For some people, menstrual cramps are no big deal, but for others, they're truly hellish: the throbbing or tightening pain in the lower abdomen, the nausea, the vomiting, the fatigue, the diarrhea. The symptoms can be truly debilitating and can last anywhere from 12 to 72 hours.
To alleviate the pain, your first thought may be to grab a bottle of Midol and cross your fingers, hoping it'll subside stat. But there are several natural ways to relieve menstrual cramps as well.
Grab a heating pad — applying heat to your abdomen and lower back may relieve the pain.
According to a 2012 study in BMC Women's Health, women 18 to 30 years old who used a heat patch (at 104 degrees F) found it was just as effective as taking ibuprofen. Heating pads and patches are available at drugstores, but if you don't have any at home, you can use a hot water bottle, too. And according to the Mayo Clinic, soaking in a hot bath may also ease menstrual cramps.
You may not want to, but forcing yourself to get up and get moving may actually alleviate cramping because the endorphins released by exercise counteract the effects of prostaglandins (hormones). According to a 2008 study in Sports Medicine, exercise may not only reduce menstrual pain but may also reduce or even eliminate the need for pain-relief medication.
"[The exercise] doesn't need to be super strenuous," Petra Casey, associate professor of OB-GYN at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, told U.S. News in 2014. "Just a walk or jog or going to the gym and taking a yoga class can really help."
Take a yoga class
Speaking of yoga, give this exercise a try next time your symptoms set in. According to a 2011 study in the Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, three yoga poses (cobra, cat and fish poses) significantly reduced the intensity of pain and also cut down on the length of pain during menstruation.
Have an orgasm
Yes, you read that right: Aim for the big 'O' while on your period.
When you have a vaginal orgasm, your brain may release endorphins and oxytocin. In fact, a 1985 study in the journal Pain found that vaginal self-stimulation doubled a person's tolerance for pain.
"Women describe clitoral orgasms as more localized and external and vaginal orgasms as being internal and involving the whole body," Dr. Barry Komisaruk, a psychology professor at Rutgers University who studies the female orgasm, told the BBC in 2015. "That's probably because the nerves that carry sensations from the clitoris are different from the nerves from the vagina."
According to the Mayo Clinic, you should avoid alcohol because it can make menstrual cramps worse. However, you can drink all the tea you want. "Raspberry leaf is known for eliminating cramps and yarrow is known for regulating blood flow, so I make sure those are my main ingredients in my tea," holistic health care practitioner Amanda Campbell tells SheKnows. "I notice a definite improvement when it comes to my energy levels and just general feeling of 'ick.'"
Take dietary supplements, including magnesium
The Mayo Clinic also suggests taking certain dietary supplements while on your period, including Vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B1 (thiamine), vitamin B6 and magnesium. A 2001 study in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews showed that these supplements may reduce menstrual cramps.
"PMS is considered to worsen with constipation and toxicity. Magnesium is a natural detoxifier and muscle relaxer and helps with constipation and painful cramps," Dr. Carolyn Dean, a medical advisory board member of the nonprofit Nutritional Magnesium Association, told SheKnows. "If the bowel doesn't empty once a day, toxins can be reabsorbed back into the body from the colon. The longer debris sits in the colon, the more fluid is reabsorbed, making stools more solid and difficult to pass."
Dean recommends taking magnesium citrate powder mixed with water and sipping it throughout the day. "It helps support our energy and supports the liver's natural detoxification pathways, relaxes muscles and relieves cramping," she said.
So, the next time your cramps become unbearable, you might want to try some of these natural (and, in many cases, free) options. Who knows — you might find something that works really well for you.
A version of this article was originally published in August 2011.