10 Causes of Painful Periods + How Stop Period Pain Naturally

Is your period is so painful that your life practically stops when you have it? Having extremely painful periods is a sign of an underlying imbalance that can have far-reaching implications for your overall health, not just your reproductive health. Keep reading to find out what causes period pain and what you can do to stop it.

How Much Period Pain Is Normal?

If you’re like most women, you’ve experienced period pain at some point in your life.  A little bit of mild cramping can be considered “normal,” especially at the beginning of your period. But ideally, you won’t even feel your period coming at all.

If you’re consistently having to pop painkillers like candy, or you’re in too much pain to go to work or school, then something deeper is going on. That type of period pain is not normal. In medicine, painful periods are called dysmenorrhea

Your period is like a barometer of your overall health. It tells you how well your body is being nourished (or not), how much stress you’ve been under, and how much inflammation might be going on in your body.

It’s important to uncover the root causes of why your hormones are in turmoil so that you can find the least invasive, safest and most effective solution.

The great news is that women’s hormonal issues respond beautifully to natural medicine and, with a little detective work, you can troubleshoot your problems to get back on the road to wellness.

First, let’s explore the causes of menstrual pain. 

I‘m going to get all ‘sciency’ because I want you to really understand what’s going on inside of your body. I even made a cute little drawing to help explain everything. Bear with me and keep reading. It’ll all make sense – I promise! 🙂

What Causes Menstrual Pain?

Pain during menstruation is thought to be caused by prostaglandins and leukotrienes. Together, these compounds are known as eicosanoids

Prostaglandins are a group of hormone-like fats that are made by our cells at sites of tissue damage or infection in the body. Their job is to direct the healing process by coordinating blood vessel constriction and blood clotting. In this process, prostaglandins cause the pain, fever, redness and swelling that we experience with illness and injury.

Prostaglandins also play a role in the female reproductive system by controlling ovulation, initiating labor (there’s a clue about pain, eh?) and regulating menstrual flow. In other words, prostaglandins cause the uterus to contract.

Two specific prostaglandins have been linked to menstrual pain: PGE2 and PGF2-alpha

Now, normally, prostaglandins are very short-lived.  Once their job is done, the body breaks them down quickly.  

But problems arise when inflammatory prostaglandins are produced in excess. Certain dietary and lifestyle factors will cause persistent tissue damage and load us with omega-6 fats, resulting in ’round the clock production of inflammatory prostaglandins.  

Below is an illustration of the process. As you can see, anything that promotes high levels of arachidonic acid, the precursor to prostaglandins, can lead to pain and inflammation.

Eicosanoids and Inflammation

Prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), an inflammatory compound, stimulates the aromatase enzyme, which raises estrogen levels. Estrogen then stimulates the COX-2 enzyme, which creates more PGE2, and thus more inflammation. It’s a vicious cycle!

Similar to prostaglandins, leukotrienes are inflammatory molecules that are released by our white blood cells.

Leukotrienes are notorious for their role in allergies and asthma, but leukotriene E4 may play a specific role in menstrual pain.

There are many things that lead to painful periods, but I’m going to focus on the most common reasons that I see in my practice.

Keep in mind that the causes of your menstrual pain can be multifactorial, and often it is the total load of several imbalances that is responsible for causing symptoms.

1. Your diet is not good.

We just talked about prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and their role in menstrual cramps. But what causes your body to produce them in large amounts? Much of it has to do with your diet.

A diet full of vegetable oils, refined grains, sugar, and alcohol is almost guaranteed to make your periods miserable. Because of the ways these foods damage your cells, disrupt your hormones, and interfere with cell communication, these foods will send your immune system into a firestorm. And that means prostaglandins and pain.

When I talk about vegetable oils, I’m mainly referring to canola (rapeseed), safflower, corn, sunflower, peanut, cottonseed and soybean oils.

These are the most common oils used in things like salad dressings, sauces, mayonnaise, and any fried or processed foods.

Because these oils are extracted from the seeds using high heat and chemical solvents, they are oxidized (spoiled) by the time they make it into our food.  And those resulting oxidized fats and solvents are powerful drivers of cell damage and inflammation. Also, these oils are high in omega-6 fats that promote the production of inflammatory prostaglandins.

