Menstrual cramps, also called dysmenorrhea, are cramping aches and
pains that typically affect the lower abdomen but may also radiate to
the lower back and thighs. Thought to be caused by excess levels of
prostaglandins (hormone-like substances linked to pain and
inflammation), menstrual cramps often occur just before and during the
first few days of a woman’s menstrual period. Some women also
experience loose stools, headaches, nausea or dizziness.
For many women, menstrual cramps occur without an underlying health
condition (such as endometriosis). But if you’re experiencing regular
or severe cramping, consult your doctor to see if you’re suffering
from an underlying health issue that might be causing the pain (such
as endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, or uterine fibroids).
So far, scientific support for the claim that any remedy can treat
menstrual cramps is limited.
Here’s a look at four kinds of herbal medicine that are sometimes
recommended by alternative medicine practitioners.
This warming herb may help ease cramps and soothe menstrual troubles
by lowering levels of pain-causing prostaglandins (as well as fight
the fatigue commonly associated with premenstrual syndrome). In a 2009
study, women who took 250 mg capsules of ginger four times a day for
three days from the start of their menstrual period experienced a
level of pain relief equal to that of study members who treated their
menstrual cramps with ibuprofen.
Another study, published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine
in 2012, analyzed the use of ginger root powder or a placebo in 120
women with moderate or severe primary dysmenorrhea and found that
there were significant differences in the severity of pain between the
ginger and placebo groups. Those taking ginger root powder two days
before the onset of their menstrual period and continuing through the
first three days of their menstrual period had the shortest duration
The Cochrane Review of these studies said the quality of the evidence
was low, but the direction of the effect was consistent. Ginger has
other purported health benefits. Whether you believe them or not, you
may enjoy making your own soothing ginger tea, especially during your
Ginger to Relieve Menstrual Cramps
In a 2008 report, scientists sized up 39 studies (involving a total of
3,475 women) and concluded that Chinese herbs may alleviate menstrual
cramps more effectively than over-the-counter pain medications. Most
study participants were given formulas containing five or six herbs
(used in traditional Chinese medicine), such as Chinese angelica root,
fennel fruit, licorice root, cinnamon bark, and red peony root. The
review said that there was “promising evidence” but the trials were of
According to a survey published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in
2014, the herbal formula most frequently recommended for primary
dysmenorrhea in Taiwan is “Dang-gui-shao-yao-san” which contains Dang
gui (Angelica sinensis) and Peony powder and is believed to have
sedative and anti-inflammatory compounds.
An herb with a licorice-like taste and celery-like crunchy texture,
fennel contains anethole (a compound with anti-spasm effects) that may
help to ease menstrual cramps in some women. The available research
includes a study published in the Iranian Journal of Nursing and
Midwifery Research in 2015 that examined the effects of a fennel
extract (fennelin) and vitagnus compared to the pain medication
mefenamic acid for primary dysmenorrhea. For the study, 105 women with
mild to moderate dysmenorrhea took either fennel extract, vitex
extract, mefenamic acid, or a placebo. During the two cycles after the
intervention, both fennelin and vitagnus had a greater effect compared
with the mefenamic acid. However, the Cochrane Review of this study
said the evidence was of very low quality.
Pycnogenol (French Maritime Pine Bark Extract)
Extracted from the bark of pine trees, the supplement Pycnogenol was
found to significantly diminish pain and reduce the need for analgesic
pain medication among a group of women with menstrual cramps in one
2008 study. Another small study in 2014 also found pain reduction when
taking Pycnogenol and an oral contraceptive for three months. However,
a Cochrane Review of claims for this supplement’s effects for other
chronic conditions found no sufficient evidence of effectiveness.
The Possible Benefits of Pycnogenol
If you’re considering using herbs (or other forms of alternative
medicine or specific diets or foods) for menstrual cramps, it’s
important to talk with your doctor first to weigh the pros and cons.
If you have severe menstrual cramps, it could be a sign of problems
that need to be assessed by your doctor.