I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how miserable heavy and painful periods can be. If you’ve ever suffered from a disrupted menstrual cycle, you probably know all about this problem. Trust me, it’s not just you.
Too many women accept that painful and heavy periods are a natural part of life. Although we don’t talk about our periods much, you’ve probably had enough conversations with female family and friends to have come to the conclusion that, in westernised societies, it’s pretty normal to have long, heavy periods. But what if they’re a sign that something is off with our health.
My story with heavy periods
Naturally, I have my own experiences of heavy periods. Even when I was a teenager, I was plagued by ridiculously heavy periods. They were also horribly painful. In fact, even to this day, I find it hard to assess whether injuries are something I need to take seriously or not, based on how the pain compares to my periods. Less painful than a period? It’s probably nothing serious.
This is the reason I worked with a broken finger for over a week before eventually going to the hospital when I realised I couldn’t straighten it after the swelling went down. I was comparing the pain in my swollen, injured finger with my period pains. There was absolutely no contest, so it must have been something minor.
How did I try to stop my heavy, painful periods?
Like so many women, I tried medicating my periods: I tried a cocktail of painkillers (paracetamol/acetaminophen, naproxen, buscopan and codeine). Every month, I went with the highest doses I could get away with. Sometimes I exceeded them. Even the codeine only dulled the pain and made me stop caring about it as much. I was able to take enough to stop a horse, but I still kept getting on with work and normal life. Apart from being a little quieter and having no sense of humour for a few days, you’d never have known from the outside that I was in so much discomfort. I also tried mefenamic acid and the Dianette oral contraceptive pill, which was supposed to help with my acne as well (it didn’t). Nothing worked. I thought this was just bad luck, but nothing really out of the ordinary.
Throughout most of my adult life, I was a bit anaemic. I ate plenty of red meat with green leafy vegetables and my diet was always rich in iron. It came as no surprise that I was always a bit tired. My GP prescribed a few courses of oral iron which would improve my iron stores briefly, but after I stopped my blood counts would drop again. I never really had bags of energy, but my job was exhausting, so I put it down to that plus the excessively heavy periods.
At least my periods were always regular and, although they were very heavy, they only lasted five days. I know there are lots of women whose periods last for a week or even two, particularly as they approach menopause, so I counted myself lucky. But I’ve never been the sort of woman who could get away with wearing period pants without a lot of additional protection.
How do you know if your menstrual blood loss is too heavy?
Menorrhagia is the name given to abnormally prolonged and heavy periods. It’s defined as total blood loss of greater than 80ml per cycle or menses lasting longer than seven days.
On the Mayo website, you can find the following advice on how to identify if you’re suffering from heavy periods:
- Are you soaking through at least one sanitary pad or tampon per hour for several consecutive hours?
- Do you need double sanitary protection?
- Do you need to wake up to change your sanitary protection overnight?
- Does your bleeding last for more than a week?
- Do you pass clots larger than a quarter?
- Does heavy menstrual flow cause you to restrict your daily activities?
- Do you have symptoms of anaemia, eg tiredness, fatigue, shortness of breath and pale skin?
If you do, your periods are heavier than they should be.
Looking at that checklist, I managed to check off most of them. And when I eventually started using a menstrual cup, I was shocked to discover that I was losing over 200 ml of blood per cycle. No wonder I was anaemic!
What are periods like for hunter-gatherer women?
Have you ever been curious about the experiences of other women around the world, when it comes to their menstrual cycles? I was, mostly because I had my suspicions that, while it might be very common for women living in westernised countries to have awful periods, likely, we’re not supposed to experience this. So I wasn’t just curious about women in farming societies; I was most interested in how those women who are still mostly living as our ancestors did before we introduced farming experience their periods.
