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
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.