Can Menstrual Cramps Change Your Brain?

While on the road promoting What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend (on shelves now!), we’ve heard a lot of fabulous questions about today’s topic: periods. And not just periods, but the crazy-making, emotional rollercoaster, why-am-I-feeling-like-a-pyscho part of periods delicately described as “mood swings.” Yep, menstruation isn’t all cleansing and woo-woo — sometimes it just feels awful. And guess what? Scientists say that a woman’s time o’ the month is actually changing her brain! Read on…

For almost ten years, I fed my body continuous birth control pills because periods hurt, and as a doctor-in-training, I was simply too busy to be bothered by even mild menstrual cramps. So by the time I stopped my pills in order to try to get pregnant, I had forgotten how much menstrual cramps suck. The first period wasn’t so bad, but by the third one, I was grabbing my hubby, throwing him on the bed, and screaming “GET ME PREGNANT – NOW!”

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t the sexiest come-on, but it speaks to the fact that menstrual cramps can change our behavior. They may even change how our brains work.

New research shows that menstrual cramps can change your brain

Researchers in Taiwan published a study this summer for which they scanned the brains of 32 women who experience severe menstrual cramps and 32 women who don’t. The women who had experienced more severe cramps demonstrated changes in the grey matter of the brain, particularly in areas related to processing pain and regulating emotions. These types of changes are similar to the types of brain changes seen in people with other types of chronic pain syndromes, suggesting that, like those with chronic pain, women who experience severe menstrual cramps may have brains that become overly sensitive to repeated pain stimuli, making the pain worse.

Say what?

What does all this mean? Well, first off, anyone who tells you that your menstrual pain is all in your head may be right, but not in the way that they think. (As far as I’m concerned, you can first tell those people that your grey matter is to blame, and then you can tell them to go to hell!) This study demonstrates that menstrual pain can affect the brain in the same ways as other chronic pain syndromes and needs to be taken seriously. There’s simply no reason women should suffer.

What can you do?

So your grey matter is altered. Now what? The traditional Western medical approach calls for high doses of Motrin or Aleve, started before you expect your period to begin. Birth control pills (as well as Nuvaring or the Mirena IUD) can also help, especially when used continuously so that you limit the number of periods you actually experience.  If cramps are severe, this can be a sign of endometriosis and may need to be evaluated and/or treated surgically.

If pharmaceuticals aren’t your cup of tea, there are natural things you can do to reduce your menstrual cramps.

Next: 15 tips to reduce menstrual cramps naturally

Natural tips for reducing menstrual cramps

  1. Eat a healthy, whole foods diet.
  2. Cut out caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and salt. Cutting back on gluten may also help.
  3. Make sure your diet is high in B vitamins, particularly B6 (but not more than 100mg/day), as well as calcium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids.
  4. Use a heating pad.
  5. Take a hot bath.
  6. Do gentle yoga poses specifically aimed at helping with painful periods.
  7. Do gentle exercise, like walking or swimming.
  8. Drink lots of water.
  9. Meditate and breathe deeply.
  10. Use lavender or geranium essential aromatherapy oils.
  11. Get a massage.
  12. Practice guided imagery.
  13. See an acupuncturist.
  14. Visit an integrative medicine practitioner to find out if you are estrogen dominant. If so, supplements to balance your hormones can help.
  15. Bioidentical hormones can mimic the benefits of birth control pills – naturally.

While the pain of menstrual cramps may change your brain, there’s no reason they have to change your life in a negative way. Make sure you seek help so you can get on with the business of celebrating the fact that you’re a woman – with all the beautiful gifts that accompany being female.

What about you? Do you suffer from menstrual cramps? Have you found ways to overcome them? What tips do you have for your fellow girlfriends? Dish…

Ancient Chinese Secret to Ease Painful Periods
Should I Use Birth Control To Skip My Period?
6 Things Every Woman Should Know About Her Periods Pre-Menopause


Naomi R.
Naomi Rabout a year ago


Annick Letourneau

interesting, good to know

Petra Luna
Petra Luna7 years ago

Good to know, thanks.

Bynz Zzz
Bynz Zzz7 years ago

Just eliminate dairy and try eating your veggies raw as much as possible for one month and you'll see immediate relief in your next cycle.

Tonya Freeman
Tonya Freeman7 years ago

Though I am far beyond menstrual cramps, many women I know are switching to natural cloth pads, organic cotton pads or menstrual cups and some are participating in Moon Lodge ceremonies every month.Quite a few are doing dances that massage their organs and make them feel sexy too, such as belly dancing, hula dancing, or any dance where the hips are gyrating. I've heard reports of either less cramps or no cramps and in some cases they cycle less days.

Katarina L.
Katarina L7 years ago

less sweet food works for me sometimes :)

Nilmar S.
Nilmar S7 years ago

My experience is that I need to drink more water than the usual, before and in those days.

gerlinde p.
gerlinde p7 years ago

i`m glad that is behind me, the menopause is a whole new story

Deborah Litster
Deborah Litster7 years ago

I was writing an exam which I could ace and on came the cramps I almost blacked out and of course flunked the exam

Lika S.
Lika P7 years ago

I already suffer from chronic back pain that nags me 24/7. No doctor seems to know wtf it is... decongestants seem to help, but leave me groggy. I go from feeling like there is hot snot in the muscles, to so stiff that the dining room table is flexible, to other weird symptoms. It gets so bad it affects other things.

Anyway, I'm glad I don't have the severe cramps, though they do act up every now and then.