Acupuncture and Natural Treatment
Options for PMS and Menstrual Cramps
By Amie Brooke, L. Ac, MSOM
Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine in Marin
Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine in San Francisco
In my private practice, PMS and dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramps) are certainly common reasons for seeking treatment with acupuncture with herbs, as these holistic methods tend to be very effective and safe options for most women. Chinese medicine and acupuncture have enjoyed a rich history in treating gynecological issues. Even today, many women turn to this style of treatment for numerous female health concerns. PMS and cramping usually respond very well to treatment. The key is to give it sufficient time before discerning if it is working for you. My experience has been that women younger than 25 typically respond very quickly to acupuncture and herbs, while women in their 30’s and 40’s may need to be a bit more patient. This is because the time frame of progress is usually based on how long one’s symptoms have been present. The longer they have been there, the longer treatment tends to take. Even in worst case scenarios (long-term and severe symptoms), I still expect that the woman’s overall health should improve greatly within 2 months of weekly treatment.
Both PMS and cramping are generally attributed to an underlying liver imbalance that is based on qi (energy) and blood stagnation. The liver is responsible for balanced circulation throughout the body; cramping pain and PMS are signs that the blood has congealed and qi has become stuck. The primary cause of liver qi and blood stagnation is emotional in nature and is specifically related to the suppression of anger and frustration. When you feel stuck in your life and your creative resources are thwarted, the natural byproducts are anger and frustration. The continued attachment to these emotions makes us feel stuck on all levels. Thus, the body will mirror to us this stagnation by impairing the circulation of qi and blood through the liver meridian. This, in turn, causes pain, mood swings, and further emotional upset.
Liver blood stagnation that causes cramping can also be caused by abuse at the onset of menses. Whether it is sexual, physical, or verbal abuse, such external reinforcements can easily cause our blood circulation to shut down as a protective mechanism against the injurious circumstance. In my practice, many women with severe and prolonged cramping have confided in me that they were once abused. When I tell them that their menstrual imbalances are probably related to this, many of them intuitively recognize this as true, which is the first step in initiating the healing process.
Many women have resigned themselves to simply putting up with these uncomfortable symptoms every month. They simply think that this is normal and that there is no treatment available for it. When I tell women that acupuncture and herbs work very well, many do not believe me until they start to see miraculous changes in their cycles. They no longer feel like the world is ending and they are no longer doubled over in pain for 3 days; How could this be? Well, this is actually one of the easier conditions to treat since acupuncture excels at moving stuck qi and blood. Needles disperse energy and promote circulation. That is their primary function. By harmonizing the flow of qi in the liver meridian, order is restored the woman’s body and mind. Along with acupuncture, here are a few herbs and supplements that I recommend. It is always best to pursue natural treatments under the guidance of a skilled practitioner. With that said, consider the following:
- Xiao Yao Wan: Also called Free and Easy Wanderer, this is the quintessential gynecological formula in Chinese herbal medicine and one of the most popular herbal formulas throughout history. This formula combines a variety of herbs that regulate liver qi and strengthen the spleen. Therefore, it is good for PMS, mild to moderate cramping, mood swings, fatigue, and bloating during menses.
- Jia Wei Xiao Yao Wan: This is Free and Easy Wanderer Plus, which adds to heat-clearing herbs to the original formula. This makes it suitable for more severe symptoms of irritability, headaches, cramping, and possibly elevated body temperature.
- Shao Fu Zhu Yu Tang: This formula promotes the circulation of liver blood and warms the lower abdominal organs, which makes it suitable for more severe cramping that is alleviated by the application of heat.
- Crampbark Plus: This is a formula by Health Concerns that combines a variety of blood moving herbs for menstrual cramps and irregularity.
- Women’s Chamber: This is a variation of a Chinese herbal formula called gui zhi fu ling wan that is used for fibroids, cysts, endometriosis, and cramping. This formula moves liver blood, warms the uterus, and dissipates phlegm accumulations (cysts and fibroids).
- Krill Oil: This is an essential fatty acid complex that is rich in phospholipids which makes it ideal for female health. If krill oil isn’t available or is too expensive, take a standard fish oil, starting at 3,000mg daily. Essential fatty acids are excellent for stabilizing the mood, reducing inflammation and pain, and aiding in the regulation of estrogen and progesterone (especially krill oil).
- Phosphatidyl Choline: This is a phospholipid that has been shown to help in balancing estrogen and progesterone. It has a positive effect of PMS and cramping.
- Antioxidant Complex: Taking a high quality antioxidant ensures that you are getting adequate vitamins and mineral for healthy blood and hormonal balance. Vitamins B12 and folic acid are commonly deficient in women and can lead to blood imbalances from the perspective of Chinese medicine.
- 5 htp: This is a natural precursor to serotonin that is helpful for stabilizing moods and reducing cravings. It is also useful for fatigue and poor sleep.
- Calcium: 1000-1336 mg/day has been proven to improve mood and reduce water retention.
- Magnesium: deficiency is strongly implicated as a causative factor in PMS (use 360mg 3x/day)
- Vitamin E: 100-400 IU/day has been clinically shown to reduce PMS symptoms
- Vitamin B6: promotes healthy levels of neurotransmitters and endorphins for emotional stability
Nutritional therapy can go a long way toward healing PMS and cramping. The standard American diet is certainly enough to create a host of problems for female health, including hormonal imbalances, various side effects of holding excess weight, low serotonin levels, and poor metabolism. Here are a few basic tips to consider if you want to use food to heal yourself:
- Avoid refined sugar: Refined products in general should be avoided in order to heal PMS and cramping. Sugar in particular is harmful for all systems of the body.
- Switch to eating an organic whole foods diet: Eating organic means that the food is free from added hormones and other synthetic agents. This one step should profoundly benefit your health.
- Drink a lot of water.
- Avoid coffee: Coffee is one of the main inputs into fibrocystic conditions. It is an irritant to the colon and liver and can cause blood stagnation over time. Switch to green tea if you need the caffeine.
Lastly, make sure you get plenty of exercise. This is an important consideration for healing ourselves in general. Try to get at least 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Find ways to manage your stress level. Yoga and meditation are incredibly helpful for this purpose (along with many others). Hopefully after reading this brief article, you feel more encouraged that there are steps you can take for PMS and cramping that you might not have known about. Don’t forget, it is common that natural therapies take time, as they have a cumulative effect over a few weeks. Be consistent and accurate in your treatment (which is difficult without some professional guidance) and you should make vast improvements.
Amie Brooke, MSOM is a licensed acupuncturist, herbalist and holistic nutritional therapist. She can be reached at 415-322-3134.