A Master Herbalist's Guide To Pain-Free Periods
"Period cramps are totally normal. Just take an ibuprofen."
If you're a woman reading this article, you've definitely heard this before. But today, I'm here to tell you that it isn't the best advice. If you're like most women with period pain, you've probably tried taking an NSAID (a group of medicines that include aspirin, naproxen, ibuprofen, and mefenamic acid). And as the most common treatment for period pain, they can be reasonably effective.
There is a downside to NSAID use.
A recent review of NSAID use for dysmenorrhea (painful periods) concluded with a warning about the substantial risk of adverse effects including stomach bleeding, ulcers and upset stomach, high blood pressure, fluid retention and swelling, kidney problems, heart problems, and rashes.
I believe that women deserve effective pain relief—without the risk of severe side effects. Many of the herbs we use in our formulas are used as a replacement for NSAIDs, and women find them extremely effective against period pain and cramps. Here are our master herbalists' six top picks for healthy, pain-free periods:
You can use fennel seed for menstrual pain, nausea, and fatigue.
- A 2012 study found that fennel seed was more effective than a placebo for controlling severe menstrual pain. On average, women started the study with 6 out of 10 menstrual pain, and five hours after taking fennel seed, they rated their pain just a 1 out of 10. And fennel seed isn't just better for cramps than placebo pills; it holds its own against a potent pharmaceutical painkillers.
- In a study of severe menstrual pain among high school students, fennel seed was found to treat pain as well as mefenamic acid (a typical NSAID used for treating menstrual pain). Even better, there were no reports of side effects in the fennel seed group, while possible side effects of mefenamic acid include nausea, diarrhea, rashes, autoimmune anemia, and kidney toxicity.
- Fennel seed has also been shown to relieve nausea and fatigue associated with menstrual bleeding, decrease the duration of the period, and improve overall feelings of well-being when taken over several cycles.
Cinnamon can help with pain and reduce bleeding.
- In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, university students were given either cinnamon, ibuprofen, or a placebo to address severe menstrual pain. Cinnamon was shown to have a pain-relieving effect compared to placebo but was slightly less effective than ibuprofen. Still, pain in the group receiving the cinnamon was reduced from a 7 out of 10 to less than a 2 out of 10 during the course of treatment.
- In addition to effectively reducing pain when compared to placebo, in a separate trial, cinnamon also reduced the volume of menstrual bleeding as well as nausea and vomiting during the period.
Ginger root works for PMS, low-back pain, and GI upset.
- A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial found that, when administered for two days before the period, and three days during, ginger reduced both the severity and the duration of menstrual pain.
- The pain reduction wasn't just superior to placebo; subsequent studies found that pain relief from ginger was equivalent to both ibuprofen and mefenamic acid. And because ginger produced no adverse effects, the researchers concluded that it can be used as an alternative treatment to pharmaceutical interventions for period pain.
- Ginger for PMS: Researchers found that ginger was effective at relieving a number of different PMS symptoms including abdominal and low-back pain, headache, gastrointestinal disturbances, nausea, and joint and muscle pain.
- Ginger for blood volume: Ginger doesn't just reduce menstrual cramping; it can reduce the amount of menstrual bleeding as well. In a study with 93 young women, overall bleeding volume decreased significantly with the use of ginger. The researchers concluded that ginger should be considered a highly effective treatment for menstrual blood loss and the promotion of the quality of life of young women. They also praised ginger for being cheap, easy to use, and for having fewer side effects than other approaches.
Corydalis is a classic treatment for inflammatory pain and period pain.
- Corydalis is one of the most frequently prescribed herbs for menstrual pain in Traditional Chinese Medicine. One study found that corydalis was included in over 30 percent of formulas given for menstrual pain.
- The primary active component of corydalis, dehydrocorybulbine (DHCB), has been shown to reduce both inflammatory pain and pain produced by damage to the nervous system. A member of the poppy family, corydalis has a similar (but considerably weaker) effect as morphine, and it doesn't raise concerns over tolerance or dependence.
Frankincense and myrrh work together to relieve pain.
- This pair might sound familiar, especially at this time of year. Frankincense and myrrh are traditionally remembered as the gifts delivered by "three wise men." This pair is used in traditional medicine to combat inflammation and pain related to menstruation and childbirth. New research is also helping us understand how these two ingredients work together to relieve pain.
- Modern research has also confirmed that these two herbs have anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-reducing) properties. In animal studies, frankincense and myrrh were found to be highly anti-inflammatory and worked in combination to relieve pain.
Use Curcuma zedoaria for your most painful cramps and uterine spasms.
- Curcuma zedoaria is one of a number of plants in the turmeric family. Common to all these plants is a chemical constituent called curcumin, which has demonstrated an ability to reduce inflammation and ease chronic pain.
- The curcuma family is also particularly adept at decreasing menstrual pain, and specifically, curcuma has been shown to reduce uterine contraction and spasm—which can cause your worst and most painful cramps. Curcuma also has blood thinning actions, much like aspirin.
While you might find a handful of these herbs is your spice cabinet already, others will require a trip to an herbal pharmacy or special preparation. And while cooking with these spices won't hurt, the amounts we use when preparing food don't usually constitute a therapeutic dose. We have created our own special blend that we use on our patients, and we advise you to talk to a holistic health practitioner about dosage, usage, and what herbs will work for you to safely and naturally combat your period symptoms.
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