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 wasnít so bad, but by the third one, I was grabbing my hubby, throwing him on the bed, and screaming “GET ME PREGNANT Ė 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.
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 Iím 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. Thereís 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 arenít your cup of tea, there are natural things you can do to reduce your menstrual cramps.
Next: 15 tips to reduce menstrual cramps naturally