Huffpost
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Cathy Margolin, L.Ac. Dipl. OM Headshot

PMS and Cramps Help: The Alternative Answer

Posted: Updated:

When the heating pad is not enough and you're fed up with swallowing the naproxen, aspirin or ibuprofen, and you can't handle their side effects, you just might be ready for natural PMS herbal alternatives. Here is a different approach to menstrual cramps and PMS. Traditional Chinese Medicine hasn't been the accepted answer. We've always been "plugged-into" the Western approach. It's time to get UNPLUGGED!

Herbs have been around longer than mankind. Through the ages every culture has discovered the healing properties nature provides; this has been a universal phenomenon. The Chinese began embracing natural botanicals and documenting their medicinal value circa 300 BC. The Yellow Emperor's Inner Cannon was one of the first ancient Chinese medical texts from this era and the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (The Divine Farmer's Materia Medica Classic) was the first to index 365 medicinal plants and compiled circa 100 AD. Some 2,000 years later, these same medicinal plants are still in use and have been extensively studied and dissected by Western science looking for keys to how they work.

When I first began studying Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) I was in awe of all the possibilities herbal formulas offered. When I discovered an herb blend or "formula" written in 1113 AD to help menstrual cramps, PMS and irritability, I only wished I had seen it sooner. As both men and women know all too well, it's not only the physical symptoms of a woman's menstrual cycle but the emotional and psychological swings as well. Chinese herbs have been proven to help these mood swings and without the side effects of prescription drugs.

A study by the Cochrane Library -- an international, not-for-profit, independent organization which promotes and disseminates systematic reviews of heath care interventions -- found evidence from 39 clinical trials involving 3,475 women, that Chinese herbal medicine can be used safely and has merit as therapy for women suffering with menstrual cramps also known as primary dysmenorrhea: "Chinese herbal medicine gave significant improvements in pain relief when compared to pharmaceutical drugs. It also reduced overall symptoms. The research revealed that Chinese herbal medicine was also better at alleviating pain than acupuncture or heat compression."(1)

"All available measures of effectiveness confirmed the overall superiority of Chinese herbal medicine to placebo, no treatment, NSAIDs, OCP, (oral contraception pills) acupuncture and heat compression, and, at the same time, there were no indications that Chinese herbs caused any adverse events," said lead author Xiaoshu Zhu, who works at the Center for Complementary Medicine Research at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.(2)

The Japanese adopted TCM into their national medical system decades ago. It was 1976 when the Japanese Department of Pharmaceutical Affairs and Ministry of health and Welfare Service first approved 148 traditional Chinese herbal formulas as part of their National Health Insurance coverage. Today herbal medicine in Japan is prepared as pharmaceuticals which insures dependable potency levels from batch to batch. Some of the same herbs the Cochrane Library studied are part of the menstrual cramp formula commonly used in Japan.

Here's a little background on five of the Chinese herbs from the Cochrane Library study that have been popular with women for ages for menstrual cramp relief, PMS and moodiness associated with a monthly menstrual cycle. 1. Angelicae (dang gui), 2. Red and White peony root, (radix peoniae alba and peoniae rubrae), 3. Licorice root (glycyrrhiza), 4. Nut-Grass rhizome (Cyperus) and 5. Ligusticum (lovage root or chuan xiong). (These herbs and others can be found in PMS Relief Herb Pac)

Angelicae Root (Dang Gui)
Dang qui functions as an anti-inflammatory, pain reliever and is often referred to in Traditional Chinese Medicine as the female ginseng. Mary Hardy, M.D. said "Dang qui may have some efficacy for PMS when used in traditional Chinese multiple-herb formulas."(3) Dang Gui is believed to have an adaptogenic effect on the female hormonal system. It is often included in herbal combinations for abnormal menstruation, suppressed menstrual flow, painful menstruation and uterine bleeding. Dong qui has been traditionally used in balancing the reproductive hormone system, as an anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic agent.(4) The chemical constituents in Dang gui include coumarins, ferulic acid and ligustilide, and essential oils, which are compounds that may be useful for blood flow and for relaxing the uterus in premenstrual uterine cramping.(5) Coumarins are known vasodilators and antispasmodics.(6)

White Peony Root (Radix Paeoniae Alba) and Red Peony (Radix Peoniae Rubrae)
Peony root has many important uses, from headaches to abdominal pain and spasms, blood deficiency, menstrual irregularities and even night sweats. White Peony root (the skin removed) has been an important remedy for female reproductive conditions ranging from primary dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation) to irregular menses.

Red peony root (bark or skin still on the root) has some similar pharmacological actions and some varying actions. Studies show the major effect of white peony is to calm nerves and alleviate spasms. Both forms of the roots are commonly used in Chinese medicine. White peony has been studied for use in the treatment of depression-like disorders.(7) The roots are full of anti-oxidants and polysaccharides. Research has found the major marker component of white peony is paeoniflorin, but its flavonoids, tannins and polysaccharides all contribute to its medicinal value.(8)

Peony root has been used to treat menstrual irregularities and amenorrhea, which suggests that it may have hormonal effects. Clinical trials with traditional Chinese and Japanese herbal formulas containing peony have suggested various hormonal effects in both pre- and postmenopausal women.(9)

Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza)

Licorice has a long and highly varied record of uses. It remains one of the most important herbs in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is said this herb goes to all twelve channels of the body, a claim given to only a few Chinese herbs. By entering all body channels this herb is often used for its guiding actions to help other herbs enter into channels they would otherwise not normally effect. In regards to menstrual cramps Licorice root can moderates spasms and alleviate pain, especially in the abdomen and legs. The two major constituents of licorice are glycyrrhizin and flavonoids. Flavonoids are antioxidants known to improve circulation and relieve tissues damage and have a role in reducing inflammation.

