If you don’t experience menstrual cramps, consider yourself lucky. For the rest of us, “that time of the month” involves a clenching pain that causes us to miss more than our share of work and school days. To some extent, cramping is a normal part of the menstrual cycle, but the pain shouldn’t be (and doesn’t have to be) debilitating.
“Menstrual cramps are the result of the contraction of the smooth muscles of the uterus as it tries to expel its contents during the monthly bleed,” explains Eden Fromberg, DO, a holistic gynecologist practicing with SoHo Obstetrics and Gynecology in Manhattan. “It’s only rarely that I see a patient without them. When I ask about cramps on my intake form, almost everyone circles ‘yes’—and many underline it, circle it several times, and add a few exclamation points. So I’d say some cramping is normal.”
Intense or prolonged cramps, however, are often the result of too much tension and too little nutrition, Fromberg notes. “We suffer more than we need to because of our modern lifestyle,” she says. For relief, she steers her patients toward stress-reducing practices like yoga and away from a diet heavy on refined sugars and meat. “Sugar and meat produce arachidonic acid, which is associated with inflammation and pain,” she says. “I tell my clients to focus on an organic, whole-foods diet that’s heavy on whole grains and that minimizes animal foods.”
She also tells them to skip the pharmaceuticals; Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen sodium) work well for treating cramps, but they also carry serious risks. “There’s an increased risk of heart attack, or even stroke, whenever you take a NSAID [nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug]—Advil, Motrin, and Aleve fall into that class,” she says. “They’re also known to cause irritation of the lining of the stomach and to exacerbate existing ulcers. Between the cardio and GI risks, they’re just not worth it.”
Instead, choose treatments that will help your body feel better and function without side effects. “We evolved alongside nature, so look there for help,” she advises. The following five remedies can help you make it through your monthly visit.
1. Chinese herbal therapy
For instant cramp relief, practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine turn to the needle. “Acupuncture is great for quick relief,” says Steven Gordon, LAc, a TCM gynecologist. “But for prevention and long-term relief, the No. 1 formula we use is xiao yao san, which translates as ‘free and easy wanderer.’ ” The herbs in this classic formula—bleupurum, dong quai, peony root, licorice root, and atractylodes—strengthen the spleen and liver and help get stagnant qi moving during menses, according to Gordon. “It will help move out stuck blood,” he says. Under the supervision of a licensed practitioner, take eight to 10 of the small Chinese tea pills three times a day starting a day or two before your period.
2. Aromatherapy blend
Cramps often manifest as a dull ache in the pelvis and low back. Self-massaging makes sense—especially when you employ the power of aromatherapy. A recent study published in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that women who used a topical formula containing the essential oils of clary sage, lavender, and rose reduced their menstrual pain by more than 50 percent.
Kelly Holland Azzaro, vice president of the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, uses a similar blend in her practice, substituting the more affordable, but just as effective, sweet marjoram oil for rose. “Clary sage is a hormone balancer and mood lifter—it’s my first choice, and you can use it alone,” she says. “Lavender and sweet marjoram are both calming scents with antispasmodic effects.”
To make your own blend, add 10 drops of each essential oil to 4 ounces of a carrier oil, such as jojoba or sweet almond oil, and then massage lightly into the abdomen and lower back—or anywhere you’re experiencing discomfort.
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3. Cramp bark
“The most common remedy I use for menstrual cramps is Viburnum opulus, or cramp bark,” says Mary Bove, ND, a registered herbalist who specializes in women’s reproductive issues. “It lives up to its name—it’s a terrific smooth-muscle relaxant known for its specific action in the pelvis.”
Although there have been few medical studies of cramp bark, anecdotal evidence is strong. Fromberg uses the herb in her practice frequently. “People taking Motrin or Aleve often find that cramp bark is more effective,” she says. “It lets them get off the pharmaceuticals.”
Bove recommends taking the herb in tincture form because it’s better absorbed into the body and acts more quickly. Try 15 mg up to four times a day. If you’re using the herb in dried form, take a 500 mg capsule four times a day.
4. Ginger tea
In the ayurvedic view, cramping can be alleviated by improving circulation. Give your body a boost in the right direction, and it will be able to do its job better. Satty Gill Keswani, MD, a gynecologist and ayurvedic practitioner in Manhattan, recommends applying heat. “Taking warm sitz baths in the days before your period will increase circulation in the pelvis,” she says.
Better yet, warm yourself from the inside out with a homemade tea of ginger, lemon, and honey. “The combination is very relaxing, and the ginger will help to dilate the blood vessels so that the menstrual process flows more smoothly,” Keswani says. For the tastiest and most potent tea, peel and slice a 2-inch section of juicy, fresh gingerroot, and boil it in 4 cups of water for 10 to 15 minutes. Squeeze in the juice from half a lemon, and sweeten with honey.
If cramping is a constant problem, you may have more systemic issues, says Eden Fromberg, DO. “Sometimes there’s an underlying physical abnormality.” A misaligned vertebrae in the lower back may need adjustment to improve nerve flow, or intrinsic tension and muscle spasm could be to blame. “If cramping is chronic, or if a person is extremely reactive,” says Fromberg, “I send them in for pelvic-floor physical therapy to address these issues.”
About the Author
Hillari Dowdle lives and writes in Knoxville, Tennessee.