Addressing painful periods through herbal medicine and nutritional therapy

Medical Herbalist Geri McGann and Nutritional Therapist Gwen Bastian-Enright look at how  herbal medicine and nutritional therapy (both individually and combined) can help with painful periods (dysmenorrhea), specifically primary dysmenorrhea – period pain and cramping with no apparent cause medically.

Herbal medicine and nutritional therapy provide the opportunity for individuals to not only address health problems holistically but support the systems in the body to function as effectively as possible daily. The medical term for period pain is dysmenorrhea, which is due to the womb (uterus) contracting while it is shedding its lining. Divided into primary (no identifiable cause) and secondary (due to conditions like endometriosis), symptoms of dysmenorrhea can include not only cramps, but also nausea, backache, fatigue, diarrhoea and even fainting. 

If you have a condition such as fibroids, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), or anything else that causes painful periods, it is important to seek out support for treating the root causes over the longterm.

It’s estimated that internationally, 45-95 per cent of adolescent girls and women experience dysmenorrhea, with debilitating and incapacitating dysmenorrhea occurring in approximately seven to 15 per cent of women. Cramps often start the day before the period starts, and usually subside by day three. Mild cramping is normal, but doesn’t mean you need to suffer.

What is it that triggers painful cramping when the uterus is contracting? Chemical messengers called Prostaglandins (PG), produced by Omega 3 or 6, are responsible for the contraction. PG levels are typical highest just before the bleed and lower by days two to three. Pain is caused by excessive inflammatory PG.

In order to reduce dysmenorrhea, two things need to occur: firstly a reduction in the excess inflammatory response, specifically PGE2, and secondly, support for the production of the anti-inflammatory PG.

Addressing dysmenorrhea through nutrition

There are a number of steps through nutrition that can be taken to reduce PGE2 and mediate inflammation:

• Focusing on foods that decrease inflammation is super important. This means eliminating refined foods as much as possible and including a whole foods approach. Increase fruits and vegetables, which contain antioxidants and important vitamins and minerals that reduce inflammation.

• Omega 3 helps to combat PGE2. You can get Omega 3 by eating oily fish two to three times per week or by taking a good-quality supplement. 

• Magnesium can help reduce cramping and is also nourishing to the nervous system. It can calm anxiety and help with sleep, especially in the luteal phase. Leafy greens, dark chocolate and wholegrains are good sources through the diet

• Zinc can also have a beneficial impact on reducing painful periods so eating zinc rich foods like oysters, nuts and seeds is important.

• Sufficient Vitamin D is important to help reduce pain in dysmenorrhea

Addressing dysmenorrhea through plants

Dysmenorrhea can be treated through herbal medicine by doing the following:

• Tonifying and supporting the uterus all month long (long-term approach); When taken all month long, uterine tonics will gently contract your uterus (tonifying it), so on the time of your bleed, the contractions won’t be as painful. Uterine tonifying herbs include Motherwort, Crampbark and Lady’s Mantle.

• Liver herbs – Dandelion Root, Milk Thistle and Rosemary – can be taken alongside to facilitate proper hormone cycling and reduce inflammatory toxins in the system, such as: 

• Alleviate and minimise pain (symptom management approach); The uterus needs a few months to build up its strength. To help with pain relief in the meantime herbs that are anti-spasmodic (meaning they stop painful spasms) and anodyne (relieve pain) can be used to support, taken a few days before you usually start to feel your cramps. Herbs such as Crampbark, Corydalis and Ginger can all help to alleviate cramps.

Herbs that help the nervous system can also be very useful, as oftentimes stress plays a part in the imbalance of the delicate and complex reproductive system.

Addressing dysmenorrhea through lifestyle 

Lack of exercise/movement, stress and poor sleep can all contribute to increased painful periods:

• Increasing exercise and movement is helpful to get blood flowing to the pelvis, which can help reduce period pain when done regularly. Incorporate a regular movement practice like yoga, stretching, resistance training, running, swimming, dancing.

• Lowering stress, supporting stress resilience and introducing techniques like meditation, breathwork and vagus nerve activation

• Supporting sleep through sleep hygiene, rising at the same time each day, getting morning daylight within 30 minutes of waking and so on.

Dysmenorrhea Case Study: 

May, a 41-year-old, has had terrible pain in her hip and down her leg for every period for as long as she can remember (around age 13). She relied on painkillers like Nurofen. There was a lot of stress, disrupted sleep, too much coffee, skipped meals and frequent deli visits on the go instead of homemade meals. 

Nutritional therapy protocol: 

For May the focus started on stress management, gentle movement and focused on a high protein breakfast, as well as adding in a number of indicated supplements. A daily smoothie containing protein powder, greens and calcium-rich Greek yoghurt was a step that really supported a better eating pattern throughout the rest of the day.

Supplements included: Omega 3 and magnesium; Digestive enzymes; A multinutrient including key nutrients to address dysmenorrhea, including vitamin D.

Omega 3 made a significant difference to May, with it she is pain (and painkiller) free!

WCP Staff

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