Q. Every month I take over-the-counter drugs such as Midol for menstrual cramps. What causes menstrual cramps, and can natural medicine offer me any alternative?
A. Menstrual cramps don’t have to be a part of every woman’s monthly experience.
Most women with painful menstruation can significantly affect the intensity and duration of pain with simple natural methods.
Painful menstruation is dysmenorrhea. With primary dysmenorrhea, there is no observable cause, whereas secondary dysmenorrhea is due to some kind of pelvic pathology such as endometriosis. Primary dysmenorrhea, the most common type, is limited to the first 48 to 72 hours of a woman’s period.
In Western medicine, most women experience cramps with their periods because of changes in their hormones and the production of hormone-like substances called prostaglandins, and pro-inflammatory substances called leukotrienes.
In Chinese medicine, menstrual cramps are most often caused by what is known as “qi and blood stagnation.” This condition is usually associated with feelings of frustration and stress.
The following can help women treat menstrual cramps naturally.
• Western herbs that decrease menstrual pain include cramp bark and ginger. The recommend dose of cramp bark is 300 milligrams three times a day. Ginger is best taken as a warm tea; drink one cup four times a day.
• Chinese herbal formulas and acupuncture can help decrease menstrual cramps. For qi and blood stagnation, one of the best formulas is Free & Easy Wanderer. See your Chinese medicine practitioner for the formula.
• Although scientific research is inconclusive as to whether exercise is beneficial or not, my personal experience, and that of many of my patients, is that it can have a major impact on decreasing menstrual pain. If cramps are due to qi and blood stagnation, then increasing circulation before and during your period may help solve the underlying problem.
• The omega-3 fatty acids found in walnuts, fish oil, and flax oil can help relieve menstrual cramps. These fatty acids have the ability to help your body make more of the “friendly” prostaglandins that decrease inflammation and pain.
• According to the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, magnesium is a promising treatment for menstrual cramps. I’ve found the following dose most effective: Take 600 milligrams of magnesium citrate a few days before your period starts, and continue for the first 72 hours. (Too much magnesium can cause diarrhea.)
Dr. Laurie Steelsmith is a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist in Honolulu, as well as author of the new book Natural Choices for Women’s Health, published by Random House. You can reach her and read her past columns (originally printed in the Honolulu Advertiser) at www.DrSteelsmith.com. This column is for information only. Consult your health provider for medical advice.