What Causes Menstrual Cramps

It's coming! That dreaded time of month. You're clothes are no longer fitting, you feel tired and bloated, and then they hit! Cramps!

Cramps, or more specifically menstrual cramps are caused when oxytocin from your brain signals the uterus to produce prostaglandins (a lipid) that triggers muscles in the uterus to contract to get rid of uterine lining which comes out as part of a woman's menstrual flow.

For those of you like me who didn't do so well in chemistry, let's break it down.

woman suffering from cramps

Hormones and Cramps

Hormones affect pretty much every aspect of our bodies.

They are little chemical messengers that our brain tells different glands to produce that go and perform various functions throughout the body.

They affect our moods, metabolism, growth, development, body temperature, and the different aspects of our reproductive health.

The Hypothalamus and the Pituitary Gland

The hypothalamus is a pea sized section of our brain, located in the center right above the pituitary gland.

It is in charge of the body's endocrine system and connects to the nervous system.

(The endocrine system is what they call the the body's system of glands and hormones).

Two sets of nerve cells on the hypothalamus produce hormones that get sent down to the pituitary gland. 

One set contains oxytocin along with an anti-diuretic hormone (a hormone that causes water to be reabsorbed in the kidneys), while the other set also sends hormones that control a person's reproductive organs to the pituitary gland.

The second set of hormones (called gonadotrophin), cause the pituitary gland to produce two more hormones: follicle stimulating hormones and luteinising hormones.

A Tale of Two Hormones

These two hormones travel through the blood and go to a person's reproductive organs and controls the levels of hormones produced there. (YourHormones)

These hormones cause the ovaries to create estrogens (oestrogen) and progesterone.

The more estrogen and progesterone that is produced will cause less follicle and luteinising hormones to be made in the pituitary gland.

The less estrogen and progesterone that are made, the more follicle and luteinising hormones will be produced, and so on.

So this varying balance of hormones controls egg release as well as the lining of the uterus to thicken. 

If an egg is fertilized, then the embryo produces a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin and progesterone, causing the uterine lining to remain.

However, if the egg is not fertilized, then hormone levels decrease which signals the body to shed its uterine lining.

Woman in red shirt holding calendar showing when her menstrual cycle will be

The Four Phases of the Menstrual Cycle

The menstrual cycle is broken down into four phases determined by the balance of hormones and the effects they have on the uterus.

They are:

  • Menstruation
  • Follicular Phase
  • Ovulation
  • Luteal Phase

Menstruation

The menstruation phase occurs when the body gets rid of the lining of the uterus.

This is commonly known as a menstrual flow, a woman's period, 'that time of the month', 'visit from Aunt Flo', time to buy chocolate and ice cream, and so on.

Follicular phase

Once the menstruation phase ends, then the follicular phase begins.

The hypothalamus causes the pituitary gland to release the follicle stimulating hormone, which causes the ovaries to produce follicles.

Follicles are small sacks of fluid inside ovaries that make hormones that cause eggs to mature to get ready for possible fertilization.

The follicle eventually bursts, releasing the mature egg.

While the egg is maturing, the follicles signals to the uterus' lining to thicken and to prepare for possible pregnancy.

Ovulation

Once the egg has matured, it is released.

This phase is known as ovulation.

Luteal phase

As the egg is being released and after the egg bursts from the follicle, the remaining part of the follicle stays on the ovary.

It then changes into what is known as the corpus luteum, which releases progesterone and estrogen (BetterHealth).

Oxytocin and Cramps

Back to oxytocin.

While follicle and luteinising hormones are busy at work making sure that reproductive organs are working like clockwork, the body creates oxytocin in response to varying hormone levels and stimuli. 

Electrical impulses from excited neurons (remember, the hypothalamus connects the gland system to the nervous system) cause the pituitary gland to make oxytocin.

Times that Oxytocin is released include childbirth, sleep cycles, reproduction, and bonding.

In fact, if a doctor is trying to speed up contractions during childbirth, they give women Pitocin, which is a synthetic form of oxytocin.

Since Oxytocin causes childbirth contractions, it is easy to see how it can be tied to menstrual cramps, which are generally the same thing, only less intense.

Oxytocin signals the uterus to contract and to make something called prostaglandins.

