In the late 1800s and early 1900s, you could walk into a drug store and find hundreds of herbal extracts for sale.
Upwards of 90 percent of the population at that time knew how to use the medicinal plants growing in their backyards to treat common illnesses and injuries; they had too, as this was virtually the only "medicine" available.
Unlike drugs, which typically work via one mechanism, like targeting bacteria, herbs work synergistically to address underlying imbalances in your body that may lead to disease. As herbalist Matthew Wood said in the documentary "Numen:"
"It [traditional medicine] works instead by changing the environment, working to address imbalances in organ systems and tissue states, not targeting a specific bacteria with a single chemical extracted from a plant or synthesized in a lab."
The use of plants as medicine is one of the only forms of healing that's embraced by every culture and ethnicity, and that has endured since ancient times and is still in use today in most areas of the world. It's the oldest system of healing on the planet.
In the past I have regarded herbs, in many cases, as an alternative to drugs, useful for treating various symptoms but not to treat the underlying cause. I have since revised my opinion on this quite significantly, and now realize that herbs can help support your health from a very basic level, just as foods do.
Toward that end, there are many health complaints that herbal remedies may help, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is certainly among them.
Premenstrual syndrome describes a group of symptoms that may occur one to two weeks before a woman's monthly menstruation. Symptoms vary widely, in both severity and type, but may include:1
||Swollen or tender breasts
||Upset stomach or bloating
||Headache or backache
|Appetite changes or food cravings
||Joint or muscle pain
||Trouble with concentration or memory
|Tension, irritability, mood swings, or crying spells
||Anxiety or depression
||Constipation or diarrhea
Hormone fluctuations that occur during the menstrual cycle are thought to be a primary cause of PMS, although chemical changes in your brain may also play a role. Low levels of certain vitamins and minerals are associated with PMS, while stress and depression may make symptoms worse.
PMS may affect women of any age, although it's most common among women between their late 20s and early 40s.
It's also more likely in women who have had at least one child, have a family history of depression or have had postpartum depression or another mood disorder. Further, it's incredibly common, affecting at least 85 percent of menstruating women.2
PMS symptoms may be mild or severe, acting as a mere inconvenience or significantly interfering with your quality of life.
Many women turn to over-the-counter pain relievers to ease symptoms, and some even go so far as to use birth control pills to stop ovulation (which tends to lessen PMS symptoms), but these carry a risk of side effects.
Herbal preparations may be very effective as a natural alternative to ease menstrual cramps and other PMS symptoms. Top options include the following.3
1. Cramp Bark and Black Haw
Cramp bark (Viburnum opulus) may help to relieve muscle spasms and is often used to relieve menstrual cramps. It's known as a uterine relaxant and contains the antispasmodic scopoletin.
Traditionally, cramp bark is said to be particularly useful for menstrual cramps that radiate to your lower back or thighs.
Black haw is another viburnum species (Viburnum prunifolium) that also contains the uterine relaxant scopoletin. Intermittent, severe menstrual pains may best be relieved with black haw, especially if they're accompanied by heavy menstrual flow.4
Tori Hudson, N.D. professor, NCNM and Bastyr University, recommends a 1/2 teaspoon of cramp bark tincture every two to three hours, or 1/4 teaspoon of black haw tincture every two to four hours.5
2. Black Cohosh
Black cohosh is traditionally used to treat menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, but it's also known for having a relaxant affect on the uterus. According to Hudson, who recommends a tincture of 1/4 teaspoon to 1/2 teaspoon every two to four hours:
"If PMS irritability and anxiety, delayed or irregular menstrual cycles, or scanty flow, are associated with the menses, then Black Cohosh would particularly be indicated for the menstrual cramps."
3. Red Raspberry Leaf
Red raspberry leaf is known for its toning effects on the reproductive system, and it may help to calm the uterus and relieve menstrual cramps when taken regularly.
4. Dong Quai
Dong quai is traditionally recommended for dysmenorrhea, or painful menstruation. It acts like estrogen in your body, and may help to improve uterine tone.
Dong quai may be especially useful when combined with other herbal remedies. According to the American Botanical Council (ABC):6
"Premenstrual syndrome (PMS), is a common condition amenable to treatment with herbs …
Women who suffer from PMS (approximately one third of all women between the ages of 30 to 40 years old) share the common hormonal pattern of elevated plasma estrogen and decreased plasma progesterone levels shortly before the menses appears.
