Can Fennel and Ginger Ease Menstrual Cramps?

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Research suggests fennel and ginger are as effective as NSAID pain-relieving medications when it comes to addressing PMS symptoms such as menstrual cramps
  • Although NSAIDs and oral contraceptive pills are common PMS treatments, they may not be acceptable as long-term therapies due to their potential side effects
  • Ginger has been called out as an effective therapy for heavy menstrual bleeding, whereas fennel was shown to be useful in the treatment of primary dysmenorrhea
  • Acupuncture, aromatherapy, heat and the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) have also been shown to be effective treatments for PMS

By Dr. Mercola

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) describes a collection of symptoms known to occur a few days prior to a woman's monthly menstrual cycle. Although symptoms vary widely in both severity and type, a few of the most common ones include acne, bloating, cramping, headaches, irritability, pain, sleep issues and swollen or tender breasts. Hormone fluctuations occurring during your menstrual cycle are thought to be the primary cause of PMS, while chemical changes in your brain may also play a role.

In addition, insufficient levels of certain vitamins and minerals have been associated with PMS, while the foods you eat and habits you keep also can intensify your symptoms. If you routinely reach for pain-relieving medications to counteract the discomfort associated with "that time of the month," you may want to consider fennel and ginger — two herbs known to ease cramping. Also, you may want to try using the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT).

Fennel and Ginger: Two Herbs That May Help Soothe Your PMS Symptoms

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a flowering plant species in the carrot family indigenous to the Mediterranean that has been naturalized in other parts of the world. This fragrant, flavorful herb has many culinary and medicinal uses, including the treatment of menstrual cramps and other aspects of PMS. About fennel, one scholarly source says:1

"[F]ennel is a well-known and important medicinal and aromatic plant widely used as carminative, digestive, galactogogue and diuretic and in treating respiratory and gastrointestinal disorders. Phenols, phenolic glycosides and volatile aroma compounds such as trans-anethole, estragole and fenchone have been reported as the major phytoconstituents of this species.

Different pharmacological experiments … have convincingly demonstrated the ability of fennel to exhibit antifungal, antibacterial, antioxidant, antithrombotic and hepatoprotective activities, lending support to the rationale behind several of its therapeutic uses."

Ginger (Zingiber officinale), a cousin of cardamom and turmeric, is believed to have originated as ground flora in tropical lowlands across Southeast Asia. The roots of this prolific flowering plant are widely used in folk medicine, and ginger has also been identified as an herbal anti-inflammatory useful in the treatment of PMS. With respect to ginger, the International Journal of Preventive Medicine stated:2

"[T]he rhizome of ginger has been used in traditional herbal medicine. The health-promoting perspective of ginger is attributed to its rich phytochemistry. Ginger has potential for treating a number of ailments including degenerative disorders, digestive disorders, cardiovascular disorders, vomiting, diabetes mellitus and cancer. It also has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties ... Furthermore, it has antimicrobial potential as well, which can help in treating infectious diseases."

Fennel Shown To Be as Effective as NSAIDs for Treating Painful Menstrual Cramps

A 2013 Iranian study3 took a closer look at the usefulness of fennel as a remedy for painful menstrual cramps. The study authors noted cramps as a common complaint for women and girls, suggesting more than 70 percent of Iranian women and nearly 75 percent of teenage girls suffer from painful menstruation.

While the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or oral contraceptive pills — both of which work by reducing myometrial activity — are common treatments, these are not always acceptable long-term therapies due to the potential side effects.

About fennel as a potential remedy for cramps, the study authors suggest fennel contains "antispasmodic and anethol agents that may be helpful for the management of primary dysmenorrhea,"4 which is defined as cramping pain in the lower abdomen that occurs just before or during menstruation. Their research involved 60 college students, ages 18 to 25 years, suffering from cramps.

The participants were divided into two groups and followed for two cycles. Medication was administered at the onset of pain, with the study group receiving 25 drops of a 2 percent fennel-containing solution every six hours. If pain was not reduced within two hours, the study group also received 250 milligrams (mg) of mefenamic acid, an NSAID, in capsule form. The control group received only 250 mg of mefenamic acid, also in capsule form, every six hours, as needed.

