Period pain is pervasive, yet its reach and impact is often misunderstood by society at large. A slew of recent YouGov polls, which surveyed thousands of U.S.-based people identifying as female, quantified some powerful statistics:
- 91% reported experiencing period pain
- 42% said period pain affects their ability to work
- 65% hadn't talked to their doctor about their pain
While dysmenorrhea (common period pain) and other period symptoms are extremely prevalent, effective solutions are startlingly limited. NSAIDs like Advil and ibuprofen, and prescription remedies like birth control pills may come with harmful side effects.
Recently, more and more menstruating people have turned to natural solutions like herbs to treat their symptoms. But separating truth from fiction in the herbal world isn't always easy.
Fortunately, there's a wealth of clinical data we can use to make informed decisions about our health. Our lead dietitian at De Lune, Courtney Mayszak, RDN, LDN, has done the hard work for you, reviewing hundreds of scientific studies to identify the most evidence-based herbs that can help relieve period pain.
If you're not already using herbs to treat period pain, you're likely using NSAIDs. Before we cover your best herbal options, it's important to review the potential downsides of NSAIDs, which are the most common treatment for painful periods.
Natural Herbs for Period Pain Versus NSAIDs
Although you may not be familiar with the name 'Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs' (NSAIDs), you probably know their most common forms: Advil, ibuprofen, and aspirin. NSAIDs are the most common pharmacologic treatment for dysmenorrhea, and are widely recommended by physicians to those who report painful periods.
But just because their usage is popular, doesn't mean they don't come with some serious limitations.
The evidence of potential side effects has grown so much that in 2015, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) strengthened their warnings regarding the heightened risk of heart attack and stroke due to NSAID use.
One of the largest safety reviews ever conducted, which summarized the findings of dozens of NSAID risk studies, was published through the National Institutes of Health. They concluded that "treatment with NSAIDs can result in a wide variety of side effects." Their findings are outlined below:
Overview of Possible Adverse Effects of NSAIDs
|Gastrointestinal||Erosions and ulcers in the lining of the GI tract, nausea, vomiting, bloating, diarrhea, constipation|
|Renal||Reduced kidney function, sodium and water retention, pitting swelling in the arms and legs, too much potassium in the blood, inflammation of the renal tubules, kidney failure|
|Cardiovascular||Blood clots, increased blood pressure, congestive heart failure, palpitations|
|Central Nervous System||Headache, fatigue, insomnia, vertigo, seizures|
|Other||Bleeding, asthma attacks, Reye's syndrome (i.e. confusion, swelling of the brain, liver damage), hives, low white blood cell count|
Using NSAIDs to treat pain every once in while isn't likely to cause side effects. Your risk of side effects increases if you pop NSAIDs by the handful for the week of your period, every month, for your entire reproductive life (which, if they're your go-to treatment option, is very possible).
Many medical researchers and practitioners are calling for safer solutions to pain. Herbs may provide a natural alternative. Although not everyone will be surprised about the healing power of herbal remedies: today, roughly 60% of the world depends entirely on plants to treat health problems, including period symptoms.
Best Herbs for Period Pain & Dysmenorrhea Relief
While the potential side effects of NSAIDs are well-documented, herbal solutions can provide many of the same benefits with a more benign safety profile. We sifted through decades of research to identify proven herbal remedies that treat a broad-spectrum of period symptoms.
Here are your best herbal options for conquering painful periods.
Ginger is nature's painkiller. It's a robust analgesic and has been managing painful periods for thousands of years. In fact, ginger is one of the most commonly used natural products among people with period cramps.
Ginger and NSAIDs actually work in similar ways to reduce pain; both reduce inflammation, and by doing so, reduce prostaglandins—hormone-like compounds that build up in the uterus and cause it to cramp.
The difference between ginger and NSAIDs is that ginger reduces pain with far fewer risks of side effects. Clinical studies have found ginger to be as effective as NSAIDs as relieving period pain, but with no adverse effects. Multiple studies have reported that, as pain treatment, ginger has a better safety profile than NSAIDs.
To dive deeper into the benefits of ginger, read our full post.
2. Dong Quai
Used throughout Asia for more than 2,000 years, dong quai is one of the most popular herbs in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It's Chinese name literally means "state of return", referring to its hormone-balancing properties.
Most herbalists regard dong quai as the wonder herb for the female system (though we will note not all menstruating people identify as female). Historically, dong quai has been used to treat menstrual cramps, menstruation that happens too frequently, and menstruation that doesn't happen frequently enough.
The unique mix of volatile oils in dong quai’s roots can inhibit the action of epinephrine and histamine—compounds that regulate muscle contraction. By doing so, dong quai can increase relaxation in the uterus, mitigating spasms and cramps.
But dong quai's benefits go beyond the inhibition of epinephrine and histamine. For example, ferulic acid is highly prevalent in dong quai. Ferulic acid has a host of proven advantages, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, anti-carcinogenic, anti-coagulant, and anti-hyperlipidemic properties.
Read our full article to learn more about how dong quai can improve your period.
Fenugreek is one of the oldest known medicinal herbs in recorded history, with use dating back to ancient Egypt and Greece. In modern Egypt and India, fenugreek is still one of the most common herbs used to manage menstrual disorders.
Why has fenugreek withstood the test of time? Multiple studies have uncovered some impressive scientific backing for its efficacy.
In one study, women who took fenugreek during their period reported decreases in the severity of pain, the duration of pain, and their reliance on conventional pain killers. Women also reported improvements in other period-related symptoms, like fatigue, nausea, low energy, headache, and mood swings. No one reported any side effects of fenugreek.
Scientists are just beginning to understand exactly how fenugreek works to reduce pain. Researchers think fenugreek uses a variety of potent plant compounds to blunt the inflammatory process. And these compounds are powerful. When fenugreek's compounds are extracted as a concentrate, one study reported that their effects are similar to morphine.
Read our full article to discover more about how fenugreek can combat period pain.
De Lune Combines These Herbs for a Powerful Solution
The herbs above have shown to provide relief for period pain and dysmenorrhea. But addressing your symptoms through multiple modes of action is often most effective.
We combed the science for the most effective nutrients and herbs for period pain, and put them all in Cramp Aid—our non-drug solution to period cramps.