Unfortunately, 99% or more of restaurants  (even the high-end ones) use canola oil in their cooking because it’s cheap and has a neutral taste and a stable shelf-life.  And most people don’t think about vegetable oils as a source of inflammation as they slather their “healthy” salads with any ol’ store-bought salad dressing.

The simplest solution is to eat at home and make your own simple vinaigrette using extra-virgin olive oil with vinegar or lemon juice.

Use healthy fats like coconut oil, extra-virgin olive oil and organic, grass-fed butter or ghee for cooking.

Grains can be problematic because they are broken down into sugar when we eat them. This might not be a problem if you have a very healthy metabolism, but most of us living in the Western world don’t.

The more sugar and carbohydrates we eat, the more insulin our pancreas has to pump out. Excess insulin creates silent inflammation (see point #2 below).

High insulin also increases arachidonic acid, the building block of those inflammatory prostaglandins we’ve been talking about (see diagram above).

Many women crave sugar during the premenstrual phase because of hormone shifts and other factors.

However, sugar can contribute to period pain by promoting inflammation and insulin resistance. Having insulin resistance means that your insulin levels are too high, and your cells are having a hard time using insulin to put glucose (sugar) into your cells.

When you are insulin resistant, it means that your body cannot handle a sugary diet.

To be clear, I’m not demonizing the small amounts of natural sugars and starches found in whole fruits, veggies, beets, squash, sweet potatoes, etc. The problematic sources of sugar I’m referring to are found in foods like:

  • Candy
  • Desserts and baked goods
  • Sweet sauces like barbecue and ketchup
  • Soda (or “Coke” if you’re from Oklahoma like I am!)
  • Fruit juice, lemonade, sweetened tea
  • Dates, dried fruits and “fruit snacks”
  • Honey and agave syrup
  • Sweetened yogurt
  • Sweet cereals and granola 

These are all concentrated sources of sugar that will spike your blood sugar and insulin levels, ultimately leading to inflammation and insulin resistance.

Alcohol is especially problematic for women with painful periods because it reduces the liver’s ability to detoxify estrogen and toxins. Did you know that having just 2 drinks per day can double the amount of estrogen in your body?! As shown in the diagram above, estrogen increases PGE2 (the pain molecule) by stimulating the COX-2 enzyme.

Having too much estrogen will also cause heavy periods, sore breasts, bloating, moodiness, and pretty much all of the things that we hate about periods in the first place! So nix the booze until you’ve made enough progress in your healing, okay?

Got painful periods? Nix the booze! Click To Tweet

Cow’s dairy is a problem for many people because most of it contains A1 casein, a protein that can promote inflammation in some people.  Not all types of dairy contain significant amounts of A1 casein (butter and heavy cream contain only trace amounts), and not everyone is sensitive to it. Removing dairy from your diet may or may not improve your symptoms, but I felt that it was important to mention. 

The other problem with an unhealthy diet is that eating junk food instead of healthy natural foods will create nutrient deficiencies. We especially need magnesium, zinc, vitamin B6, vitamin B2, iodine, folate and selenium for healthy periods.

Get our favorite period support supplement HERE.

2. You have high insulin levels.

Are you noticing the theme with insulin yet? This relates back to point #1. Remember that insulin increases arachidonic acid, the precursor to the inflammatory prostaglandins that cause menstrual pain. Insulin also promotes clotting and can interfere with ovulation.  

How do you know if your insulin levels are too high? Ask your doctor to order a fasting insulin test for you, or get one for yourself from True Health Labs. Your fasting insulin level should be no higher than 8, but I really like to see it 6 or less. 

If your insulin is too high, you need to start making changes like cutting sugar out of your diet and emphasizing vegetables, protein and healthy fats. Exercise, especially resistance exercise like weightlifting, is crucial for lowering your insulin levels. Also be sure to get 8 hours of sleep each night: Just one night of sleep deprivation can promote insulin resistance!

Signs and symptoms of imbalanced blood sugar and insulin resistance include:

  • Sleep trouble
  • Brain fog
  • Darkened skin folds
  • Belly fat
  • Energy crashes or sleepiness after meals
  • Sugar cravings

3. You’re not ovulating.

Ovulation is the release of an egg from the ovary. It typically happens on day 14 of the menstrual cycle. Ovulation is important when it comes to period pain because that is where you get your progesterone.