After comparing the two groups, the researchers asserted, "The present study showed the efficacy of fennel drops in pain relief for primary dysmenorrhea is comparable to the efficacy of common NSAIDs such as mefenamic acid capsules."5 An earlier study6 involving 110 high school girls, mean age 13 years, again found fennel to be as effective as mefenamic acid with respect to addressing pain relief associated with primary dysmenorrhea. The study authors noted:7

  • Eighty percent of girls administered fennel and 73 percent of those receiving mefenamic acid experienced complete pain relief or a decrease in pain
  • Eighty percent of the girls in the fennel group and 62 percent of those in the mefenamic acid group no longer needed to rest due to PMS-related discomfort

Ginger Also Shown To Be Effective for Menstrual Discomfort

In terms of its usefulness for relieving menstrual cramping, studies focusing on ginger highlight its effectiveness at doses of just 250 mg when taken during the first few days of your period.8 One such study, published in Phytotherapy Research9 in 2015, sought to evaluate the usefulness of ginger on heavy menstrual bleeding in high school girls.

Ninety-two young women who experienced heavy bleeding during their menstrual cycle were evaluated for six consecutive menses, with one group receiving ginger and the other placebo capsules. The study authors said:10

"The decrease of blood loss in the ginger-receiving group was significantly more remarkable than that of participants receiving placebo. Considering the significance of appropriate and timely treatment … ginger may be considered as an effective therapeutic option for heavy menstrual bleeding."

Another 2015 study11 involving a systematic review and meta-analysis of seven randomized clinical trials (RCTs) validated the use of ginger for the treatment of primary dysmenorrhea. About their findings, the researchers stated:

"Four of the RCTs compared the therapeutic efficacy of ginger with a placebo during the first three to four days of the menstrual cycle and were included in the meta-analysis. The meta-analysis of these data showed a significant effect of ginger in reducing pain visual analogue scores in subjects having primary dysmenorrhea.

Collectively these RCTs provide suggestive evidence for the effectiveness of 750 to 2000 mg of ginger powder during the first three to four days of menstrual cycle for primary dysmenorrhea."

Essential Oils Can Also Help Soothe PMS

Here are a few recipes for essential oil blends designed to promote a sense of well-being around your monthly menstrual cycle. You can use them in a bath or as a massage oil:12,13,14

  • PMS Bath Blend: Mix 5 drops of clary sage, 2 to 3 drops of chamomile, 2 drops of geranium and 2 to 3 drops of lavender essential oil with 1 tablespoon of jojoba oil and a handful of Epsom salts and add to warm bathwater
  • PMS Hormonal Balance Blend: Mix 2 drops of clary sage, 1 drop of geranium and 1 drop of ylang ylang essential oil into 1 tablespoon of a carrier oil like coconut or jojoba oil and apply to your abdomen or low back as needed
  • Menstrual Massage Blend: Mix 5 drops of lavender, 5 drops of cypress, 10 drops of peppermint and 10 drops of nutmeg essential oil into 1 tablespoon of carrier oil and apply to your abdomen or low back as desired

You can create another menstrual massage blend by combining 3 drops of clary sage, 3 drops of juniper and 3 drops of chamomile into 1 tablespoon of a carrier oil and gently massaging this blend clockwise around your belly. When using essential oils, always be sure to:

  • Perform a patch test on a small area of your skin prior to using essential oils for a bath, massage or other application
  • Introduce only one essential oil at a time until you know which ones your body can handle, otherwise, if you have a negative reaction, it will be difficult to determine which oil caused it
  • Avoid any oils derived from or closely related to plants to which you have a known allergy