The Source of Menstrual Pain

Prostaglandins are lipids (in this case signaling molecules) which are created in almost every tissue part of the body.

In the case of the uterus, the uterus produces them and they constrict the blood vessels to make it contract.

However, since they are inflammatory, they are painful.

When some of these molecules enter into the blood stream, they can cause headaches, vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea.

The higher the amounts of prostaglandins in a woman's uterus, the worse the menstrual cramping. (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine)

Factors that Make Menstrual Cramping Worse

So tiny little inflammatory molecules are the source of all of our menstrual woes.

In fact, even the slightest alteration to the hormonal balance can have varying health implications.

Foods That Make Periods Worse

Since hormones are chemical massagers, the chemicals we put into our bodies by eating can impact what messages are created.

Salt

Before and during periods, its a good idea to cut down on your salt intake.

Your body is already secreting a hormone that makes you retain water, salt adds to that water retention and can cause even more bloating.

Fatty and Fried Foods

Fatty foods and added oils increase estrogen levels in the body.

The more estrogen in your system, the thicker your uterine lining can become.

When it breaks down during your period it can create more prostaglandins resulting in more painful cramps.

Legumes and Gaseous Foods

If your body is already retaining water and bloating, the last thing you need is more gas in your system.

Avoid foods such as broccoli, cauliflower, and beans.

Although healthy, these foods can cause even more bloating.

Not Getting Enough Sleep

How do you feel when you don't get enough sleep?

Most people would say sluggish, tired, and irritable.

When a body doesn't get enough sleep, their stress levels begin to rise.

Stress

Stress is bad news, no matter what time of the month it is.

However, it is especially bad when it comes to your menstrual cycle.

Stress can affect hormone levels, especially hormones being secreted from the pituitary gland.

And the number one stress hormone that is released is Cortisol.

Cortisol is the lovely steroid hormone that affects your metabolism, blood sugar levels, memory formation, body's salt/water balance, and moods.

It is also the hormone secreted that influences the famous 'fight or flight' response in humans. 

If the body produces too much Cortisol for long periods of time women's periods can become irregular, weight gain occurs, and mental conditions such as anxiety and depression can increase.

The extra amount of Cortisol flowing through your system can not only put you in a bad mood, but research has shown a strong correlation between stress and painful menstrual cramps.

Smoking or Drinking Caffeine

Both smoking and drinking caffeine make the blood vessels that go to your uterus constrict, causing a decrease in the flow of blood to the uterus.

The less blood that goes to the muscles of the uterus, the more painful your cramps are going to become.

Best Ways To Relieve Cramping

To help reduce the intensity of menstrual cramping, try the following:

  • Avoid foods that increase cramping
  • Exercise
  • Get Enough Sleep
  • Take Anti-Inflammatory Medication
  • Meditate and Relax

However, in some cases prevention and simple lifestyle changes are not enough to keep the cramping away.

For those of you like me who have suffered month after month from the excruciating pains of menstrual cramps, heat therapy is your answer.

What Is Heat Therapy

Heat therapy is simply the application of heat onto cramping muscles.

Growing up for me, this usually took form the form of a hot water bottle.

The hot water bottle, along with a ibuprofen and a nice long nap were usually my go to treatment for horrible cramps.

How Do Heat Pads Help With Cramps

Remember those annoying little molecules, prostaglandins that help constrict blood flow to the uterus and makes it contract?

When heat is applied to a muscle, it opens up the constricted blood vessels, allowing blood to flow and relaxes those aching muscles. 

The Best Heat Pads For Cramps

 Lava Bags are the best heat pads on the market for cramps.

Unlike hot water bottles and heating pads made of perishable foodstuffs like rice, corn, wheat, flax seed, or beans, lava bags retain their heat longer and do not smell after repeated use.

The weight that the lava sand adds to the bag is great for weighted therapy, which gives just the right amount of pressure onto aching muscles to offer relief.

Here are three great things about Lava Bags:

  • It is odorless (no food involved)
  • It provides deep pressure stimulation therapy, molding and conforming to your body
  • It retains and slowly releases heat

 The best thing of all, is that Lava Bags are a natural way to find relief for your cramping.

So if you are tired of the pain that comes with your monthly menstrual cramps, try a Lavabag and find out why so many people are loving their Lavabags.