Progesterone balances the stimulating effects of estrogen; it is a very calming hormone. When you don’t have enough progesterone, it leads to inflammation. It also works in reverse: inflammation impairs your body’s ability to make progesterone, so it becomes a vicious cycle. 

Having periods that are late, early, too heavy, too light or absent can all be symptoms of not ovulating (called “anovulation”). Common causes include nutrient deficiencies (especially magnesium, selenium and B6) polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and stress.

Stress is of particular importance because it reduces progesterone in two ways:  1). by “stealing” progesterone to make the stress hormone cortisol; and 2). by interfering with ovulation, your main source of progesterone.

And while we’re talking about stress, it’s worth noting that chronic stress promotes insulin resistance (see point #2 above)!

If you’re not ovulating, you need to figure out why you’re not ovulating. Are you deficient in important nutrients? Is it chronic stress? Are you eating inflammatory foods? Is it your thyroid?


4. Your thyroid is out of whack.

Your thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck. It makes thyroid hormone, which provides the “spark” for bodily functions like digestion, generation of body heat, detoxification and ovulation. Every single cell in your body needs thyroid hormone.

The most common thyroid problem is when the gland is underactive, which is called hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism interferes with ovulation, which means you’ll be making less progesterone. And remember that low progesterone promotes inflammation.

Heavy menstrual bleeding can be a symptom of an underactive thyroid. Unfortunately many women with hypothyroidism never get diagnosed because the standard screening test (TSH or thyroid stimulating hormone) doesn’t show the whole picture. I always recommend a complete thyroid panel that includes TSH, free T3, free T4, reverse T3, and thyroid antibodies.

Getting the right thyroid tests can be tricky. I’ve had many patients tell me that their conventional doctors straight-up refuse to order a full thyroid panel for them. It’s really frustrating, but thankfully you can get a thyroid panel for yourself online

5. You’re full of toxins.

Did you know that even low-level exposures to chemicals and environmental toxins can cause period problems, cancer and reproductive issues?

It’s sad but true. Many of the chemicals in our environment act as “endocrine disruptors,” meaning they can mimic hormones and disrupt our hormonal (endocrine) system.

These toxins include pesticides and herbicides, metals, solvents, flame retardants, plastics, food additives, and fragrances.

Download a copy of our free “Sources of Toxins” handout for a detailed list of toxic chemicals and ways you can avoid them!

These chemicals are everywhere, so there’s no foolproof way to avoid them entirely. The best thing to do is minimize your exposure (check your personal care products!), and its equally important to support your body’s ability to detoxify. 

Make sure that you are having daily bowel movements so that you are not reabsorbing hormones and toxins from the colon. If you struggle with constipation, you must avoid refined sugar and rule out underlying conditions like yeast overgrowth, hypothyroidism and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.

6. Your gut isn’t healthy.

Okay, this is a BIG one. The health of your GI tract is so intricately linked to the rest of your body (and mind). Practically every patient who comes to me with chronic health issues has some degree of imbalance in their digestive system. 

When our guts are healthy, good things happen for us. We absorb our nutrients. Our friendly gut bacteria help us detoxify estrogen and reduce inflammation. Our hormonal systems are balanced. All good things!

But when our guts are not healthy, it sets the stage for all of the things that we don’t want. Our metabolism doesn’t work right. We become full of inflammation. Our immune system is imbalanced and we can develop autoimmunity. It can ruin our thyroid function. We can’t get rid of excess estrogen. We can’t absorb the nutrients we need. And the list goes on.

More specifically, when the bacteria and other microbes in our gut are out of balance, there are some key factors that directly contribute to period pain. Unfriendly bacteria (referred to as “gram negative”) have something called lipopolysaccharide (LPS) on their outer surface. LPS is, by far, one of the most toxic and irritating substances known to the human body. And when the gut isn’t healthy, LPS can move across the gut barrier and get into the bloodstream.

This creates a cascade of inflammation, revs up the immune system, blocks detoxification, and can specifically cause pelvic pain. In my practice, I’ve been able to link LPS with headaches, acne, and a host of other chronic conditions. 