Nut Grass (Cyperus)

This herb is commonly combined with Dang Gui for irregular menstruation and dysmenorrhea. This herb has a major role in regulating our liver energy and is known for not only stopping the pain associated with our menstruation but also the ability to help regulate our menstrual cycles. Its actions are intensified when combined with other herbs such as Dang Gui and Bupleurum. The Grand Materia Medica written approximately 200 AD states that Cyperus is the "Commander-in-Chief of Qi disorders, and for gynecology, the Supreme Leader."(10) It is also called an "immortal herb for women" as far back as 1550 AD. Cyperus's known chemical constituents include volatile oils, flavonoids and proteins.

Ligusticum (Chuan Xiong or Lovage)

Ligusticum is a widely used blood tonic and is especially common in women's formulas in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It improves blood circulation and has been studied extensively in for heart circulation because of its profound effects for myocardial circulation.  Ligusticum is related to Dang Gui because it shares some of the same characteristics, but Dang Gui is a stronger blood tonic while Ligusticum is a strong blood mover and analgesic (pain killer).(11) Liguisticum the very special ability of treating all types of headaches along with its well known traits for menstrual symptoms. Because it warms the uterus and decongests blood in the pelvic region, it is especially popular for menstrual cramps.

There are many wonderfully effective herbs to help alleviate the pain and emotional components of a women's monthly menstrual cycle. These herbs are just the tip of the iceberg. Herbs are capable of treating both the symptoms and can even address the root of the disharmony which Traditional Chinese Medicine has historically known to be quite effective. Returning to our roots for answers to these age old problems is a logical solution without the side effects of prescription drugs or over-the-counter pain killers.

According to Mark Blumenthal, Executive Director of The American Botanical Council, "As the public demands more natural forms of healthcare and as healthcare costs continue to spiral out of control, mainstream health practitioners and policy makers might also become more willing to reconsider some of the practices associated with herbalism with both its scientifically confirmed and its less scientific yet hard-to-miss empirical treatments."

To find a qualified practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine who can prescribe the herbs mentioned above please see TCMDirectory.com, Acufinder.com or PacHerbs.com.

References:

1-2 Chinese herbal medicine for premenstrual syndrome , Jing Z, Yang X, Ismail KMK, Chen X, Wu T,   http://www.cochrane.org/reviews/en/ab006414.html 

3 Hardy, ML. Herbs of special interest to women. J Am Pharm Assoc (Wash) 2000 Mar-Apr;40(2):234-42; quiz 327-9.

4 Zhu DP. Dong quai. Am J Chin Med 1987;15(3-4):117-25.

5-6 Tyler V. The Honest Herbal: A Sensible Guide to Herbs and Related Remedies. Philadelphia (PA): George Stickley Company; 1982.

7 Behav Brain Res. 2010 Jul 11;210(2):171-7. Epub 2010 Feb 20. Long-term treatment with peony glycosides reverses chronic unpredictable mild stress-induced depressive-like behavior via increasing expression of neurotrophins in rat brain.Mao QQ, Xian YF, Ip SP, Tsai SH, Che CT.School of Chinese Medicine, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

7 Ethnopharmacol. 2008 Sep 26;119(2):272-5. Epub 2008 Jul 18. Antidepressant-like effect of peony glycosides in mice. Mao QQ, Ip SP, Tsai SH, Che CT. School of Chinese Medicine, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, N.T., Hong Kong.

8 Ethnopharmacol. 2010 Jul 20;130(2):407-13. Epub 2010 May 24. Pharmacokinetic properties of paeoniflorin, albiflorin and oxypaeoniflorin after oral gavage of extracts of Radix Paeoniae Rubra and Radix Paeoniae Alba in rats.
Feng C, Liu M, Shi X, Yang W, Kong D, Duan K, Wang Q.
Department of Pharmaceutical Analysis, School of Pharmacy, Hebei Medical University, Shijiazhuang, PR China.

9 Oya A, Oikawa T, Nakai A, Takeshita T, Hanawa T. Published in : J Obstet Gynaecol Res. 2008 Oct;34(5):898-908. Clinical efficacy of Kampo medicine (Japanese traditional herbal medicine) in the treatment of primary dysmenorrhea

10-11  Chinese Medical Herbology & Pharmacology by John K. Chen, Tina T. Chen Art of Medicine Press, 2004

Around the Web

PMS -- familydoctor.org

4 Self-Help Strategies for PMS « Below the Belt: Women's Health

Need a remedy to fight your PMS? - TODAY Health - TODAY.com

Which Foods Help with PMS? - iVillage

Study: Fatty acids can help ease PMS symptoms - CNN.com