Treating Menstrual Cramps (Dysmenorrhea) with Chinese Medicine

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In an ideal situation, menstruation should be painless and accompanied by minimal pre- and post-menstrual signs and symptoms. However, for many women, the monthly period can be very uncomfortable. This pain can manifest itself before or during the menstrual period. The pain can be dull, throbbing or cramping in the lower abdomen. For some women, the discomfort is very mild and they may only experience a feeling of “heaviness” in the lower abdomen. For the others, the pain can be so severe as to extend to the back and legs, and may also be accompanied by headaches, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.

Painful periods can arise from a number of causes: In Western medical theory, the main reason for menstrual cramps is that the levels of prostaglandins (a hormone-like substance that promotes uterine contractions) and other sexual hormones become imbalanced, which leads to over-contraction of the uterus. (As with any gynecological pain, it is important to start with a pelvic exam to rule out more serious causes, such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, adenomyosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, or cervical stenosis.)

Stress may also play a large part in menstrual cramps. In Chinese medical theory, the Liver system is closely related to the emotions. Two of the most important functions of the Liver for women are storing the Blood, and smoothing the emotions. If the Liver function is impaired, this will cause what is known as “Liver Qi congestion.” Stress, anger, and irritability are the emotions that manifest with this congestion. And in Chinese medicine, the Qi (life force energy) rules the free flow of blood, especially women’s menstrual blood. If the Qi is not smooth, the menses will not flow smoothly, leading to pain. Exposure to too much cold – either in the diet or the environment – will also lead to stagnation of Qi and Blood, and hence, may result in painful periods.

As stated in a previous blog article, one of the great strengths of Chinese herbal medicine is that it balances women’s hormones very effectively. It also moves the Qi and Blood, and can warm the body. All of these benefits combine to result in pain-free periods. According to one study, Chinese herbal medicine had roughly twice the pain-relieving power compared with conventional NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen). This study was conducted by Dr. Xiaoshu Zhu of the University of Western Sydney, Australia, in 2005.

There are also powerful self-care methods for women to help alleviate their menstrual cramps. Diet is very important. Here are some diet tips:

  • Reduce consumption of meat, whole milk, full-fat cheese, butter and egg yolks. The saturated fat in these foods contains a type of prostaglandin that triggers muscle contraction in the uterus.
  • Eat more fish, nuts and seeds. Some fish such as salmon, trout and mackerel, and certain nuts and seeds like flax, sunflower, sesame, pumpkin and walnuts contain certain fatty acids that can help to relax the muscles and reduce menstrual pain.
  • Eat low-fat yogurt since it contains high levels of calcium. High intake of calcium and vitamin D will not only reduce the severity of menstrual cramp symptoms, but will also prevent them from developing in the first place.
  • Eat guava, bell pepper and thyme – regular intake helps reduce menstrual cramps.
  • Ginger tea can warm the uterus and reduce cramps.
  • Avoid cold salad, cold drinks, ice cream and other cold foods in the few days before a period. Drink hot tea instead or coffee, as this can help to reduce menstrual cramps.
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Teresa is a California licensed acupuncturist in San Francisco, CA

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