Photo by Wini Lao
You know those extremely painful periods. The kind that has you doubled over in pain, unable to move, tied down to your bed, or even vomiting. No matter what you’ve been told, extreme pain is NOT normal. Fortunately, there are hot compresses, yoga, and medicinal herbs like those used in #periodpainfree elixirs that naturally quell period pain. In more serious times, it may be time to see a doctor.
See a doctor!? Period pain can be that serious? It sure can. Period pain is your body’s way of telling you something is off. When the pain feels extremely bad and persistent, it could be a sign you have endometriosis, estrogen dominance, uterine fibroids, or another gynecological disease that affects your reproductive system.
If you feel alarmed at all by the state of your cycle, we absolutely encourage you to seek medical attention (and get a second opinion if you're not satisfied with the first!) But before you dial your doctor for the soonest avail, we encourage you to read on to first learn more about potential serious causes of period pain. Being armed with this information will help you to ask your doc the tough questions about the state of your cycle so that you can be your own advocate while in the room.
Sounds scary, and it is (a bit.) Endometriosis is an often painful disorder where tissue that normally lines the inside of your uterus (aka endometrium) grows outside your uterus. When you have endometriosis, displaced endometrial tissue continues to act per usual. It thickens, breaks down, and bleeds with every menstrual cycle. Problem is because this displaced tissue has no way to exit your body, it gets trapped. To make matters worse, surrounding tissue can become irritated, leading to the development of scar tissue and adhesions.
How do you know you have endometriosis? You might have it if you’re experiencing:
Painful periods (dysmenorrhea)
- Pain with intercourse
- Pain with bowel movements or urination
- Excessive bleeding
- Bloating or nausea, especially during menstrual periods
It can be caused by a number of triggers like:
Retrograde menstruation: This has nothing to do with Mercury. During retrograde menstruation, menstrual blood containing endometrial cells flows back through the fallopian tubes and into the pelvic cavity not out the body. The displaced endometrial cells latch onto the pelvic walls and surfaces of the pelvic organs. There they grow and continue to thicken and bleed during each menstrual cycle. Not fun.
Transformation of peritoneal cells: Ever hear of “induction theory?” In it, experts propose hormones or immune factors encourage the transformation of peritoneal cells (aka cells that line the inner side of your abdomen) into endometrial cells.
Embryonic cell transformation: During puberty, hormones like estrogen may transform embryonic cells (aka cells in the early stages of development) into endometrial cell implants.
Surgical scar implantation: After a surgery, such as a hysterectomy or C-section, endometrial cells may attach to a surgical incision.
Endometrial cells transport: The blood vessels or tissue fluid (lymphatic) system may transport endometrial cells to other parts of the body.
Immune system disorder: It's possible that a problem with the immune system may make the body unable to recognize and destroy endometrial tissue that's growing outside the uterus.
Apparently, it’s possible to be too female. Estrogen dominance simply means you have too much estrogen. This is a problem because estrogen levels become too high relative to other hormones, specifically progesterone. While estrogen dominance commonly appears when estrogen levels get too high, it can also happen when progesterone levels fall too low. Unluckily for us, estrogen dominance is life stage agnostic - it can hit during reproductive years, perimenopause, or even menopause.
Estrogen dominance shows its colors in multiple different shades. Common symptoms include:
- High emotional sensitivity
There are a number of causes of estrogen dominance. Do any of these apply to you?
Chronic Stress: This is 2019. We’re all stressed. What you don’t know is dealing with chronic stress on a regular basis stresses out your adrenal glands. This leads to a decrease in the amount of progesterone produced, causing a progesterone deficiency.
- Birth Control Pills: One more strike against hormonal birth control is it suppresses the production of progesterone. This leads to a progesterone deficiency and estrogen dominance.
Xenohormones: Today everyone is exposed to xenohormones in the foods they eat and the products they buy. Xenohormones act as hormone disruptors, and can easily cause a hormone imbalance to occur. It is of course nearly impossible to completely eliminate your exposure to xenohormones, but chances are you can do a much better job of minimizing your exposure to them.
Excess Body Fat: Excess body fat (especially stored in the hips, waist, and thighs) is one of the leading causes of estrogen dominance. Not only does fat tissue absorb and store estrogen circulating in your bloodstream, but it also synthesizes estrogen from your other hormones. Having high levels of estrogen cues your body to make more fat cells, which then produce even more estrogen, creating a vicious cycle.
Heavy Metals: Heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, and mercury, have estrogen-mimicking properties. It’s even been suggested that the presence of these endocrine-disrupting elements in our environment may be behind the earlier-onset puberty that has become the norm in our modern societies.
These non-cancerous growths of the uterus often appear during childbearing years. Otherwise known as leiomyomas (lie-o-my-O-muhs) or myomas, uterine fibroids have no association with an increased risk of uterine cancer and almost never develop into cancer (yay!). They come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from seedlings to bulky masses that can distort and enlarge the uterus. It’s possible to have one or many fibroids.
The tricky thing about uterine fibroids is many women who have them don’t have any symptoms. In those that do, symptoms can be influenced by the location, size, and number of fibroids. Common symptoms include:
- Heavy menstrual bleeding
- Menstrual periods lasting more than a week
- Pelvic pressure or pain
- Frequent urination
- Difficulty emptying the bladder
- Backache or leg pains
While doctors don't know the cause of uterine fibroids, research and clinical experience point to these factors:
Genetic changes: Many fibroids contain changes in genes that differ from those in normal uterine muscle cells.
Hormones: Estrogen and progesterone, two hormones that stimulate the development of the uterine lining during each menstrual cycle in preparation for pregnancy, promote the growth of fibroids. Fibroids contain more estrogen and progesterone receptors than normal uterine muscle cells do. Fibroids tend to shrink after menopause due to a decrease in hormone production.
Other growth factors: Substances that help the body maintain tissues, such as insulin-like growth factor, may affect fibroid growth.
While these are common (serious) causes of painful periods, this is not an exhaustive list. Other potential causes could be infection, pelvic inflammatory disease, cervical stenosis, and more. We’re here to inform, not diagnose, so it’s important you consult with your doctor if you’re experiencing any questionable symptoms.
As women, we’re told periods are painful and downright awful, and that’s what being a woman is all about. The reality is they don't have to be. By catching symptoms early, seeing a doctor when necessary, and leading a healthy lifestyle, you can take control of your period pain. And we’re here to help. If your doctor agrees you’re safe to consume Chinese herbs, our personal period health tonics work to balance your body for a peaceful flow.
Take a minute a learn how your own personal period health tonic can change the way you experience your period.