Part of the reason for my curiosity is that, since I started to change my own diet about a decade ago, I’ve noticed some remarkable changes in my periods. First I eliminated almost all ultra-processed foods and gluten. I went mostly paleo and started introducing organ meats, especially liver and bone broths, my periods started getting lighter and less painful. I was able to come off or reduce most of the painkillers I needed to help me function during a period (or at least to avoid brutally murdering someone in a pain-induced fury). Not only that, but my periods became noticeably lighter, although still not normal. So I started to suspect that both toxins in foods and malnutrition could affect my menstrual cycles.
And then I had my one and only gadolinium contrast MRI scan. My next period arrived early, lasted three times as long as it should have and was extremely abnormal. Meanwhile, I was experiencing symptoms of generalised toxicity and mitochondrial damage with insulin resistance from the MRI contrast.
Obviously, this raised questions about our toxic burdens (the cumulative amount of toxins in our bodies at any given time), oxidative stress (this is what occurs when we become overrun with more free radicals than we can cope with and our mitochondrial power generators are damaged), female hormones and our reproductive systems.
Meet the women of the Hadzabe.
The Hadza are a group of hunter-gatherers living in Tanzania. They also call themselves Hadzabe. There are only a few hundred left who still subsist almost entirely off the land, eating what they kill and forage. They have their own language, spiritual beliefs, values and traditions as well.
The Hadza people are some of the most fascinating to study. They’re lean, healthy, well-nourished, happy, and don’t suffer from the chronic diseases that we do.
Is the Hadza diet and microbiome important?
They have the some of the richest and most diverse microbiomes of all people (although they do not eat whole grains, apart from the maize they buy or barter for). We now know that their microbial biodiversity changes seasonally, depending on what they eat. Perhaps counterintuitively, their microbiome diversity increases during the dry season (when they eat more meat and fewer plants) than in the wet season.
We also know that microbiome imbalances with loss of diversity are found in all chronic illnesses seen in industrial societies. The Human Food Project even describes how Hadzabe hunters cleaned their hands after a fresh kill with the stomach contents of an impala, then ate a little of the raw stomach and lightly seared colon. Perhaps it’s not as surprising as I’d initially thought that their microbiomes are enriched when eating more meat.
But what are their periods like?
Women in the Hadzabe hunter-gatherer community have very short menstrual periods (1-4 days, although the average length of their periods is a paltry 2.5-3 days). They likely also have quite light periods. And they work out when their periods are due by following the phases of the moon. Every lunar cycle, they have one very short period. Less than half of them suffer from period pains. Some of them self-medicate with some herbs they gather in the bush. Typically, Hadza women have their first menstrual period aged 16 years.
Some Hadzabe women even have normal fertility without ever having had a menstrual period; just go from pregnancy to pregnancy with no bleeding ever. They have no breast or gynaecological cancers, there doesn’t seem to be a problem with polycystic ovary syndrome, irregular periods, infertility, or other problems we women in westernized countries suffer from.
At this point, let me just repeat how long their periods last: an average of 2.5 to 3 days. Only one woman recalled having periods lasting four days.
Let that sink in for a minute: women who live much as our ancestors did don’t suffer from the horrible menstrual problems that we’re afflicted with. The healthy length of periods appears to be no more than four days long. Does this make you feel as jealous as it did me? We are accepting desperately abnormal reproductive health because we don’t know any better.
What's the Hadza diet and lifestyle like?
Hadzabe people primarily eat foods they hunt and gather, plus a small amount of condensed milk and maize products. They’re not exposed to pollution or other modern toxins. They don’t consume sugar. But their favourite food is wild honey on the comb that they forage, along with bee larvae and pollen.
Being hunters, they eat lots of small animals and eggs. Hadza women actually procure these while foraging. The Hadza men, on the other hand, proudly bring home large wild game which is shared with the tribe.
Also, they gather a wide variety of tubers, fruits, berries, seeds, and herbs as well.
They spend a lot of their time outdoors, without sunscreen of course. Their free time they spend hanging out, eating, dancing, singing, talking and telling stories. They also don’t have to work during their periods. Not a bad way to live, I’m sure you’ll agree. Particularly if your periods only last about 2.5-3 days and you don’t have to go through menopause.
