A Nutritional Approach to the Treatment of Menstrual Cramps
Menstrual cramps are a very common occurrence in our society with estimates of its prevalence running from 30-50% of all menstruating women, and in some cases even up to 80%. While there are different types of menstrual cramps (referred to as dysmenorrhea in medical terms), the most common kind begins with the menstrual flow and lasts four to six hours. The severity of the cramps can range from mild to severe, with one in five adolescent girls experiencing cramps severe enough to prevent them from engaging in their normal range of activities. The primary symptoms that women experience include abdominal cramps, backache, and fatigue. Other symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, headache, diarrhea, constipation, and dizziness.
The most common treatment for menstrual cramps is the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and Advil. While these drugs are effective for many women, they don’t always bring complete relief and can lose their effectiveness over time. They also can be associated with several side effects including irritation of the gut, liver damage, and leaky gut syndrome.
Fortunately there are a variety of effective nutritional medicines that can either augment or replace the use of NSAIDs in the treatment of menstrual cramps.
Omega 3 oils such as flaxseed and cod liver oils may be one of the best treatments. These oils are also known as essential fatty acids because the body requires them yet can’t produce them, so they must come from the diet. They are in this way similar to vitamins. Most Americans don’t eat much in the way of fish or flaxseeds and hence are deficient in these oils. Other symptoms of an essential fatty acid deficiency include dry or itchy skin or an inflammatory condition such as arthritis or asthma.
These oils have potent anti-inflammatory effects in the body and block the production of inflammatory prostaglandins that are believed to be the cause of menstrual cramps. Their effectiveness was borne out in a 1996 study that found a 63% decrease in the severity of menstrual cramps of adolescent girls treated with omega 3 oils.
Another very effective treatment is vitamin E, which was studied as far back as 1955. In this study, it led to improvement in 68% of the women in the treated group, versus 18% in the placebo group. Another study documented the effectiveness of vitamin E after menstrual cramping had already begun, within as little as fifteen minutes.
Vitamin B6 and magnesium are two nutrients that work especially well together. Magnesium, an important mineral which is also a muscle relaxant, relieves the spasm of the uterine muscles which lead to menstrual cramps. Vitamin B6 increases the utilization of magnesium, as well as acts with magnesium to promote the anti-inflammatory effects of the omega 3 oils.
Niacin, also known as vitamin B3, has also been used since at least the 1950’s in the treatment of menstrual cramps. It was reported at that time to have offered relief to 90% of 80 women suffering from severe menstrual cramps. This is not surprising given niacin’s effectiveness in treating other inflammatory disorders such as arthritis.
Many women experience significant relief from menstrual cramping by using some combination of the above mentioned nutrients, and hence are able to reduce or eliminate their need for ibuprofen or other NSAIDs. While these naturopathic treatments are safe for most women, niacin can under some circumstances cause flushing or liver inflammation and there is an increased risk of birth defects in pregnant women who take large doses of cod liver oil. A physician should be consulted before undertaking either of these treatments.
Menstrual cramps are best managed using a comprehensive approach which includes dietary modifications, the appropriate use of herbal and nutritional supplements, and the treatment of any underlying conditions which may be exacerbating the condition. For more information on managing menstrual cramps naturally, please make a selection below.
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