Are you tired of being in pain? Is your body telling you every month that something is not right? Have you been prescribed birth control to “manage” pain?
I hear you. I have lived with chronic menstrual pain since I was 15 years old. That means that I have experienced at least 180 menstrual cycles that have put me through hospital visits, doctors visits, surgeries, intense pain medications. I felt as though I had been trying EVERYTHING.
My goal on this blog post is not only to help you, but to give you the right steps to better understand your menstrual pain and how to seek help.
What is “Normal”?
Mild pain and cramping are considered normal during your menstrual cycle. Some women even experienced symptom-free menstruation. Doesn’t that sound amazing? Bleeding 3-7 days with mild cramping is normal.
There are so many reasons why our menstruation can become moderate, severe or even debilitating. Some of these reasons are:
– Hormone imbalance (ex. Excess estrogen)
– Underlying conditions (ex. Endometriosis, PCOS, Fibroids, cancer, pelvic inflammatory disease, sexually transmitted infections, etc)
Our uterus contracts every month to shed its lining in response to Prostaglandins. An excess of Prostaglandins will cause abnormal Uterine Contractility (1) and this is one of the factors that is in activated endometrial pain. Since prostaglandins are naturally made in our bodies as an inflammatory, the higher the level of inflammation, the higher the level of prostaglandins. With increased prostaglandins produced, the more our Uterus will contract. This is why IT ALWAYS COMES DOWN TO INFLAMMATION.
Endometriosis diagnosis journey:
When I was 15 years old during my first menstrual cycle, I bled so much and was in so much pain that I literally passed out. I remember my mom, God bless her, taking me into the emergency room and then following up with my first OB-GYN visit. Since this day forward I have always had painful periods until this year. Thank God birth control was never recommended for me until I was 18 years old and then it was discontinued by my Rheumatologist as soon as I was diagnosed with Systemic Lupus. The side effects of birth control consists of a long long list that we can explore deeper on another blog post. But at this time, I will only say that birth control will hide your symptoms. It will not treat the root of the cause and the longer you take them to hide your pain, the higher the probability of infertility and struggling to have children.
I kept pushing, missing days at school, many hospital visits, heating pads, pain medications that would knock me down for a whole day, suffering, missing work days, missing special occasions, ruined trips, ruined beach days, etc. It all changed for the worst when I was in Chiropractic school.
Have you heard about the stress hormone? Well that doesn’t make anything better. With increased cortisol levels coursing through my body, my menstrual pain was so bad I had to go every other month into the ER room to seek for heavy pain medications. If I had a test or a quiz that day, my body wouldn’t care, I just couldn’t get off the floor or toilet. According to Appleyard (2020), “There is strong evidence from humans and animal models showing that abnormal functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and/or the inflammatory response system disrupts feedback regulation of both neuroendocrine and immune systems, contributing to disease.” (2)
After an exhausting experience and being fed up with all this pain, my OB-GYN and I decided to go through an exploratory laparoscopy and remove a huge hemorrhagic cyst from my left ovary. I was told it was only one incision and I woke up with three. My doctor explained that when he saw the excess endometrial tissue growing all the way up towards my intestinal tract, he decided to remove as much as he could. I was diagnosed with stage III Endometriosis and no, this surgery did not solve all of my problems. I’m so grateful I woke up safe and with more answers. This was my wakeup call from God.
NEXT STEPS for healing:
I began to read, learn, unlearn, and educate myself on the new diagnosis. I slowly started learning that sadly ALL of my doctors were wrong and that period pain is common but not normal. Instead of telling you all of my mistakes on my healing journey, I will tell you exactly everything that worked for my body. Remember, we are all different, and some of us may need less and some of us may need more.