There is no word in the Hadzabe lexicon for menopause. Apparently, they don’t need one because Hadza women don’t experience it. After they stop breastfeeding their final child their periods just don’t come back in their late thirties or early forties. Quite a few of them experience vaginal dryness and several experience pain during sex after their periods stop. But no hot flushes, no irregular periods, no prolonged bleeding, no mood swings…
Clearly, the Hadza are doing a lot of things right. And they are very well-nourished, particularly when you compare them with us. Malnutrition isn’t just rampant in non-industrialised farming nations. It’s a terrible problem in rich, westernised countries, despite the fact that we go out of our way to add synthetic vitamins and inorganic mineral supplements to practically all of our industrialised, commercially produced, ultra-processed foods.
Which makes it all the more confusing and criminal that aid organisations and missionaries are trying to cause malnutrition in the non-malnourished, happy, generous, relaxed Hadzabe people by distributing free, non-traditional, nutritionally destitute foods like maize, rice, beans and wheat to them. Even though they are perfectly well aware that this threatens the food sovereignty of the hunter-gatherer Hadzabe and hastens their transition to agriculture and poor health, who experience much better health than their neighbours who have adopted agriculture.
This isn't the typical experience of western women, is it?
We women, who don’t live as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, suffer from a host of difficult, debilitating conditions related to our reproductive systems.
We develop polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), fibroids, polyps in our wombs, endometriosis, adenomyosis, irregular ovulation, cancers of our reproductive tracts and more. All these chronic conditions result in problem periods: periods that are painful and heavy. Several conditions may predispose to these, like bleeding disorders, medications, stress and connective tissues like Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. Thanks, EDS. You’re the gift that keeps giving.
Interestingly, when you look for associations between these predisposing conditions and chronic inflammation, insulin resistance, oxidative stress and mitochondrial damage or dysfunction, you find them every time. Now correlation doesn’t equal causation. But it’s not just correlation for several of these conditions. There are well-described ways that chronic inflammation, oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction can alter hormone production and lead to insulin resistance. Some of these conditions, like endometriosis, are even linked with autoimmunity.
Our standard approach to stop heavy periods has been to medicate and operate. We’ve been completely medicalised. And we get our insides scanned, over and over, to look for an underlying cause, sometimes using gadolinium MRIs.
The usual treatment approach looks something like: pain killers, the oral contraceptive pill, then some other hormone-altering drug, tranexamic acid, surgery, uterine artery embolisation, ablation, myomectomy and, as a last resort, hysterectomy. Every one of these has side effects which can be severe. The medications can affect your mood, your microbiome and your mitochondria. They can also contribute to malnutrition by reducing micronutrient absorption.
What other choice do you have to stop heavy periods?
The good news is that you can try a lot of natural approaches to stop heavy periods and other menstrual problems. Here are some suggestions.
Using diet to stop heavy periods naturally
- Adopt a diet, like the Hadza, that is anti-inflammatory and based on real foods.
- Eat meat. The Hadza bring home 0.7kg of meat per person per day (although this weight includes bones and offal). They eat nose to tail. Nothing is wasted with the Hadza. They don’t so much bring home the bacon as they do the entire wild pig! If you’d like to get started with nose to tail eating, check out this cheap and delicious recipe for a broth made from trotters (pigs feet).
- Prioritize nutrient density. The most nutrient-dense food you can find is liver (but make sure you only eat liver from non-factory farmed sources). Other organ meats are also very nutrient-dense. Choose wild SMASH (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herrings) oily fish. Mollusk shellfish are also incredibly nutrient-dense, so don’t forget them.
- Cook your meals from scratch yourself, or eat food that’s been prepared by someone you trust who only uses real food ingredients.
- Use herbs liberally, as well as medicinal mushrooms. These are anti-inflammatory and rich in antioxidants.
- Ditch the CRAP (Carbonated beverages, Refined carbohydrates (especially sugar and gluten), Artificial sweeteners and food additives, and Processed foods).
- Ditch the vegetable seed oils, like canola, rapeseed, sunflower, soybean, cottonseed and safflower oil.