One of the most common conditions that creates a large amount of gram negative bacteria and LPS in the gut is small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. This is a condition where the motility of the small intestine has been compromised, and bacteria proliferate in the gut. The classic symptom is bloating after meals, usually with a “pregnant belly” look. 

The other awful thing these critters do is produce an enzyme called beta-glucuronidase. This enzyme causes estrogen and toxins that would have otherwise been excreted to become freely circulating again. And remember that toxins and estrogen contribute to inflammation and pain.

So what causes your gut to become so unhealthy in the first place? Hands down, the number one cause I’ve seen among my patients is antibiotic use. Whether it’s for recurrent sinus infections, UTI’s or acne, frequent antibiotic use can destroy your health.

Don’t get me wrong!

Antibiotics certainly have a time and a place. But the key is to support your immune system so that you’re not having to deal with to chronic infections in the first place.

Taking a daily probiotic is a great way to support a balanced gut and immune system. 

Also, you’ll want to choose organic foods as much as you can, because  pesticides and herbicides can selectively feed these pathogenic bacteria and cause them to grow out of control!

The bottom line:  If you want healthy periods, you absolutely must fix your gut. There’s no way around it.

–> Click here to download a copy of our free guide: Look Good, Feel Good!

7. You smoke.

It goes without saying that smoking is bad for you. Research shows that smoking even 1 cigarette per day is an important risk factor for painful periods. And the earlier you start smoking, the more likely you are to have painful periods. Quitting can be incredibly hard, but I’ve had more than one patient tell me that Allen Carr’s book worked like a charm for helping them quit for good!

8. You have Celiac disease.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where eating gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley) causes serious damage to the small intestine.

Many health care practitioners don’t realize that the symptoms of celiac disease can vary, so many people go undiagnosed. In fact, less than half of people with celiac disease have the classic symptoms of GI pain and diarrhea.

Skin rashes, neurological symptoms, fatigue, painful sex and menstrual pain can all be clues that you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Remember, anything that causes inflammation in the gut will cause inflammation in the rest of your body!

9. You have growths.

Uterine fibroids are noncancerous tumors of the uterus. They are incredibly common, and a majority of women will develop at least 1 small fibroid at some point. Fibroids don’t usually cause pain, but they can when they obstruct blood flow or if they grow rapidly. If your periods are becoming heavy, that can be a symptom of fibroids.

Adenomyosis is a condition where the inner lining of the uterus grows through the muscular uterine wall. This can cause heavy bleeding, cramps and bloating.  Many women also have ovarian cysts, which are fluid-filled sacs that can cause painful cramps. Most of the time cysts clear on their own, but they can require treatment if they start to obstruct the fallopian tubes or they become very large.

While these growths can be responsible for pain, keep in mind that they are symptoms of underlying inflammation and hormone imbalances. That’s why it’s so important to address things like gut health and nutrition. 

10. You have endometriosis.

It’s estimated that 1 in 10 women have a condition called endometriosis.

In endometriosis, the tissue that lines the uterus (called the endometrium) becomes implanted outside of the uterus, around other locations in the body. This misplaced tissue behaves in the same way as it would inside the uterus and it grows and bleeds in response to estrogen. Eventually, adhesions form. 

Adhesions are bands of scar tissue that can “glue” organs and body structures together. They can cause strong, sharp or burning pain, and even gastrointestinal symptoms like heartburn and constipation if the scars are attached to the intestines. Endometrial tissue can even attach to the lungs in rare cases.

The symptoms of endometriosis include:

  • SEVERE menstrual cramps (sometimes even painkillers won’t help) 
  • Abdominal or pelvic pain between periods – when you’re not even bleeding
  • Pain with sex or vaginal penetration
  • Urinary problems
  • Long periods
  • Heavy periods (which can lead to anemia)
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Pain with bowel movements
  • Infertility
  • Fatigue

**It is entirely possible to have endometriosis with NO symptoms or very mild symptoms, and many women don’t know they have it until they have trouble getting pregnant.**

As you can see from the list above, endometriosis can mimic gastrointestinal conditions like irritable bowel syndrome. And sadly, a lot of women are misdiagnosed for years. The only way to get an accurate diagnosis for endometriosis is through a surgical procedure called laparoscopy. During laparoscopy, a thin tube (called a laparoscope) is inserted into your abdomen through a small cut. The tube has a camera attached to it, allowing the doctor to see your organs on a video screen. If you have endometriosis, the doctor will see adhesions.

