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Natural Relief for Painful Menstrual Cramps

Like clockwork, Carrie spends three days a month doubled over in pain. Her discomfort is so unbearable she often misses a day or two of work.

Most women do not have such severe symptoms. But menstrual cramps (also known as dysmenorrhea) affect more than half of menstruating women. Those in their early twenties usually have the most pain. Along with cramps, other complaints may include headaches, nausea, diarrhea and back pain.

Menstrual cramps are caused by contractions of the uterus. The pain can occur in otherwise healthy women, or can stem from another problem, such as endometriosis, ovarian cysts or fibroids.

Experts believe that the activity of a specific type of prostaglandin (a hormone produced in the uterus) is a main cause of the pain. This hormone also causes increased contractions of the uterus. Prostaglandin levels tend to be much higher in women with severe menstrual pain.

What to do about it?
Anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and birth control pills are often prescribed for easing painful symptoms like Carrie's. But for women who want to get pregnant or would like to try a more natural approach, one or more of the following strategies may be helpful:

A healthy diet.It's not unusual to crave junk foods high in salt and sugar when you are menstruating. But this can make your symptoms worse. Eating light, frequent meals and reducing sugar, caffeine and alcohol are often suggested to help ease side effects. And because excess sodium can cause fluid retention, it's a good idea to limit salt intake too.

Also, following a diet that is rich in whole grains, beans, nuts, fruits and vegetables can be helpful. These foods contain a host of important nutrients, including magnesium and thiamine, that some studies have shown may decrease painful symptoms.

* Magnesium:
o In several small trials, women taking magnesium had lower levels of prostaglandins in their menstrual blood. Magnesium supplements were more effective than a placebo for pain relief, and reduced the need for medication.
o Good food sources for this mineral are: whole grains, beans, nuts, cantaloupe, oranges, green leafy veggies, avocado, halibut and dairy products.
* Thiamine:
o In one large trial, thiamine was more effective at reducing pain than a placebo.
o Good food sources for thiamine are: whole grains, beans, nuts, cantaloupe, oranges, spinach and milk.
* Omega-3 fatty acids:
o To date, there is no solid research linking low intake of omega-3 fats and menstrual cramps. But, fatty fish and fish oil capsules contain the essential omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. These naturally suppress prostaglandins and are known anti-inflammatories.
o Most Americans do not get enough omega-3's to start with. While awaiting further studies, some researchers feel that adding them may be helpful.
o Experts advise eating low-mercury cold water fish (salmon, herring, sea bass, and trout) two to three times a week.
o As an alternate, you may take an omega-3 (fish oil) supplement that supplies both EPA and DHA. Check with your doctor about what dose may be right for you.

TENS. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a therapy that uses mild electronic impulses that may block pain signals. In a number of small trials, high-frequency (but not low-frequency) TENS was found to help in the treatment of menstrual cramps.

Other lifestyle factors. Many women have found pain relief through these alternative remedies:

* Placing a heating pad on the lower abdomen, just below the belly button
* Massaging the lower abdomen in circular motions with your fingertips
* Drinking warm beverages and taking warm baths
* Getting regular exercise
* Acupressure
* Taking meditation and/or yoga classes
* Bending knees when lying down (reduce the stretching of pelvic muscles)

If your pain is severe or lasts longer than two or three days, see your doctor. Also be sure to check with your gynecologist if the pain occurs outside of your normal menstrual cycle.