As far as alternative methods for alleviating painful periods go, traditional Chinese medicine is a popular one. You might have already found yourself on an acupuncture table in an attempt to kick your cramps to the curb, but have you ever explored Chinese herbal treatments?
Often used in tandem with acupuncture, Chinese herbs have been used for hundreds of years to treat and remedy many different health-related issues, including improving digestion, increasing energy, decreasing flu and cold symptoms, and helping to reduce stress. Research also suggests Chinese herbal therapy might be beneficial in treating inflammatory diseases.
Of course, popularly, Chinese herbs are also used for decreasing pain and regulating menstruation.
To get the ins and outs of utilizing Chinese herbs for period cramps and PMS symptoms, we reached out to Alli Urbanik Kimmel, LAc, MS, an acupuncturist and herbalist at The Yinova Center in New York City.
It's an Individualized Treatment
According to Kimmel, different types of period pain require different Chinese herbs — as she explains, in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), period pain is viewed as a symptom of an underlying imbalance in the body.
For example, Kimmel notes that when the body isn't properly balanced, the process of the uterine lining shedding isn't always free of pain.
"There are three very common TCM patterns of imbalance that can cause period cramps: qi stagnation, blood stagnation, and blood deficiency," Kimmel explains.
"In order to treat period pain with herbs, your practitioner will ask questions about the timing and quality of the pain, as well as other questions about your period to determine which pattern of imbalance is present and which herbal supplement is right for you."
Chinese Herbs Are Used For More Than Just Pain
Cramping is just one issue Chinese herbal medicine treats related to menstruation. According to Kimmel, it can also help regulate periods that are too heavy or light, PMS symptoms, irregular periods, anovulation, and luteal phase defects.
Chinese Herbs Are Combined For a Formula Custom to You
There isn't just one herb that's handed to patients looking to tackle period pain in a holistic way.
"In TCM, we almost never use single herbs," Kimmel says. "Generally, several herbal substances are combined to create a formula that addresses the specific combination of symptoms a person has."
However, when used for period pain, Kimmel says some of the most common herbs included in formulas include Bai Shao (peony root), Gan Cao (licorice), Yi Mu Cao (motherwort), Tao Ren (peach kernel), Hong Hua (safflower blossom), Dang Gui (angelica root), Chai Hu (bupleurum), and Xiang Fu (nutgrass rhizome).
Treatment Is Often Paired With Acupuncture
In fact, Kimmel says she finds that herbs work best when combined with acupuncture.
"When treating painful periods with no underlying condition (such as PCOS or endometriosis), I like to see patients once a week or every other week for two to three cycles for acupuncture and herbs. If there is an underlying condition present, it may take a few more cycles to see significant improvement in period pain," she explains.
Like Treatment Plans, Timelines For Results Vary
How fast you feel your pain dissipate depends on the "pattern of imbalance" in your body causing the pain.
"For example, if you tend to experience PMS and your cramps are the worst before your period actually starts, your cramps are due to an underlying pattern of qi stagnation," Kimmel says. "In this case, I usually recommend that patients take an herbal supplement called Xiao Yao San during the week before their period. These types of cramps tend to respond very quickly to herbal supplements, and many people have immediate relief from period pain."
If the cramps are worse at the end of your period and you're totally wiped out, Kimmel says it could be due to a blood deficiency.
"For people with this type of cramps, I often recommend taking a different herbal supplement called Ba Zhen Tang daily until period pain is reduced or resolved. For people with blood deficiency, it might take a few menstrual cycles to see significant relief," she explains.
Chinese Herbs Come in Many Different Forms
In traditional TCM, Kimmel says that Chinese herbs are prepared as a tea, sometimes called a decoction, which is considered the fastest-acting and potent way to administer herbs.
After raw herbs are cooked in a pot of water, the liquid is strained and consumed multiple times a day.
However, the process takes time, and Kimmel says many find the flavor of the tea to be unpleasant.
"Thankfully, Chinese herbs have kept up with the times, and there are many other ways to take your herbs," Kimmel says. "The most popular ways to take herbs these days tend to be tablets and alcohol-based tinctures. At the Yinova Center, we carry a line of tinctures that allow us to customize herbal formulas for each patient."
It's Not an Answer for Everyone
Before taking any type of supplement — or really adding anything to your lifestyle to treat a medical issue — it's always a good idea to speak with a medical professional first.
Kimmel says that Chinese herbs are considered generally safe when taken under the guidance of a licensed acupuncturist who is board certified in Chinese herbal medicine.
"If you are interested in taking herbs for period pain, please inform your practitioner of any other medications you are taking, as well as any health conditions that you have, so that they can assess whether or not an herbal supplement is right for you," she suggests.
"If you can't take herbs, acupuncture alone is still a great option for relieving period pain."