Dealing with the literal flow from your period can be demanding enough (I’ve forgotten to bring tampons to work about a billion times), but when you throw in PMS and cramping on top of it, it’s no wonder that periods can be super unwelcome—sometimes debilitating cramps and distracting mood swings are the last thing that you have time for.
And to make all of this even more complicated, not all menstruators want to reach for painkillers every time we feel a cramp coming on, which for some of us can be many, many times a month. So what can you do? We spoke with Erica Matluck, Director of Wellbeing at the Tia Clinic and a naturopathic doctor, about natural remedies that work for all kinds of cramps and PMS symptoms—read on for her suggestions, and then wave buh-bye to those period pains.
Erica is all about approaching your needs in a holistic way, so the very first thing that she recommends is thinking about the lifestyle factors that might be affecting your period symptoms. For example, “When it comes to cramps, step one is really listening to the body, monitoring the body, and watching the cramps,” she says. So after a bad bout of cramps, reflect on your last 48 hours: Has anything been different about your stress levels, exercise habits, or sleep? And what else has changed since your last cycle? Keep track, and then use that information to adjust behavior accordingly—maybe it’s cutting down on sugar or trying to log more hours in bed. And while this approach requires the most patience and effort, it’s also the most effective with long-lasting benefits.
This natural remedy could not be more aptly named. “My favorite thing, herbally, for cramps is cramp bark,“ says Erica. “It’s one of those things that I want every woman to know about because it can be so helpful. It’s been used throughout history for musculoskeletal tension, so we use it to relax muscles.” Try swapping out your Ibuprofen for this herb, which comes in the form of teas, capsules, and tinctures.
If you want a natural remedy for cramps that can also be found at your local CVS, look no further than magnesium. Like cramp bark, “magnesium can also help relax muscles, and it’s super helpful for cramps,” says Erica. And if you’re wondering which natural remedy to opt for, Erica has a tip: “If someone is also dealing with stress and anxiety, then they might get better benefit with magnesium which can help with that too.”
Vitex, aka Chaste Tree Berry
“If I could have one herb in my kitchen, this would be it,” says Erica. And why is that? Vitex is all about alleviating your PMS symptoms. It works with your hormones to support your progesterone levels and decrease PMS—it can be taken daily or during the 10-14 days before your period starts to help with moodiness/premenstrual anxiety as well as skin breakouts.
Evening Primrose Oil
This natural remedy, which is taken orally in either capsule or liquid forms, can help improve mood, skin, premenstrual insomnia, and headaches. How can a simple oil like this be so effective? “A lot of what natural remedies like evening primrose oil or vitex do is balance things, unlike a pharmaceutical, which shuts things down or turns something on,” explains Erica.
Is your period messing with your sleep patterns? There’s also a natural remedy for that. “Using melatonin the week before your cycle can be helpful,” says Erica. “There have been some studies out there that showed there’s a correlation between the lower Melatonin and serotonin levels and PMS particularly with women who experience PMS as anxiety and insomnia.” Use it a week before your cycle to see if it will work for you.
But before you run out to Whole Foods to stock up on herbs and oils, note that natural remedies sometimes don’t work as fast as over the counter meds. “Patience is a huge part of the equation,” says Erica. “You’re not going to take an herb and never experience PMS again—it’s going to take some time. So whenever trying something for PMS or menstrual cramps, give it three cycles before you decide whether it’s effective for you or not.” Also, if you have extremely severe cramps that interfere with your daily life, it’s possible that a natural remedy isn’t the answer—those cramps could be a sign of endometriosis or another serious medical condition, so consider speaking with your medical provider.
Now that all that’s said, feel free to carry on with that Whole Foods mission!