Pain should be a warning sign to us that our bodies are not operating in a healthy and efficient manner. As women, we are all guilty of popping a quick ibuprofen to diminish these signs of pain in order to function normally. The purpose of this discussion is to educate ourselves as to what in fact the message of pain is telling us and what we can do about it.
The most common source of pain is felt at the start of our period. This is caused by the hormone prostaglandin that is produced in the uterus. The prostaglandin’s effects are to cause muscle contraction, blood clotting, blood vessel constriction and pain. Many women notice that the pain is there for the first couple of hours or days of bleeding. Sometimes it is the day before, or an ache during the week before and sometimes it lasts several days into the bleeding and is more prominent when clots are passed. Women with higher levels of pain and clotting will tend to have higher levels of prostaglandins.
The amount of prostaglandins in the body is related to the thickness of your endometrial lining. The thicker the lining, the more prostaglandins you need to help make sure you cramp and clot sufficiently during the period and control the bleeding. Birth control pills work to this advantage by keeping the endometrial lining very thin. In a natural cycle without birth control pills, it is estrogen which primarily controls the lining thickness. Among other things, our diet greatly affects the amount of estrogen we circulate in our bloodstream thus affecting the lining thickness and amount of prostaglandins during our period.
A diet high in animal and vegetable fats causes our estrogen levels to rise. Estrogen needs to bind to fiber in order to be excreted by our intestines or else it is just recycled back into our bloodstream. A high fat and low fiber diet can very easily set you up to have very painful and bothersome periods.
Why is this important?!
Ultimately this is important because over many years of maintaining these high estrogen levels that cause our painful periods, other disease conditions can start to develop such as fibroids, endometriosis, cysts and even certain types of cancers. We want to make sure that our hormone levels stay balanced throughout our life so that we avoid these devastating conditions that may lead to surgeries or infertility. We cannot ignore the warning signs of pain that something is not right with our bodies.
That being said, it is also to note that severe pain which causes vomiting or requires you to miss work should be reported to your doctor as it may already indicate the presence of endometriosis or some other related condition.
What can acupuncture and Chinese medicine do to reduce pain during the period?
Acupuncture has long been known to help reduce symptoms of pain in the body. Acupuncture treatment increases the endorphin levels in our blood and this can counteract the pain-producing factors. More importantly as we just discussed, acupuncture can be used for hormone balance. Its affect on the endocrine system works to regulate the hormones our body produces so that the amounts of estrogen and progesterone stay within normal and complimentary ranges.
Sometimes Chinese herbs are also employed to regulate the endocrine system.
How many treatments will I need?
Reducing painful periods is very successfully treated with acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. Lessening of symptoms is usually seen within the first month of treatment and then improvement continues and is maintained over successive menstrual cycles. It is usually recommended to come once a week for the first menstrual cycle and then a patient can drop down to less treatments based on their response. Each woman will discuss an individualized treatment strategy with their acupuncturist.
What other tools am I given to ensure my treatments are effective?
As we mentioned earlier, diet can play a key role in maintaining pain-free periods. We are talking here about a diet low in animal and vegetable fats and high in fiber such as a whole-foods based diet rich in complex carbohydrates and vegetables. The positive effects of exercise should not be overlooked and stress reduction is also an important factor when dealing with pain of all types. Your acupuncturist will work with you to find the best lifestyle and diet modifications for your pattern of symptoms that will help your treatments last for years to come.