- Replace these with traditional, healthy fats, like tallow, lard, goose and duck fat, schmaltz and bacon fat from healthy, pastured animals, as well as genuine extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil.
- Adopt an ancestral eating pattern: Hadza women include lots of variety in their diets. However, traditionally they didn’t include grains, dairy, or pulses. They eat plenty of berries, nuts, seeds, meat, eggs, and tubers, while honey is their favourite food, complete with the pollen and bee larvae.
- Some popular ancestral eating patterns include the Weston A Price Foundation Diet, Paleo Diet, Primal Diet, a whole-food healthy fat, low carbohydrate diet, a whole-food ketogenic diet, the Wahls Protocol paleo or Paleo Plus diet or the Autoimmune Protocol. My diet currently mostly resembles a low carbohydrate version of the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) paleo diet.
Reducing toxin exposures to stop heavy periods naturally
We’re all exposed to myriad toxins every day, regardless of whether we live in the city or in the country. Toxins are now in our homes, our food, our water, our work environments and in the air we breathe. Here are some suggestions to reduce your toxic burden and, by extension, reduce chronic inflammation, oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction:
- Avoid these products completely, or choose products that have low toxin contents (makeup, skin-care, cleaning products, laundry detergent, toothpaste, sunscreen, perfumes, shampoos and conditioners).
- Choose organic foods, or refer to the Dirty Dozen Clean 15 list by the Environmental Working Group.
- Choose furniture, carpets, mattresses, pyjamas, duvets, clothes, cars and other items carefully to avoid toxic flame retardants which will off-gas for long periods of time.
- Consider purchasing a high-quality water filter, but check to see if it actually removes heavy metals, pesticides, medications and their metabolites first.
- Review your sanitary towels and tampons. These can be a source of pesticides and chemicals. They’re also very polluting. Consider using menstrual cups and washable, reusable cloth pads (old school, I know. But will also save you a lot of money in the long run).
- If you take medications, check whether you actually need them and consider stopping or weaning off them under the care of your doctor.
- Watch your alcohol intake. In fact, consider cutting alcohol out completely to see whether this helps.
- Be very careful with dental fillings. Don’t get amalgam fillings. If you have amalgam fillings be extremely careful when having them removed or replaced. Also, avoid titanium and gold in your mouth.
Using lifestyle to stop heavy periods naturally
There’s a lot that you can do using lifestyle to improve your periods. Chronic stress, inactivity, sleep deprivation, isolation and other factors can impact your hormones as well as contribute to chronic inflammation, oxidative stress and mitochondrial damage. Lifestyle factors are probably more important than you think in promoting healthy periods. And chronic stress is a lot more prevalent now than before with huge numbers of busy professionals suffering from burnout. Let’s take our cues from the Hadza women again:
- We all know that movement is important and that a sedentary lifestyle is bad for your health. But make sure the movement you incorporate regularly isn’t more stressful than YOU can manage. You might be better off doing restorative exercise, like walking, yoga, tai chi, or pilates than running or doing high-intensity interval training. But different strokes for different folks. So long as you’re including enough recovery and you enjoy it, follow your own body cues.
- Get outside into nature and into the sun. Avoid both sunscreen and sunburn (this may be a bit of a tightrope to walk).
- Practice stress reduction in as many ways as you can. Try practising gratitude, doing some deep breathing exercises, visual imagery, mindfulness and other forms of meditation. But don’t forget that learning how to be assertive and saying no are also great ways to combat stress.
- The antidote to isolation is community. Make sure you have some great social supports, be it family, friends, coworkers, teams, groups, your local farmers market, volunteer work, learning new skills at courses, or whatever way you can manage regular connection with other people. Furry friends are also very important for our health if you can keep them.
My journey with heavy periods. Did I manage to stop them?
