As I sit here writing this, I feel shitty. Sluggish, unmotivated, deflated, potentially on the brink of Coming Down with Something. These aren't particularly unique traits to possess in the first week of January, but an absent-minded, procrastinatory check of my period app informs me that there's another reason I might be feeling like this: my period is due this weekend.
Unless you're one of those magical women who loses three tablespoons of blood during your period – the ones you see in ads for sanitary products, horse-riding in tight cream jodhpurs while the rest of us lie supine in our clammy beds, holding our bloated bellies as we feel various liquids seep out from us and onto the adult diaper we are wearing – then you will know this: periods fucking suck.
While you – errant men reading this – might be wondering about how best to fill your weekend with lots of life-affirming, Instagram-story friendly activity, I am spending my day contemplating why I don't have any friends in California who can ship me some cannabis tea, and also how many hours of Buffy I can watch in a row before I have to get up to refresh my hot water bottle.
Although we have moved on from the era in which most female health problems were assigned to either the fields of "witchcraft" or "hysteria", female pain and women’'s health are still far from being properly acknowledged. A study last year showed that period pains can be as painful as a heart attack, and yet we are expected to carry on our life as normal when we're menstruating. Research has shown that doctors are less likely to take women's pain seriously; traces of the school of thought that links women's pain to hysteria still exist, and the poorer and darker you are, the more likely you are to experience this kind of dismissal.
In 2018, researchers at Western Sydney University conducted the world's largest study into period pain. After surveying 5,000 Australian girls and young women, they found that around 90 percent were experiencing period pain, with 20 to 25 percent of respondents saying that painkillers provided no relief. Sick of not having their pain taken seriously, and in the wake of the wellness trend that seems to have taken over every aspect of our lives, increasing numbers of women are turning to more holistic, natural approaches to pain relief.
"I think the trend towards holistic remedies or a more natural approach to health – especially for women – is because the current medical approach is not working at all," says hormonal wellness expert Nicole Jardim. "Ultimately, it's not addressing the underlying cause of what's happening. I've seen a massive uptick of women moving away from that way of doing things and towards this root cause approach, where they are trying to find a multi-faceted way of addressing their health problems, and in particular their period problems."
If you go to your GP about period pain, you will typically be asked if you have considered going on the contraceptive pill, which can help reduce some of the pain and discomfort, along with making your periods lighter and more regular. It can also wreak havoc on pretty much every other aspect of your physical and mental health. This is exactly what happened to Jardim. After years of suffering from terrible periods – something she describes as having normalised as "my lot in life" – she went to a gynaecologist at 19, who immediately wrote her a prescription for the pill.
"I was thrilled because I was finally part of the cool girls club," she laughs. "I was on it for five years. I didn't have any of the symptoms anymore, but they were replaced with chronic yeast infections, UTIs, my hair was falling out, my sex drive disappeared, I had horrible digestive issues…these synthetic hormones are not our hormones, so they do completely different things to our bodies. I got off it, started doing acupuncture and that completely changed the trajectory of my life – there was no way I was going back to the medical complex."
The last few years have seen a huge move towards wellness and natural therapies. We are more aware than ever about what we are doing to and putting into our bodies, whether that be the decision to go vegan, the increased interest in ancient practices such as Ayurveda, or a refusal to buy cosmetics full of chemicals whose names we can't pronounce. Things that only ten years ago were (in the West) seen as the preserve of hippies and people from Bristol have become mainstays of our diets and routines: charcoal shots, turmeric lattes, snail slime face masks, hot yoga, natural wine. Access to healthcare is more precarious than ever, with the NHS chronically underfunded and prescription costs rising year on year, and we are more aware of and concerned about the side effects and toxins present in pharmaceuticals. We are demanding increased transparency in every area of our lives, and our health is no different. Wellness is big business. We want everything from our snacks to our skincare to be natural, certified organic and cruelty free – it makes sense that this mindset is crossing over to the way we treat our periods.
A bit about me: I suffer from horrible periods. I basically have to take three whole days off from my life every month to lie horizontally, pop painkillers and attach (multiple) hot water bottles to myself in an attempt to not throw myself out the window. I spent last Christmas alone because I was in too much pain to make the journey from my bed to the kitchen to fill up my hot water bottle, much less travel from south-east to north-west London.
I have a repeat prescription for mefenamic acid (a non-hormonal, anti-inflammatory drug), which helps numb the pain but doesn't do much for the root cause. I once went on the pill – as recommended by my GP – which resulted in me uncontrollably crying and screaming at people for no reason whatsoever, and feeling, generally, quite insane. But as the tide of wellness washes over us and I find myself making
positive changes (drinking water sometimes), I wondered if I could apply wellness to my period pains.
What are the natural options out there for having a more painless period?
Scientifically speaking, period pain broadly falls under two categories: primary and secondary dysmenorrhea (literally translating to "difficult menstrual flow"). Primary dysmenorrhea is "normal" menstrual pain, and can be treated through diet and exercise, whereas secondary dysmenorrhea is generally related to some kind of gynecologic condition such as endometriosis or ovarian cysts, which you should probably see a GP about – although getting them to care is another battle entirely. Primary dysmenorrhea is caused in part by prostaglandins – hormones that make your uterus contract during menstruation and childbirth – which are driven by inflammation, and what drives that is our diet and stress levels.
