I often talk to women who say they take enough Midol and Advil every month to relieve their menstrual cramps for a lifetime. And I’ve gotten more than one look of surprise when I tell them that they can prevent the cramps and other PMS symptoms in the first place by taking fish oil and improving their omega-3 fatty acid intake. It’s really that simple. Honestly, I wouldn’t joke about something like this – not when I’ve seen the agony some women experience every month from horrible menstrual cramps.
Nearly all the patented menstrual cramp remedies, like Midol and Advil, inhibit the pro-inflammatory, cramp-promoting actions of omega- 6 fatty acids. However, the action of these remedies only lasts a few hours, meaning you have to keep taking it, usually several times a day, to get “lasting” relief. And since the synthetic product is just masking the symptoms, providing a temporary solution, the overall omega-6 fatty acid imbalance persists, and your cramps return month after month.
Actually, fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids help correct the same biochemical omega-6 imbalance that most of the commercial menstrual cramp remedies do, but in a more sustainable way.
If you take 1-1/2 tablespoons of cod liver oil every day and eat more fish, grass-fed free-range beef, free-range poultry, walnuts, and flaxseed, you’ll be consuming lots of anti-inflammatory, cramp-discouraging omega-3 fatty acids. As your fatty acid balance shifts to a higher omega-3 level than omega-6, your menstrual cramps will gradually disappear- usually within three to four months. At that point, you can probably taper down the fish oil, or even discontinue taking it, as long as you keep eating more omega-3 foods than omega 6’s.
Unfortunately, this might be easier said than done. Omega-6 fatty acids are much more widespread.
Nearly all vegetable oils you find in the grocery store (except olive oil) are almost entirely omega-6. Bakery products contain only omega-6 oils. Anything with “hydrogenated vegetable oils,” like potato chips, com chips, and literally hundreds of other snack foods, contain only omega-6 oils. Grocery-store beef, pork, chicken, and turkey contain much more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids. And all commonly eaten nuts and seeds (except walnuts and flaxseed) contain only omega-6 fatty acids.
In general, nuts and seeds are quite good for you, so try to focus on eliminating or, at the very least, cutting down on the other sources of omega-6 fatty acids. I recommend starting with those hydrogenated vegetable oils. Getting rid of all the junk food that contains hydrogenated oils will go a long way in boosting your overall health, not to mention eliminating those monthly PMS cramps.
When my colleague and regular Nutrition & Healing columnist Terry Kone discovered I was writing about menstrual pain in this month’s issue, he asked if I would be interested in adding a list of herbal remedies to my own advice. I’ m always looking for as many holistic treatment options as possible to share with my patients and my readers, so I told Terry to send on his herbal expertise.
Terry sent me a list of six proven and very safe all-natural herbal remedies that I think every woman should know about. You might recognize some of them from previous columns Terry has written for Nutrition & Healing, but that goes to show you just how versatile nature can be-much more so than patent medicines designed to target one specific problem, leaving you with a handful of pills to take, and a long list of side effects to worry about if you happen to have more than one health concern as many people do.
At any rate, before l go into the specifics, it might help to know a bit about why periods can be painful for so many women.
What causes menstrual cramps?
Each month, the lining of the uterus is shed, and this is actual menstruation. But during the process that leads up to that, your body releases substances called prostaglandins. These not only contribute to inflammation, which can cause pain in and of itself, but the prostaglandins also constrict small arteries in the uterus, which deprives the tissue in that area of oxygen and, in turn, causes the uterine muscles to spasm. The result is that all-too-familiar cramping many women experience every month during their period.
Best Herbs For Menstrual Cramps
Now, on to Terry’s herbal recommendations to combat the effects of those menstrual cramp-inducing prostaglandins.
First on his list is Chinese Corydalis. If it sounds familiar, it may be because this herb is also very useful for irritable bowel syndrome, which Terry talked about in the August 2002 issue of Nutrition & Healing. But it works for all sorts of cramping, including the kind associated with menstruation. In one uncontrolled clinical trial of 44 patients with painful periods (also known as dysmenorrhea), 72 percent of the subjects reported a decrease in pain using a Corydalis-derived substance called dehydrocorydaline.
Terry and I have both recommended the next item on the cramp-relieving list numerous times in the pages of Nutrition & Healing. But even though it’s been used for what seems like forever, it’s still one of the most effective natural treatments available–and one of the simplest: ginger. Ginger relieves pain naturally and effectively by inhibiting the enzymes that produce prostaglandins.
While we’re talking about common and traditional herbal remedies, let’s move on to wild yam and the aptly named cramp bark. Wild yam is a powerful spasmolytic, meaning that it prevents muscles from going into painful spasms. It’s actually been used for centuries as a treatment for uterine and ovarian pain, including menstrual cramps.
Cramp bark has been used for the same purposes, and has been proven to relax uterine muscles. In fact, these two herbs are often prescribed together. How does it work? There are chemicals in cramp bark that seem to decrease muscle spasms.
Now on to a cramp-reliever that might be growing in your back yard right now: raspberry leaf. You very well may never have heard of this therapy-it’s so simple it’s often overlooked. Terry told me that it’s more well-known for its uses during pregnancy and childbirth, but that it’s also a very effective treatment for painful menstruation. One study, dating all the way back to 1941, showed that raspberry leaf tea could relieve even very severe cases of dysmenorrhea. What’s the mechanism of action? Raspberry leaf contains alkaloids called fragarine that lessons PMS symptoms, particularly cramping, vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea.
Terry recommends taking relatively high doses of each of these herbs-about 3 to 5 grams of each per day (in tablet form), starting two or three days before menstruation is expected to begin. This gives the herbs time to “build up” in your system and offer the maximum effect against menstrual cramp pain.
Have you had experiences with any of these all-natural herbal substances? Or possibly others that have served as an alternative remedy for PMS symptoms and menstrual cramps? Please let us know in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!