Dysmenorrhea is painful menstruation. It is one of the most common complaints for women and one of the leading causes of absenteeism from work, school, and other activities (Hoffman, 2003).
The word is characteristic of its symptoms, where “dys” means bad, and “meno” means menses (Marieb & Hoehn, 2013). Symptoms can start a few hours or days before bleeding, and include cramps, nausea, vomiting, and other aches and pains. Symptoms usually go away within two or three days.
I have often suffered from dysmenorrhea, and used to have to rely on non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as advil and ibuprofen. The use of NSAID is common in treating dysmenorrhea, as is the use of birth control pills. The problem is that these come with side effects.
NSAIDs can cause gastrointestinal problems, increased blood pressure, kidney damage and kidney failure, severe allergic reactions, and increased risk of heart attacks and strokes (Griffin, 2005).
Birth control pills can cause nausea, weight gain, sore and swollen breasts, spotting between periods, lighter periods, mood changes, blood clots, stomach pain, chest pain, headaches, blurred vision, and aches or swelling in legs and thighs (WebMD, nd).
I will share with you four herbs that have personally helped me find relief from painful menstruation, and offer little to no side effects. Of course, it is always best to consult a healthcare provider before proceeding with the use of any type of herb or herb product.
Greeks used Vitex agnus-castus or chaste tree for over 2,000 years for the treatment of menstrual conditions (Tieraona, 2001). A study conducted on a group of 1,571 women over 135 days, looked at the effects of them taking 40 drops of Agnolyt daily. Agnolyt is a chaste tree based tincture commonly available in the market, and in the study 90% saw an improvement of symptoms (Tieraona, 2001).
Another study of 1,542 women receiving 42 drops of Agnolyt saw improvements in symptoms after 25 days. Overall, 92% of study participants experienced some type of relief, whether partial or total (Tieraona, 2001).
Angelica sinensis or dong quai is an herb commonly used in traditional Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Medicine. It was known as female ginseng because of its effectiveness in treating gynecological disorders, including dysmenorrhea. Dong quai is available in the form of powder, dry root, root slices, dry leaves, fluid extract, tincture, and decoction (Ulbricht, 2010).
A formula known as Four-Agents-Decoction (FAD) includes equal parts of the dry roots of dong quai, along with Rehmanniae praeparata or soe dee huang, Paeoniae alba or bai sau, Ligustici chuanxiong or tsuan chyong (Yeh et al., 2007). A study included 78 participants, where half received a placebo and the other half received a 500 mg pill of FAD over three menstrual cycles. Participants who took FAD saw reduced intensity in pain, particularly at the third cycle (Yeh et al., 2007).
Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, has been used in many parts of the world, including China and the Mediterranean, in the treatment of digestive disorders. However, fennel tea and fluid extract can also be used to relieve painful menstruation (Ulbricht, 2010; Wichtl, 2004).
A study conducted on 60 women looked at treating dysmenorrhea with 2% drops of fennel fluid extract versus 250 mg capsule of mefenamic acid, which is typically present in NSAIDs. Participants received treatment every six hours starting from the onset of pain. Half received 25 drops of 2% fennelin and the other half got mefenamic acid. Both groups experienced pain relief, although there was no statistical difference in the level of relief between the two treatments, indicating fennel was as effective as mefenamic acid in treating the condition (Bokaie, Farajkhoda, Enjezab, Khoshbin, & Mojgan, 2013).
Another study with 60 women studied the effect of 30 mg of fennel extract given four times a day for three days from the onset of menses. Half of the participants received fennel and the other half a placebo. In the end, 52% of those taking fennel reported improvement compared to 8% who took the placebo (Omidvar, Esmailzadeh, Baradaran, & Basirat, 2012).
I have written about Zingiber officinale, or ginger. It is a commonly used herb that can be consumed in food, as a tea, and a myriad of other forms. Constituents in the herb have been found to prevent cancer, treat nausea, and prevent the production of prostaglandins, which are the hormones that contribute to dysmenorrhea (Rahnama, Montazeri, Huseini, Kianbakht, & Naseri, 2012).
A study was conducted on 105 women who suffered from moderate to severe dysmenorrhea. Half received 500 mg of ginger root powder three times daily, and the other half received a placebo pill three times a day. The study was conducted over three months and resulted in a significant reduction of pain when compared to placebo (Rahnama et al., 2013).
Given the prevalence of NSAIDs and birth control pills, it would be safe to assume that alternate methods for the treatment of dysmenorrhea are not widely accessible or available, and it is necessary to increase awareness of the benefits of the use of herbal protocols for dysmenorrhea. Herbal protocols such as chaste tree, dong quai, fennel, and ginger are easy to find and follow, and usually have minimal side effects.
Bokaie, M., Farajkhoda, T., Enjezab, B., Khoshbin, A., & Mojgan, K. Z. (2013). Oral fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) drop effect on primary dysmenorrhea: effectiveness of herbal drug. Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research, 18(2), 128-132. Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3748568/?report=printable
Griffin, R. M. (2005). Pain relief: how NSAIDs work. WebMD. Retrieved on December 11, 2017 from: http://www.webmd.com/arthritis/features/pain-relief-how-nsaids-work
Hoffman, D. (2003). Medical Herbalism, The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
Marieb, E.T., & Hoehn, K. (2013). Human Anatomy & Physiology (9th ed.). Glenview, IL: Pearson Education.
Omidvar, S., Esmailzadeh, S., Baradaran, M., & Basirat, Z. (2012). Effect of fennel on pain intensity in dysmenorrhea: a placebo-controlled trial. An International Quarterly Journal of Research in Ayurveda, 33(2), 311-313. doi:10.4103/0974-8520.105259
Rahnama, P., Montazeri, A., Huseini, H. F., Kianbakht, S., & Naseri, M. (2012). Effects of Zingiber officinale R. rhizomes (giner) on pain relief in primary dysmenorrhea: a placebo randomized trial. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 12, 92, 1-8. Retrieved from http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6882/12/92
Tieraona, L. D. (2001). Integrative treatments for premenstrual syndrome. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 7(5), 32-40. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/204820104?accountid=158302
Ulbricht, C. E. (2010). Natural Standard: Herb & Supplement Guide- An Evidence-Based Reference. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Mosby.
WebMD (nd). Birth control pills. WebMD. Retrieved on December 11, 2017 from http://www.webmd.com/sex/birth-control/birth-control-pills
Wichtl, M. (Ed.). (2004). Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals: A Handbook for the Practice on a Scientific Basis, 3rd ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Yeh, L. L. L., Liu, J., Lin, K., Liu, Y., Chiou, J., Liang, K., Tsai, T., Wang, L., Chen, C., & Huang, C. (2007). A randomized placebo-controlled trial of a traditional Chinese herbal formula in the treatment of primary dysmenorrhea. Plos One, 8, 1-11. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000719