EFT Is a Useful Tool for Handling PMS and More

In the video above, EFT expert Julie Schiffman demonstrates how to use this technique to address PMS. According to Schiffman, about 20 percent of women are affected by PMS in a debilitating way — meaning their symptoms and discomfort are so intense it prevents them from going to work or school or even being able to get out of bed sometimes. Fortunately, EFT works quickly to address PMS-related issues, says Schiffman, and its effects can often be permanent. She adds:

"There really are a lot of natural ways to help beat these symptoms and relieve PMS pain and discomfort. However, so many people go to the quick and easy fix of taking muscle relaxers, ibuprofen or aspirin. While these can be very helpful in the moment, a few hours later you might need to take them again. And these medications may not be right for everyone. I've seen time and again that tapping can help you feel better, so I encourage you to use EFT for PMS."

If you're not familiar with EFT, it is a painless psychological acupressure technique I highly recommend to help optimize your emotional health. While often overlooked, your emotional health is connected to and has a great deal of influence over your physical health and well-being, even as it relates to experiencing healthy menstruation and managing PMS. The emotional associations to PMS make sense when you consider the deeply personal nature of your menstruation and how your monthly cycle impacts you as a woman.

EFT works because it is based on the same energy meridians used in acupuncture to treat physical and emotional ailments. Rather than inserting needles into specific points along your body's meridians, you use your fingertips to simply tap over some of those areas. As you tap, you'll be thinking about and talking through a specific problem, which in this case is PMS.

As you tap, you'll voice positive affirmations. The combination of tapping on your energy meridians and voicing positive affirmation works to clear emotional blocks, thereby restoring and balancing the connection between your mind and body. Because the results are quick and painless, EFT is sure to become one of your "go-to" healing tools. To learn more about EFT and how it works, as well as the many conditions and situations to which it can be applied, check out my EFT home page.

Even More Options to Help You Tackle PMS Symptoms

In the event none of the natural remedies mentioned so far have been effective in helping you tackle your PMS symptoms, you may find a suitable treatment among the additional options noted below.

Acupuncture: A 2014 systematic literature review of 19 studies found acupuncture and herbal medicine treatments for PMS and premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) to significantly improve symptoms from baseline.

The study authors said, "In both acupuncture and herbal medical interventions, there have been no serious adverse events reported, proving the safety … while most of the interventions provided over 50 percent relief of symptoms associated with PMS/PMDD."15

Aromatherapy: Lavender aromatherapy has been shown to alleviate premenstrual emotional symptoms, which is partly attributable to improvement in your parasympathetic nervous system activity.16

Dietary and lifestyle changes: Changes to your diet and lifestyle can help relieve cramping and other PMS symptoms. Along these lines you may want to:

  • Avoid alcohol, carbonated drinks, caffeine and smoking
  • Ensure you're getting enough animal-based omega-3 fats, calcium, magnesium, manganese and vitamins A, B6 and E, as well as vitamin D
  • Reduce your sugar intake
  • Stay away from smoked cheeses, fish and meat because they can increase your fluid retention

Diindolylmethane (DIM): DIM is a natural phytochemical found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower. It has unique properties allowing it to modify the metabolism of estrogen, promoting optimal estrogen balance and supporting healthy progesterone and testosterone production.

As such, increased consumption of DIM-containing foods may benefit conditions like PMS, which are associated with estrogen-progesterone imbalance.

Evening Primrose Oil: Evening primrose oil not only contains the essential fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which is useful for treating pain, but also helps restore the abnormal hormone physiology that may be contributing to some of your PMS symptoms.

Exercise: Exercise can help relieve menstrual cramps, perhaps because it raises your level of endorphins — chemicals in your brain associated with pain relief.

Heat: Applying a hot water bottle to your lower abdominal area or soaking in a warm bath (using one of the essential oil blends mentioned above) may provide temporary relief of menstrual pain.

Finally, you may find comfort for PMS symptoms in a cup of fennel tea or ginger tea. The good news about tea is you can drink it several times throughout the day and, assuming you are not sensitive to either of these herbs, it's unlikely you will suffer any unpleasant side effects. Given the many natural options available, it's time to get on with a better quality of life by making painful PMS symptoms a thing of the past.