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zBest Herbs For Menstrual Cramps

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.

fish oil for menstrual crampsActually, 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.

Contents

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.

Chinese Corydalis

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.

Ginger

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.

Wild Yam

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

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.

Raspberry Leaf

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!




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8 thoughts on “zBest Herbs For Menstrual Cramps”

  1. You notice menopause from strange menses – yes, closer together is one. But the menstrual cycle does get a day or so shorter over the decades, so if it’s just a day or so, nope, that’s not menopause. If we’re talking about 20 days then herbs can help — help the liver, do lymphatics, and then there’s the vitex-dong quai regime: 14 days on, 14 days off, neither during menses because both can add to the bleeding. But the vitex-dong quai thingy only helps if you’re running on both cylinders at the same time … tells one of them that no, it’s not _your_ time this month.

    I think I gave vitex, too, to one of my ladies with this problem. She reported success, but of course she got other herbs, too.

    Peony root, among others, for her excruciating menstrual pain. And she said that if she forgot it over menses it wouldn’t hurt _that_ time, but it’d hurt the next. Strange herb, peony. Read up on it, it’s fascinating. It’s in King’s, I think.

    Tastes vile, though. As bad as t’other two standbys for bad cramps, recently dried angelica root, or cotton root. Yech! for all three. Luckily, of the peony root or cotton root, only a drop or three are needed. And of the recently dried angelica, only a small bit of a slice.

  2. > And how safe they are to use?>

    >peach leaf if u can get it, also in homeopathic preparation.

    Peach is specific for really bad nausea & morning sickness. There are a few places that carry it, but buyer beware… since almost nobody uses peach anymore, it’s probably REALLY old. THough I’ve gathered it in the spring to tincture, I just had my friend Amanda bring some leaves up from the organic farm she works on to have around for my wife (tee hee… I’m a dad… (!) ).

    >

    Whatever “studies” have said, ginger is safe, reliable and effective. Peppermint also is safe & effective, though I recall some debate about menthol on this list a while back.

    >< but what about breastfeeding?

    Sounds like you could use some good books. Aviva Jill Romm wrote "the natural pregnancy book" and also "Naturally healthy babies & children". Both cover their topics from the perspective of a midwife/herbalist, and both list herbs to avoid.

    Micheal Moore's Materia Medica (on http://www.swsbm.com) also list herbs that are, or even might be, contraindicated in pregnancy.

    With Nausea, look at the diet first, and keep the stomach from becoming empty.

  3. >Peppermint also is safe & effective, though I recall some debate about menthol on this list a while back.

    I’m not so concerned about the safety of the menthol. More that the mints exacerbate reflux by relaxing the esophageal sphincter, which is already stressed by the little one pressing up against it and the relaxing effects of the progesterone running amok in the system.

    I’ve used ginger on myself and on my clients with wonderful effects, and I ignore the warnings about it-Simmer fresh sliced ginger with a few bits of cinnamon for flavor, then add some nettles and raspberry (wonderful pregnancy herbs, and they reduce the strong flavor of the ginger which is problematic for some hypersensitive pregnant tastebuds).

    Make a quart and keep it in the cooler. Great iced tea!And as Jim said-dont let the stomach empty. I like soaked raw almonds and macadamia nuts to munch on. Some say the soaking starts the sprouting process, which I doubt as the shelling would have nixed that it seems, but it does lighten them up quite a lot.

    • This sounds like a wonderful idea…although I would think iced tea mayexacerbate the problem by cooling the spleen more…I would drink it warm.

      Make sure the diet has plenty of protein- pregnant women need someone to cook for them- because usually, once they cook something, they dont want to eat it! Curious that is- Ive seen it many times- and the lack of protein causing nausea.

      I will second the recommendation of Aviva Romm’s books- they are indispensable for pregnant and new mothers.

  4. well the studies have gone with that ginger is safe, and effective.

    It may be historic Chinese reference that says no to ginger because it can be used as an ememogue. For severe nausea ginger tincture gets there quick. For milder forms ginger candy,candied ginger, ginger brew can help out until you get something into your stomach. the bigger picture in this remedy is that you have to eat before the effects of the ginger wear off. I highly recommend eating small frequent meals through the day with an eye toward keeping your blood sugar level, some protein at night (you know when you get up to go to the bathroom) like almond butter on crackers or a handful of almonds. Be sure to stay hydrated thought the day but don’t fill up on fluids.

    There is a really nice book out called No More Morning Sickness- which helps you find what works for you. If you are affected by strong smells, keep something on hand like a lemon that you can scrape the peel and get a wiff. and consider moving or getting rid of those things that smell badly to you- one woman I knew slept on the side of the bed nearest the bathroom- just changing sides helped a lot. Some women are helped by sub-lingual B vitamins, or B shots.

    hyperemesis is different thing entirely and should be treated by a pregnancy provider( midwife or doctor)

  5. when I had severe diarrhea many years ago several remedies where just too astringent or painful. after about a month of diarrhea I had figured out to use fresh blackberries just brought to a simmer with a little cinnamon added, this was mildly astringent and soothing as well. Here in the south west I have taken to carrying blackberry fruit leather just in case, it is also something kids will eat . But the biggest treatment for me was to avoid the foods I was sensitive to. In addition when you have diarrhea stay away from sugar, milk , milk products, coffee and coke. Eat soups and broth( for electrolytes as well as sustenance), a tad bit of mild black tea, hibiscus tea for potassium. I would now try some licorice root as well.

    Rule out and add treatment for things like giardia, bacterial, flu, IBS, appendicitis, diverticulitis, obstruction, nervous stomach. since you mentioned ginger, it has been studied a bit and can kill a ton of intestinal critters and things that can cause food poisoning, but use it with something else that would be soothing like licorice or mallow.

    In the old days one of the ways that allopathic med survived was they had a few meds like laudnum( poppy tincture) and it slowed down diarrhea that would have normally killed a person.

  6. You were just discussing what herbs to use for diarrhea. I have a friend who claims she has diarrhea after eating curry and turmeric curcumin. Here in Finland our curry mixtures and our spicing are quite mild. Do you think this is possible?

    Or perhaps curcuma only helps to eliminate something (unsuitable, undigestible)?

    As an addition to your plants ginger, fennel etc.: traditionally also Tormentil (Potentilla tormentilla, P. erecta) has been used for diarrhea, but perhaps it grows only in northern countries?

    Antti

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