1. Elimination Diet: No matter how many supplements you take, how much exercise you get, or how much water you drink, changing your diet is the most important step in menstrual pain relief. I recommend an elimination diet for 30-90 days depending on the severity of your symptoms. All bodies are different and by going through an elimination and reintroduction diet you can learn so much about what foods your body doesn’t really agree with. The number of foods you should be avoiding is dependent on where you are on your healing journey – everyone is different and that is okay. The good news is that while we are eating an anti-inflammatory diet our gut health will improve. The healthier our gut is the more foods we can digest better. Foods I recommend eliminating: Vegetable oils, processed sugars, grains, dairy, gluten, alcohol, coffee, processed food chemicals and ingredients, nuts, seeds, nightshades and eggs. This may sound very restricting, I know. However, if you feel like you are fed up of this constant, unrelenting pain, then you will be able to do this for a minimum of 30 days. If your symptoms aren’t debilitating, you can start an elimination without taking away the eggs, nuts or seeds. Remember, even one simple food that you are sensitive to can cause an inflammatory response. It all comes down to inflammation and the root of the cause is our gut issues. (3) For more questions about an elimination diet or to schedule a free phone consult contact us for more information.
2. Light movement: The good news is that too much exercise can really stress your adrenal glands. The bad news is that too much exercise can really stress out our adrenal glands. Adrenal glands produce the cortisol stress hormone and when we exercise too much we actually can end up making things worse. (4) At the same time, low levels of movement can increase inflammation. It’s all about balance. My type of work requires me to stand up for at least 8 hours a day and use my entire core to deliver an adjustment. This is a light movement exercise in and of itself. I have started walking and this not only clears my mind but also lowers my stress levels, helps reduce inflammation and increases lymphatic drainage. Start walking 30 minutes every day outside or on a treadmill and you will feel a huge difference. Another light movement idea consists of low weights mixed with functional movements or full body movements at a very slow, stable speed. Yoga slow flow (Yin yoga) is another amazing tool you can use and mix it up with breath and meditation.
3. Functional doctor/Integrative doctor: Sometimes we need more answers. After the elimination diet my symptoms improved significantly. The term holistic means all together. For me, not only were diet and movement the key recipe, I needed more help. I have found amazing doctors to help guide and refine my practices throughout this journey. I found an integrative doctor that was also a Gynecologist. She ordered a full female comprehensive test that would check all of my hormone levels such as estrogens, progesterone, testosterone, thyroid hormones, DHEA, FSH, LH, cortisol, etc. She also ordered a full comprehensive test on vitamins and minerals. In my case, my hormones were a mess and I was started on compounded progesterone nightly. I was also -1 ferritin level (iron deficient) and needed two infusions. I was B12 and D3 deficient. ALL of these factors were stopping my body from completely healing and rehabilitating. This point is essential as healing is holistic, all the healthy decisions work together. If you have health insurance, you can look for an integrative doctor that will care for you in your area. If this is too difficult to find, which sadly is often the case, you can look for a functional doctor (some chiropractors, osteopaths, acupuncturists, and naturopaths are specialized in this) to help you out.
4. Chinese medicine/Acupuncture: Simply wow. I have never had acupuncture before and just like Chiropractic this is one of the resources and steps. You need a complete lifestyle change along with your care. My Chinese medicine practitioner started me on some herbs such as Chaste Berry tree and began acupuncture on me every time I was ovulating.
I felt incredible after every session and slept like a baby after. Traditional Acupuncture is used to go through access points in the body to release qi or energy. It is truly an amazing experience.
5. Avoid endocrine disruptors: Endocrine disruptors and hormone imbalance is a hot topic right now. I’m so grateful for research coming out and people speaking out about how messed up our environmental toxin levels are. (5) The first thing I stopped doing and saw incredible results with was ditching the plastic water bottles that I was drinking daily. Slowly after this simple change, I started changing my makeup, hair products, skin products and even home products to non-toxic brands. I stopped using perfumes and anything with harmful ingredients in it and I even invested in a AquaTrue water filter.