The treatment for endometriosis is more in-depth than what I can cover in this article, but a strict dairy-free, gluten-free diet is a great place to start

How to Stop Period Pain Naturally

I admit that I am not a fan of using birth control pills or painkillers to treat painful periods.

Why? Because birth control pills increase the risk of blood clots, they can cause permanent side effects (like loss of sex drive and vaginal dryness), and they do nothing to address the root causes of the pain in the first place.

Period problems are a message from your body that something is out of balance. When we suppress those messages, we can create additional problems. 

Over-the-counter painkillers are effective for pain and can help to reduce heavy bleeding, but they can cause liver or kidney damage with long-term use. They can also damage the gut, which contributes to body-wide inflammation.

Let me be clear: there is a time and a place for medication, and you have to do what is best for you. Right now, you might need big doses of painkillers just to get through your day. No judgment. I totally get that!
But my goal as a naturopathic doctor is for you to ultimately not need those medications because you’ve done such a great job getting your body back into balance.

In addition to minding your diet, stress, sleep and toxic load, there are some really helpful natural therapies out there. Keep in mind that not all of these will work for everyone, so you have to find something that is safe and effective for you. Remember to always check with your health care provider before trying any supplements or treatments.


  • Curcumin is excellent for any kind of pain. It works by modulating the pathways in the body that create inflammation. And by doing so, it also helps to support normal levels of bleeding.

  • Our favorite “all around” formula for healthy periods and balanced hormones is FemGlow. This is our exclusive product. Along with diet and lifestyle changes, the ingredients in this formula have produced amazing results for my patients. Whether you’re concerned about period pain, PMS, or even menopausal discomfort, FemGlow provides balanced support.

  • It’s incredibly helpful to balance the fatty acids in your body with omega-3 fats. Omega-3’s help to shift your body towards the anti-inflammatory prostaglandins. Eating wild-caught fatty fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel, or taking a high-quality fish oil supplement are great choices.

  • A high-quality probiotic can be super helpful for balancing the gut and removing excess estrogen.

  • For healthy periods, you need a high-quality, broad-spectrum multivitamin/mineral formula. Vitamin B6 especially important (but often lacking) for women who have severe PMS.


  • Find ways to manage stress: yoga, meditation, exercise and journaling are all great options.
  • Sweating through exercise or sauna is a great way to support gentle detoxification.
  • Eat an unprocessed, low-sugar, whole foods diet. Emphasize organic vegetables and choose wild-caught sources of fish, grass-fed organic meats, moderate amounts of fruit, and healthy fats from avocados, olive oil and nuts.

  • Add some spice to your diet. Herbs like fennel, fenugreek, and cinnamon have well-document benefits for menstrual cramps. One study found that cinnamon works almost as well as ibuprofen for menstrual pain! Ginger is another great anti-inflammatory that works very well for painful periods

Take-Home Message

My hope for you is that you no longer ignore your menstrual pain. And don’t let ANY doctor tell you that you’re “just one of those unlucky women” or that you just have “bad periods.”

Menstrual pain is a sign that something deeper is going on with your health. Keep pushing until you find answers. You may need to find a qualified naturopathic doctor who can help you figure out exactly what’s going on. 

Troubleshoot. Listen to your body. Are you stressed out all the time? Are you eating a lot of junk food and not enough real food? Do you have a history of antibiotic use? Find the root causes of your period problems so that you will be healthier overall. 

Now tell me:  Do your periods suck the life out of you? Are you in so much pain that your life practically stops? What have you tried that worked?  Leave your comments below!

Want to get help now?  You can find my new Happy Hormones bundle here

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for the professional advice of your physician or other licensed health care provider. Never avoid, disregard or delay seeking professional medical advice, or change any of your prescribed medical treatments because of something you have read on this blog. If you try any therapies or recommendations discussed on this blog, you do so at your own risk.
Our clinic proudly serves the Boulder and Denver, Colorado metro areas including Broomfield, Louisville, Lafayette, Arvada, Thornton and Westminster.

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