… PMS can be effectively managed with dong quai, chaste berry, licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa).
The two latter plants contain phytoestrogens (which act like estrogen in the body), thought to have a tonic effect on the uterus."
5. Wild Yam
Wild yam is popular for relief of menopausal symptoms, but it works well for PMS, too, helping the uterus work efficiently during menses as well as helping to prevent uterine cramping and spasms.
The medicinal mushroom reishi is known as Lingzhi in China, or "spirit plant." It's also been called "Mushroom of Immortality" — a nickname that kind of says it all.
Reishi has been used medicinally in Asia for thousands of years, and it helps to up-regulate your immune system, among other benefits. It may help to ward off PMS-related fatigue and weakness, and may offer relaxing properties for women who feel irritable or nervous.
Valerian is known for its sedative effects, and so may be useful for PMS-related mood swings, insomnia and irritability. It is also sometimes used for gastrointestinal cramps and may help to soothe uterine cramping as well. Valerian used along with cramp bark may be especially useful for relieving both cramping and mood swings. Tori Hudson, N.D. explained:7
"Valerian contains an important class of compounds called valepotriates and valeric acid which are found exclusively in this perennial plant native to North America and Europe.
It is not difficult to see how Valerian would help to relieve pain, anxiety, and insomnia because both valepotriates and valeric acid are capable of binding to the same receptors in the brain as Valium. Although Valerian has not been scientifically studied for menstrual cramps, it has been shown to relax the spasmodic contractions of intestinal muscles.
Both the uterus and intestines are smooth muscles. In clinical practice, Valerian is usually a significant feature of an alternative medicine approach to painful menstruation."
8. Chaste Tree Berry
Chaste Tree Berry (Vitex agnus-castus) is traditionally used to ease menstrual problems, including premenstrual syndrome. A systematic review found a significant reduction in PMS symptoms in women using chaste tree berry compared with those in the placebo group.
Further, in women suffering from premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), which is a more severe form of PMS, chaste tree berry worked as well as the drug fluoxetine in relieving symptoms.8
Dandelion leaves act as a safe diuretic.9 By drawing excess water from your body, dandelion may help to relieve bloating.
10. Natural Progesterone
Progesterone is a naturally occurring hormone in the human body, essential for a variety of vital functions. In women, progesterone balances the estrogen hormones, and is produced mainly by the ovaries when ovulation occurs.
Women approaching menopause produce lower, and often insufficient, levels of progesterone. What's more, in our culture, even women in their childbearing years tend to be estrogen-dominant. Natural progesterone (bio-identical to the progesterone your body produces) may help to balance estrogen hormones for relief from PMS symptoms as well as a normalized menstrual cycle.
Chamomile tea raises your levels of glycine, which helps calm muscle spasms.10 Glycine is also a nerve relaxant, which may explain why chamomile is also effective for stress and anxiety relief.11 Traditionally, chamomile tea is also recommended for soothing menstrual cramps.
Maca is a tuber in the radish family known for helping to restore hormonal balance. In women, maca may help to lessen symptoms of PMS, and it's an adaptogenic herb, which means it may help support your body during times of stress, promoting emotional well-being and supporting a healthy mood.
Useful for stimulating uterine tone, motherwort may also help to reduce uterine muscle spasms and cramping. Motherwort is also used to relieve stress and heart symptoms due to anxiety. Motherwort was among the Chinese herbs found to show promise in relieving PMS according a Cochrane Systematic Review:12
"Chinese herbal medicine has been used for centuries in China and it is currently used in public hospitals in China for the treatment of primary dysmenorrhea [painful menstruation].
The review found promising evidence for the use of Chinese herbal medicine in reducing menstrual pain in the treatment of primary dysmenorrhea, compared to conventional medicine such as NSAIDs and the oral contraceptive pill, acupuncture and heat compression."
14. Fennel Seeds
An extract of fennel seeds has been shown to reduce the severity of PMS,13 including significantly reducing the symptoms of premenstrual tension.
Women who took fennel seed extract for three days before their period until three days after said the drops made them feel less depressed and made it easier to get along with friends and family and be productive at work, according to research published at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology's annual conference.14
Women who received 30 mg of saffron extract per day (15 mg twice a day) for two menstrual cycles reported a 50 percent reduction in the severity of PMS symptoms.15