6. Avoid alcohol consumption: Yes research is obvious about a good glass of wine and heart health. But let’s talk hormones. As you can see, I have repeated the elimination of alcohol because it made a huge change in my life. To be honest, I would drink alcohol at least 3 times a week. Sometimes after a fun night out, I would get the worst period ever. No one ever told me how this was making my endometriosis symptoms worse. How does alcohol affect your cycle? First it affects your gut, it basically destroys it and our gut plays a huge role on our immune system and our hormone health. Second, alcohol increases inflammation, we all know this. And third, alcohol messes with our Circadian Rhythm. (6) Research has proven that there is a link between alcohol consumption and disruption of our circadian rhythms which leads to metabolic and immune dysfunction. Did you know diseases such as endometriosis are considered as autoimmune diseases? Alcohol does not serve your body or your vibration. I’m not against a good tequila mule once or twice a month, but chronic alcohol consumption WILL lead to chronic diseases.
7. Reduce stress: As I discussed before, stress hormones produced by our adrenal glands can lead to a waterfall reaction leading to unbalanced hormones.(2) When I started learning how to create boundaries on my work hours, service hours, social media and self care time I started sleeping better! When you sleep better, you heal. I always start my day praying, you can also do some light yoga, meditation or breath work. I created a morning ritual that sets my morning right. I pray, oil pull, brush my teeth, drink water with sea salt, celery juice, eat breakfast, take my supplements, make a dairy free collagen coffee latte (after reintroducing it), and then since it is my most creative time I create content. Walking has really helped me clear my mind and set the tone right for the day, or even the week after a good hike. Grounding your feet on the grass or a creek. Taking baths with magnesium salts and essential oils. All of these have helped me so much (along with dd a bit of happy music daily).
Be patient with yourself:
“But Doctor Natalia, I have done the elimination diet and it didn’t work.”
I recently heard this comment and I decided to let this person follow their own journey of healing. I too was at that stage at some point. We need to understand our amazing bodies ARE capable of healing miracles and that you CAN live pain free.
This process takes time, months and even years. Every decision you make every day will lead you to a healthier gut, nervous system, immune system, reproductive system, endocrine system, etc. I always recommend an elimination diet as it is crucial to understand your exact needs. I also need to emphasize that by skipping even one of these steps, such as drinking alcohol, might put you back to square one. I do not tell this to my clients out of judgment or ego, I repeat I love tequila mules, but I also know that some of us are extremely sensitive and our bodies are crying for us to change our lifestyle. Also, we need to understand that we are not perfect, there might be something we do that puts us back on square one but getting back to the previous square will be faster than expected.
Healing is possible: Many doctors say that healing Endometriosis or any other diagnosis is impossible. This doctor will tell you otherwise, healing is possible if we find the root of the cause and prevent it from happening again. This does not mean it won’t happen again, but you can be pain free. I have been pain free since January 2021. I finally had my blood work back with my hormones almost completely balanced and vitamins and minerals on the rise. I started acupuncture and committed to Chiropractic care 2 times a week. To be honest every time I get my period now I feel 2-4 hours of mild to moderate cramping, but I can continue my day and adjust my people with no issues. With no need to reschedule or cancel my clients’ appointments due to menstrual pain has been a healing experience for me in and of itself. I’m still on the healing journey and I know I’m not out of the red zone quite yet. Every small decision I take will have consequences on my next cycle. I feel honored to know my body better, to have amazing doctors that hear me and believe me, who don’t ignore my pain. I feel so blessed to be able to experience pain free periods to prove that IT IS POSSIBLE.
Bulletti, C. 2000. Uterine contractility during the menstrual cycle.
Appleyard, C. 2020. The Link Between Stress and Endometriosis: from Animal Models to the Clinical Scenario.
Konijeti, G. 2017. Efficacy of the Autoimmune Protocol Diet for Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Hakney, A. 2013. Hormonal adaptation and the stress of exercise training: the role of glucocorticoids.
Bredhult, C. 2007. Effects of some endocrine disruptors on the proliferation and viability of human endometrial endothelial cells in vitro.
Voight, R. 2013. Circadian Disruption. Potential Implications in Inflammatory and Metabolic Diseases Associated With Alcohol