For those who menstruate, you have no doubt experienced (and bemoaned) period pains at some point. For some, it's light cramps for a day or two, letting you know your time of the month is imminent. For others, it's a full-on need-a-hot-water-bottle-and-a-duvet-and-a-day-off-work kind of pain. If you find yourself asking questions like, “Why are my periods getting worse?” or “Does sex make period cramps worse?” you might be surprised to learn some of the factors that can go into exaggerating menstrual pain (spoiler: sex actually helps).
Period pain is an incredibly common and normal part of the menstrual cycle that tends to cause pain in the stomach, back, and thighs. This pain is known medically as dysmenorrhea, and there are two types of it, as Dr. Samantha Wild, women’s health clinical lead at Bupa Health Clinics explains to Bustle: primary dysmenorrhoea, which includes typical symptoms such as tiredness, bloating, headaches, and feeling emotional, and secondary dysmenorrhoea, which is caused by an underlying medical condition.
In general, period cramps occur due to the contracting of muscles in your body. “Period pain occurs when the muscular wall of your womb tightens to remove the lining of the uterus, which builds up during your menstrual cycle,” says Dr. Wild. “When the muscles in your womb contract, they cut off the blood supply and oxygen to your womb — this triggers your body to release chemicals [that] cause pain.”
According to a 2019 study from Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, 85% of people who menstruate experience painful cramping during their periods, with about a third not being able to perform all of their regular daily activities. Of those who had to skip daily tasks due to period symptoms, just less than half told their family about it, indicating that people are often reluctant to speak out about menstrual pain for fear of complaining. In truth, though, it can be debilitating, and it's worth making sure you're treating symptoms properly and making them known when necessary.
While it’s been unofficially reported that copious amounts of ice cream and re-runs of reality TV shows can do wonders for coping with period pains (you might even know this from personal experience), certain things can actually make your period pains worse. If you’ve never had period cramps but now do, it could be due to a change in your diet or lifestyle. With that in mind, below are some of the unexpected factors that might impact the monthly struggle that is period pain.
This one's a major blow, because potato chips go perfectly with ice cream as a comfort snack. Salty foods don’t directly cause period pain, but studies indicate that high sodium increases bloating regardless of menstruation. For this reason, it’s best to avoid eating salty foods in large amounts during your period, as they can add extra water retention and bloating to your potentially already bloated body due to your cycle. You certainly don’t want to make cramps more uncomfortable than they already are. If you're being vigilant, check the labels on processed foods and avoid fast food, as these often contain hidden salts.
Lack Of Sleep
When you get your period, your body temperature spikes, which can leave you feeling hot, uncomfortable, and unable to sleep. The unfortunate effect of this is that lack of sleep makes you feel pain more acutely, so your regular cramps might feel worse. Lack of sleep can also cause longer periods, according to Dr. Wild. “Changes in hormone levels can disrupt your sleep cycle,” she says. “This can make sleeping more difficult when you’re on your period and can often leave you feeling fatigued or low on energy.”
So, it’s best to get an early night when you can and make sleep a priority. As Dr. Colleen Krajewski, a gynaecologist and birth control expert, tells Bustle, "Anytime you're sleep deprived, you're going to tolerate what might be normal on another day less well."
Fructose — a common sugar found naturally in fruits, as well as in processed sugary foods, such as biscuits, chocolate, and sweets — can be tough for some bodies to digest. It has been known to exacerbate bloating, cause gas, and increase inflammation, which in turn makes painful period symptoms worse. Even though high amounts of sugar consumption haven’t been directly linked to increased menstrual cycle pain, it could be a contributing factor in your discomfort.
Skip the cappuccino on your period. Caffeine acts as a vasoconstrictor, meaning it narrows blood vessels and constricts the flow of blood throughout the body, including to the lining of the uterus. "It makes blood vessels constrict and may cause the vessels that feed the uterus to tighten," nutrition expert Dr. Lori Shemek tells Bustle.
When the blood vessels narrow, there’s less room for blood to flow freely, which in turn causes more pain. “When your uterus is contracting, narrowed blood vessels can increase the cramp or pain you experience,” Dr. Wild explains. Additionally, caffeine has been linked to inflammation and bloating, which can magnify stomach cramps.
Similarly to salt and sugar, fatty foods likely won’t be the root cause of your period pain, but they certainly won’t help it — in fact, it can contribute to further cramping. Fatty foods — think hamburgers, french fries, and rich mac and cheese — contain omega-6 fatty acids, as well as saturated fat, which can cause inflammation in the body. So, even though your period cravings might make you want to dive into these majorly satisfying fatty foods, it’s likely best to not go overboard.
Fact: Stress makes period pain worse. “Some studies have found stress can be linked to experiencing painful periods, especially if you experience high levels of stress in the weeks leading up to your period,” Dr. Wild says.
A study in the Journal of Women’s Health found that women who were stressed two weeks before they got their period were two to four times as likely to have moderate to severe symptoms during their period as those who didn't feel stressed. If you figure out how to be permanently relaxed, let me know.
Underlying Medical Issues
Period pain can also be a result of underlying medical issues, Dr. Wild tells Bustle. Reasons for painful periods can include endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), fibroids (common benign lumps of the uterine muscle), pelvic inflammatory disease, and adenomyosis, where the tissue that normally lines your uterus starts to grow within the muscular uterus wall.
Fundamentally, if you're worried, go to a doctor. As Dr. Wild says, “If you experience severe period pain which stops you from doing everyday activities, or you experience sudden changes to the pattern of your normal periods — for example your period becomes heavy or irregular — speak to your doctor about your symptoms.”
Period pains can be hard, but know you're never alone. When you're struggling with cramps, let people know (including a doctor) and be kind to yourself. Just remember that sugar, salt, and fat might not be your best friends during that time of the month, so that pint of ice cream might not actually do you any favors.
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Qin, L. L., Hu, Z., Kaminga, A. C., Luo, B. A., Xu, H. L., Feng, X. L., & Liu, J. H. (2020). Association between cigarette smoking and the risk of dysmenorrhea: A meta-analysis of observational studies. PloS one, 15(4), e0231201. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0231201
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DiNicolantonio, J. J., & Lucan, S. C. (2015). Is fructose malabsorption a cause of irritable bowel syndrome?. Medical hypotheses, 85(3), 295–297. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2015.05.019
Innes, J. K., & Calder, P. C. (2018). Omega-6 fatty acids and inflammation. Prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and essential fatty acids, 132, 41–48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.plefa.2018.03.004
Gollenberg, A. L., Hediger, M. L., Mumford, S. L., Whitcomb, B. W., Hovey, K. M., Wactawski-Wende, J., & Schisterman, E. F. (2010). Perceived stress and severity of perimenstrual symptoms: the BioCycle Study. Journal of women's health (2002), 19(5), 959–967. https://doi.org/10.1089/jwh.2009.1717
Dr. Samantha Wild, women’s health clinical lead at Bupa Health Clinics
Dr. Colleen Krajewski, gynaecologist and birth control expert
Dr. Lori Shemek, nutrition expert
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