So after the gadolinium contrast MRI completely threw me a curveball and screwed up my menstrual cycle even more than it had been, I’ve managed to get it, not just back to where it was before then, but practically normal. It’s taken a lot of trial and error, a lot of research and a lot of educated guesses. But I’m now painkiller-free, my cycle is back to an even 26-28 days length, period length is about 4 days, and it’s not like some sort of murder scene any more. I don’t have to get up in the middle of the night in a panic to change pads or anything else. I’m probably losing less than 100ml of blood per cycle these days, so well under half of what I was losing when things were at their worse.
But not just that, my overall health is much better now. I’m far less tired, my sleep is way better than it’s been for years (not normal yet, but not a disaster either), my mood is better, my anxiety is much less, my acne is far better, my joints are holding themselves together better, my joint pains are far better, my muscle twitches and heart palpitations are practically back down to normal and my voice has come back again (that was a particularly weird thing that happened after the gadolinium as well: I started going hoarse. Not a little bit hoarse. I started sounding like a seagull when I was singing. You can read more about my experiences after my only gadolinium contrast for an MRI here and here). My gut is also in much better health as well.
I came off my oral contraceptive pill well over a decade ago. It did absolutely nothing for either my periods or my acne. What a complete waste of time that was. It just made me put on weight. It probably made me moody as well.
I’ve managed to turn all of this around using no medications. I’ve done no iv chelation for the gadolinium. I do take targeted supplements. But most of it is the dietary and lifestyle changes.
What's my weirdest discovery?
My period pains are nothing like what they used to be. But the strangest thing I’ve discovered through all of this is that, when they’re a bit worse, if I eat a small bit of fresh chicken liver early in the day, the pain improves a lot. And then if I have a second small portion of fresh chicken liver a few hours later, the pain disappears completely and it’s like someone turns my period faucet off. It’s the oddest thing.
Other weird things I’ve discovered are that some foods that most people consider extremely nutritious and healthy, like nuts, seeds and nightshade vegetables, will keep me awake all night in period agony and having to get up to change my menstrual cup. I was not expecting that! It probably explains why sometimes I noticed my periods would be much worse in the evenings after dinner when I transitioned to a paleo diet.
That sounds like they were far better on a conventional diet before I went paleo. They weren’t; they were orders of magnitude worse. But they were consistently worse with no hope or sign of improvement any cycle. After I went paleo and started eating nose to tail with lots of liver in my diet, they were often much better, but then sometimes they’d be awful again.
Are you fed up with heavy periods and want to stop them?
So if you, too, want some relief from heavy periods and disorder menstrual cycles, want to save money on sanitary towels and tampons, reduce your reliance on medications, feel healthier, improve your focus and concentration or experience any of the other benefits you can actualise by making the right diet and lifestyle changes, what’s stopping you? If I can do this, you can, too!
Just know that you no longer have to accept miserable periods as being a normal part of life. And medications and operations aren’t your only solutions. In fact, the evidence is lacking that they’re even your best solutions.
Of course, if you’ve experienced a sudden or recent change in your menstrual cycle that you weren’t expecting, new bleeding between periods, or any other symptoms that you’re worried about, please do see your doctor. There might be something else underlying this. Sometimes it is worth doing some sort of testing and scanning.
I’m curious. Heavy and painful periods don’t often happen in isolation. They are usually part of a bigger picture that includes struggling with your weight, sleep, mood, food cravings, anxiety, skin problems, energy levels, and digestive issues. Have you noticed any other problems apart from heavy periods?
While my initial foray into the wonderful world of nutrition was to help clear up the acne that had plagued me all the way from adolescence into adulthood (you can read about that journey here. It left me with permanent scarring), I’ve had issues with all the things I’ve just mentioned… and more! What about you?
One of the things I really struggled with was insomnia. In fact I had sleep anxiety pretty bad. Find out what sleep anxiety is like in this blog post. But the diet and lifestyle changes I’ve talked about here have made an incredible difference to my sleep anxiety, too. So these changes aren’t only about how to stop heavy periods naturally. They can help you sleep better and feel happier, more energetic and more focused as well. Now who wouldn’t want those side benefits, too?