A painful period can make you want to curl up in a ball, but head to the mat instead. Yoga may provide relief from common menstrual complaints like cramps and premenstrual syndrome (PMS), according to a new review of studies published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
The review analyzed the findings of 15 studies that looked at how a regular yoga practice affects a woman's experience of cramps, PMS, polycystic ovary syndrome (which can cause missed or infrequent periods) and premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a severe form of PMS that involves serious mood-related symptoms as well as physical ones.
All of the studies found that yoga was linked to reduced severity of symptoms and pain relief in women suffering from these conditions. Some also found reductions in bloating and breast tenderness, more regularity in women’s cycles, better moods and more relaxation and concentration.
Yoga appears to relieve both physical and mental symptoms. “The authors of these studies suggest that yoga works on the autonomic stress response and also on how pain is experienced and interpreted, perhaps by stimulating the release of the body’s natural painkillers," says review author Jennifer Oates, a lecturer in mental health nursing at King’s College London.
The studies in the review included a different types of yoga practices and intensities, although most involved daily or every-other-day sessions. Further research is needed to determine exactly which yoga practices are best for menstrual health, says Oates, and whether they can provide long-term benefits.
She also says that future studies should look at yoga practices “that are a bit more typical of the average busy woman, maybe one or two classes a week.” She hopes to follow up her review with a case-controlled study of a twice-weekly practice with a standardized sequence of poses, such as Ashtanga yoga.
But even based on her current findings, she recommends that healthy women with menstrual distress give yoga a try. Most of the studies asked women to practice throughout their cycles (rather than just during their period), and measured results over several weeks or months. “I would recommend attending more than one class before deciding it did or didn’t work,” she says.
She also suggests that beginners start with a gentle Hatha-style class before branching out to explore other types. Classes that incorporate breathing and relaxation techniques, in addition to a focus on postures, may also be beneficial for period pain and mood symptoms, she says.
Finally, Oates says that many yoga textbooks and teachers advise women to refrain from inverted postures, such as headstand or shoulder stand, during their periods. None of the studies she looked at addressed this concern, but “in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I would say listen to your teachers and tradition,” she says. “There are plenty of other postures and practices that are more comfortable to do during those few days.