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Natural Remedies for Menstrual Cramps

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Updated March 30, 2014

What are Menstrual Cramps?

Menstrual cramps, also known as dysmenorrhea, typically feel like a dull pain in the lower abdomen before or during menstrual periods. The pain sometimes radiates to the low back or thigh area. Other symptoms may include nausea, loose stools, sweating, and dizziness.

There are two types of menstrual cramps: primary and secondary dysmenorrhea. Primary dysmenorrhea, which usually starts within several years after your first menstrual period, involves no physical abnormality. Hormone-like substances called prostaglandins, which are produced naturally in the body, are thought to cause these menstrual cramps and be responsible for the pain and inflammation.

Secondary dysmenorrhea, on the other hand, has an underlying physical cause, such as endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, uterine fibroids, or uterine polyps.

Natural Remedies for Menstrual Cramps

If you are experiencing symptoms of menstrual cramps, it's important to see your doctor to be properly diagnosed. Although certain natural remedies show some promise, there hasn't been enough research at this point to conclude they're effective. Here are some of the more popular natural remedies for menstrual cramps.

1) Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies. They are also available in fish oil capsules, which may be the preferable form because many brands filter out any pollutants in fish, such as mercury and PCBs.

At least eight studies involving a total of 1,097 women have investigated the relationship between diet and menstrual cramps and have found that fish oil intake seemed to have a positive effect on menstrual cramps.

Animal studies suggest that the two compounds in fish oil, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) may decrease prostaglandin levels.

In one small study, 21 young women took fish oil (containing 1080 milligrams eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), 720 milligrams docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and 1.5 milligrams vitamin E) daily for two months followed by a placebo pill for two months. Another 21 young women took the placebo for two months followed by fish oil for two months. The results suggested that the women experienced significantly less menstrual cramps when they were taking the fish oil.

Fish oil capsules are sold in drug stores, health food stores, and online. Look for the active ingredients EPA and DHA on the label.

Fish oil capsules may interact with blood-thinning drugs such as warfarin (Coumadin) and aspirin. Side effects may include indigestion and bleeding. To reduce a fishy aftertaste, it should be taken just before meals.

2) Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral found naturally in foods such as green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. It is also available as nutritional supplements. Magnesium is needed for more than 300 biochemical reactions. It helps to regulate blood sugar levels and is needed for normal muscle and nerve function, heart rhythm, immune function, blood pressure, and for bone health.

In 2001, researchers with the Cochrane Collaboration reviewed three small studies that compared magnesium and a placebo for dysmenorrhea. Overall, they found that magnesium was more effective than placebo for pain relief and the need for additional medication was less with magnesium use.

In the studies, there was no significant difference in the number of side effects or adverse effects between the magnesium and the placebo.

High doses of magnesium may cause diarrhea, nausea, loss of appetite, muscle weakness, difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, irregular heart rate, and confusion. It can interact with certain medications, such as those for osteoporosis, high blood pressure (calcium channel blockers), as well as some antibiotics, muscle relaxants, and diuretics.

3) Acupressure

Acupressure is a traditional healing practice that is based on the same principles as acupuncture. Instead of applying needles to acupuncture points, pressure is applied.

A point that is often recommended by acupuncturists for menstrual cramps is called Spleen 6. Although there are only preliminary studies on acupressure for menstrual cramps, it is a simple home remedy that is often recommended by alternative practitioners.

To find the point, acupuncturists suggest feeling the bony point of the inner ankle. From that point, draw an imaginary line up the lower calf from the inner ankle. The point is approximately four finger widths from the inner ankle. It isn't on the shin bone, but just beside it towards the back of the calf.

With your thumb or middle finger at a 90 degree angle to the skin, apply gradually increasing pressure. Hold for three minutes. The pressure should not be painful or uncomfortable.

Acupressure to the Spleen 6 point should not be done if you are pregnant. It should also not be done over broken or infected skin.

Other Natural Remedies for Menstrual Cramps

  • Low-fat diet
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin B1
  • Heat
  • Crampbark
  • Fennel
  • Aromatherapy
  • Massage
  • Calcium
  • Chiropractic
  • Exercise

Sources

Chen HM, Chen CH. Effects of acupressure at the Sanyinjiao point on primary dysmenorrhoea. J Adv Nurs. 48.4 (2004): 380-387.

Dennehy CE. The use of herbs and dietary supplements in gynecology: an evidence-based review. J Midwifery Womens Health. 51.6 (2006): 402-409.

Fjerbaek A, Knudsen UB. Endometriosis, dysmenorrhea and diet-What is the evidence? Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 2007 Jan 6.

French L. Dysmenorrhea. Am Fam Physician. 71.2 (2005): 285-291.

Harel Z, Biro FM, Kottenhahn RK, Rosenthal SL. Supplementation with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in the management of dysmenorrhea in adolescents. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 174.4 (1996): 1335-1338.

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