Dysmenorrhea is basically period pain. Doctors will often diagnose period pain as “primary dysmenorrhea”, which means the pain cannot be contributed to any other cause or disease. The typical method for dealing with period pain within the medical model is prescribing hormonal birth control. Much less infrequently pain medications are prescribed; over-the-counter pain-relievers are typically suggested.
Dysmenorrhea is not just a case of “grin and bear it”. It can seriously effect a woman’s ability to function in her daily life. While I am a big fan of resting, nourishing, and turning inwards during the moon time, I acknowledge that there are many woman who’s life is not set up to take such personal time (or rather our society is not set up to take such personal time). And besides, pain is pain, and for most everything besides menstruating and childbirth, we see pain as a sign that something is wrong with the body. Most women I know with dysmenorrhea can’t help but wonder if something is wrong with their body when their uterus is cramped.
Pain and symptoms vary from woman to woman, so it is important to treat the individual, not the condition.
Furthermore, pain and symptoms vary from month to month, as harmony within the menstrual cycle is reached through a process of changes and adjustments. Therefore, herbal formulas should be updated accordingly. At the same time, keep in mind that when working with the endocrine system treatment should be for at least 3 months but often as long as a year or more. Each month the ovaries alternate hormone production, so to ensure an herbal treatment (or conventional, for that matter) is effective let the left, then right, then back to left ovaries do their thing (thus the 3 month recommendation). I also think a quarter of a year is a fair time frame to let your body, mind and spirit go through their natural cycles a number of time, establish rhythms, process emotions, and adjust to physical surroundings and seasons.
It may be tempting to stop taking herbs after a month or so when you a) notice an improvement and b) don’t see any improvement. At this time, especially if you are in the “b” category, keep on! Figure out your dosages and preparations and stick with them. Tinctures? Teas? How often? When I was fist getting into herbs I would stop treatments when I felt they were not working, “so why bother?”, I thought. While it was true they weren’t making horrible cramps disappear, there were many other benefits to be had. Some signs of improvement may be a more regular cycle, less PMS, pre-bleeding spotting, blood clots, nausea, teeth-shattering (yes, some women find they shiver and their teeth-shatter..sounds like a cold condition to me!), more energy and vitality, and simply better able to cope with their cycle no matter how tumultuous it may be.
When creating a formula for dysmenorrhea, you may wish to include: (from Ruth Tricky in Woman, Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle)
- A uterine tonic, as they normalize the uterine tissue
- Antispasmodics, relaxing, pain-relieving, prostaglandin-inhibiting herbs based on symptoms
- Emmenagogues may be used with late or slow starting periods
- Most always use warming herbs
- Don’t forget to balance emotional and mental tension with nervines, and treat any other body system that may be out of balance and aggravates dysmenorrhea
Regulates and normalizes the uterine tissue. Add when there is a heavy, dragging type of pain, pain towards the end of the cycle, some types of pain during sex (of a congested, heavy nature). They often provides nutrition, minerals and can be astringents so the do actually tone (by precipitating excess proteins in cell walls).
Examples: Raspberry leaf, nettle, shepherd’s purse, lady’s mantle, ect…
Improves the action of antispasmodic herbs when the period if aggravated by cold, relived by heat, lower abdomen feels relatively cool to the touch, relived by movement of the hips.
Examples: Ginger, cinnamon can be added to other herbal formulas, or taken alone, but drink them warm. Many Chinese patent formulas include cinnamon to warm the interior and promote a healthy circulation of blood.
Ginger tea – grate or chop 1 inch of ginger into a saucepan. Add about 2 1/3 cups of water. Bring to a boil, reduce to low simmer, cover. Simmer for 20 minuets. Turn off heat and let cool slightly before straining and drinking. You may add honey to taste and sip while emerged in a hot bath; doesn’t that sound divine?
Hormone regulating herbs
The goal here is to regulate the hormones, which reduceds pain by indirect action on prostaglandins.
Examples: Vitex angus-castus (chastetree berries) is very useful for congestive dysmenorrhea, and pain with PMS. A picky herb about dosing…when I get the correct does I will let you know. Everyone seems to have different suggestions.
Paeonia lactiflora (peony), Cimicifugia racemosa (black cohosh) are both antispasmodics and have the potential to competitively inhibit the activity of estrogen.Verbena officinalis (blue vervain) is a sedative, traditionally used for menstrual disorders with a hormonal origin. Schisandra berries.
These are relaxing herbs, used for both physical and mental/emotional tension or anxiety accompanying pain.They potentate antispasmodic and pain-killing herbs, as some are antispasmodics themselves.
Examples: Valerian, peony, corydalis, vervain, chamomile, agrimony, hops, lemon balm, lavender…
These have analgesic effects. Much weaker than conventional analgesics, so they must be prescribed with other herbs that actually attempt to correct the imbalance. I don’t think anodynes work on all systems and complaints, except for corydalis.
Examples: Wild lettuce, pulsatilla, corydalis, valerian, feverfew (463)…
Don’t over look the liver
Congestive period pain with heavy, dull, dragging pain has historically been treated with liver herbs and bitters, as well as those who are “irritable, hot-headed, constipated, headaches, heavy fiery-red flow”. Liver herbs most likely work through an indirect effect on hormone imbalance by improving the liver’s ability to excrete estrogen from the bowel and through the liver and bile.
Examples: Barberry and other bererine-containing herbs are useful, as are many other ‘liver’ herbs like dandelion root, burdock, Oregon grape, yellow dock. Yellow dock and dandelion in particular (especially when combined with blackstrap molasses) can encourage the body to use iron stores more efficiently, thus relieving fatigue following blood loss.
Tricky, Ruth. Woman, Hormones, and the Menstrual Cycle.