this vital hormone could be linked to estrogen-related symptoms commonly seen in premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
In her blog, Dr. Lauren Deville dives deep into the connection between estrogen and iodine, an essential nutrient that’s needed by the thyroid gland as well as our reproductive organs. Dr. Deville stresses the importance of having adequate iodine to promote a healthier estrogen balance which can help protect us against estrogen-related cancers.
I only came across this knowledge after talking to my amazing nurse practitioner about the benefits of prenatal vitamins (as a newlywed planning for children someday). That conversation led me to research the vitamins and minerals needed for the healthy development of a growing baby. Convinced about the importance of a vitamin complex, I bought a product specifically designed for my needs and found that it contained 150% of the daily recommended iodine. Since taking this supplement, my periods have been significantly lighter but also the cramps are very short and about 70% less intense.
Since taking iodine, my periods have been significantly lighter and the cramps are less intense.
This was so intriguing, I decided to repeat this iodine experiment — this time I did it by increasing my iodine consumption through eating more natural, bioavailable sources like kelp (or nori), a type of seaweed commonly used for sushi and other Japanese dishes. This sea vegetable is known for being a superior source of iodine. Since upping this nutrient my cycles have been consistently calm. Instead of saying, “Ughhh… it’s that time of the month,” I’m like, “Oh, it’s just that time of the month.” Since discovering my need for iodine, I felt like a new achievement had been unlocked. Now period days no longer leave me on the couch, curled up in a blanket.
Then I Cut Off My Habitual Offenders
I admit that I was a caffeine addict. As early as my teens, energy drinks and coffee were more important than drinking water. So one could suspect that these beverages were to blame for all the bloating. But again, conflicting information had me believing that caffeine was not only okay but needed during my period. One day, while suffering terrible symptoms at work, a colleague recommended that I take an ibuprofen with caffeine so that it would work faster. She said it was her go-to trick for PMS. Needless to say, this didn’t work. In fact, my symptoms just stuck with me. And being caffeinated meant less time getting rest and more time doubled over in a corner somewhere.
Turns out, my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me after all. It’s now thought that too much caffeine can make PMS worse due to its impact on sleep. While this may sound like a no-brainer, consider that many new-age beverages and infused waters now contain caffeine in the form of green coffee fruit, yerba mate, black and green tea, and other sources. Even chocolate is a natural source of caffeine.
Too much caffeine can make PMS worse due to its impact on sleep.
Understanding the importance of rest, I came to terms with the fact that it was time to lay off excessive caffeine, limit myself to no more than two cups a day, and take up new habits — like drinking actual water for a change. My body is thanking me now.
Finally, I Put Painkillers on Pause
It wasn’t until I met my husband that I learned about the horrors of painkiller abuse. We’re talking about a man who works through headaches and refuses to take even a single aspirin. In fact, I’ve never seen him take anything. Somehow we were talking about painkillers, and he said he could count on one hand how many times in his life he needed one. I, of course, couldn't say the same, thanks to painful periods. He then shared his fear of addiction to painkillers but also the health risks of taking them — two factors I hadn’t considered before. I mean everyone knows there are “risks,” but I, like many people, just carried on with my business not even thinking twice and just passively hoping that the risk would never catch up to me.
But then I did some research to learn that ibuprofen, a type of anti-inflammatory pain reliever, contributed to a heightened risk of heart attack. With heart issues running in my family tree, I was concerned enough to close the cap. My monthly discomfort wasn’t worth such a serious, long-term impact on my health.
Ibuprofen can contribute to a heightened risk of heart attack.
But it wasn’t easy to wean off the painkillers by any means. When Aunt Flo arrived, I started by tapering my ibuprofen use from two pills twice a day to one pill twice a day while trying other methods to manage pain (cutting out caffeine and eating clean, whole foods to keep down the bloating).
By this time, I had included more nutrients like iodine. But I also made a point to stay in motion, whether that was riding my bike, dancing, or simply staying on my feet. On these days, some activity is far better for pain management than no activity. Since then, I have needed zero painkillers. With monthly periods feeling like a ball and chain, this freedom from PMS symptoms after two decades is hard to explain.
While I'm grateful to have come across this information, I can’t help but feel like I was left out of some secret club of women who knew just how to manage or completely avoid period pain. But I charge that to years of misinformation about women’s health. Thankfully, trends have changed for the better and more women are taking their wellness into their own hands. My testimony is not to say that other more serious conditions could not be at play. Endometriosis and fibroids are very real concerns and should not be brushed aside. That said, I always recommend partnering with a care provider for advice and proper testing. For me, having a trusted nurse practitioner, research, and better habits on my side were the true remedies needed for a happier time of the month.
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