"When we are in a state of nutrient deficiency, it triggers an inflammatory response, and that for some women shows up as period pain. For a lot of women, this reduces dramatically when they address what's going on with their diet," says Jardim. "If you can only make one dietary change, I would say cut out the dairy – so many people are sensitive to it and it's so inflammatory. I suggest trying it out for 28 days and seeing what your period is like, and then you can decide if it's worth it."
Something that became apparent quickly during my research was that a holistic approach to health is, well, holistic – in a very literal sense: i.e. "characterised by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole". In medical terms, this means treating the whole person; taking mental and social factors into account and not just the symptoms of the disease. There was more to having a natural period than just spraying CBD oil into my mouth and drinking peppermint tea.
As I made notes about natural remedies for period pain – greens, exercise, nuts, plenty of water – I realised I had to tackle the problem at the root, the root being my entire life. As my more loyal fans may know from my previous forays into fitness, I am not great at treating my body like a temple, or even like a semi-detached three-bedroom house in zone 4. In other words, I needed to learn to see my body as a connected whole, rather than a sum of random parts thrown together to annoy me.
In light of this new knowledge, I ventured into a place I had never been before: popular high-street health retailer Holland & Barrett. I left half an hour later and £50 lighter, armed with supplements and organic snacks to replace the chicken nuggets I usually eat when "Auntie Flo" comes to visit. I also ordered some specially-crafted herbal teas for PMS from Femna Health; some natural, organic sanitary products from TOTM (turns out there are toxic chemicals in most of the big name ones! Excellent!); and a cherry stone pillow from Rubycup, which also specialises in moon cups if you are further along in your acceptance of free-bleeding than me. I also signed up to "luxury period subscription box" company Pink Parcel, because I like the thought of a monthly surprise that isn't just my period coming early.
I'd like to clarify: this is not a scientific experiment and I'm not an influencer, so I won't be reviewing whether any of this actually works. Also, a bunch of it involves long-term dietary change that I don't have the internal strength to take on right now. I will say, however, that the teas are made of many of the same herbs my Iranian mother has been trying to make me drink for my whole life, but which I have refused to try because I am stubborn and have to do everything on my own terms, and for that I want to say: sorry, mum.
In terms of where to go next, wellness expert and author Jacqueline Harvey advised me to start by looking at inflammation, and specifically things in my diet that could be causing inflammation. Unfortunately, because life is cruel and unfair, the things that cause the most inflammation are those that we often crave around our periods: sugar, red meat, dairy, alcohol and carbohydrates. Harvey recommended working linseed or cod liver oil, avocados and Vitamin E into my diet; all help to cool inflammation in the body and support the metabolisation of oestrogen out of the body.
Another good way to reduce inflammation is… exercise. "Exercise helps to lower inflammation in the body," said Harvey, "but you don't need to do heavy exercise – that's definitely not what to do when you're pre-menstrual and sensitive. We need to be doing gentler things like walking and swimming. It's pre-menstrual stress, so you don't want to over-stress the body by doing lots of exercise, because that will add to your pre-menstrual tension."
Supplementation is also key: magnesium, iron, B complex vitamins (great for helping the liver detox excess hormones) and fish oil have all been linked to reducing primary dysmenorrhea. Essential oils are also good: peppermint oil makes a great soothing rub while menstruating, and heated castor oil packs can help reduce pain when used in the lead up to the period. If you can get your hands on them, CBD suppositories are supposedly a godsend.
Something else both experts stress the importance of is mindfulness – this doesn't mean booking yourself into a silent retreat, but just taking some time to check in with your body and, if you can, taking some time out. "It's the whole package," notes Harvey. "You need to change the food, you need the relaxation. The problem is that a lot of work that people are doing and the way we're living is just so stressful, and that adds to the PMS and the painful periods."
"Hormones don't exist in a vacuum," adds Jardim. "Stress causes inflammation, and that causes chronic pain. I think, more than anything, women need to figure out a way to take some time when they get their period – eyes closed, breathing, hands on your womb… breathing into that area in your body. Our bodies are gonna start screaming at us eventually if we're not paying attention."
Unfortunately, when it comes to pain – specifically pain that is specific to women – we are often told to just grin and bear it. Not in the way that men are told to "man up", but rather in a way that positions womanhood and femininity as intrinsically painful. It also does not help that we are still so misinformed by the medical establishment – from being offered the pill as the first solution to painful periods, to the information about how much blood it's normal to lose during our periods being based on research from the 1960s, to the establishments we trust to help us not being able to offer us much more than a shrug and an ibuprofen when it comes to something that affects 80 percent of women.
It's hard not to tie the collective disinterest from the medical complex in dealing with period pain into their more general disinterest in women’s bodies and experiences, and the social codes we live under that simultaneously normalise and undermine female pain. "Collectively, I think it's a huge problem in our society because that area of our body is so disliked; it's ignored and shrouded in so much secrecy and shame and embarrassment, and that starts from a really young age," laments Jardim. "We can start to shift our perception about our periods so we're not constantly feeling like we hate this thing."
Perhaps, then, we will find ourselves closer to the "happy periods" that we are forever being promised by brands that are potentially putting carcinogens in our sanitary products.