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Before there was Midol, ladies turned to these old-timey tricks.
Periods were around long before 24-hour drugstores and greasy takeout — and women throughout history have successfully managed all sorts of symptoms with what they had at-hand. If Ibuprofen, caffeine, and carbs aren’t doing the trick for you anymore, consider these unconventional time-tested approaches. Nature and alternative medicines offer so many (easy) ways to be kind to your body as it does its monthly thing.
Castor oil, applied externally to the body paired with heat, has been a go-to anti-inflammatory as far back as ancient Egypt and Greece.
To make a castor oil pack: Soak three layers of undyed cotton flannel or wool in castor oil till the cloth is completely wet, but not dripping. Place over your lower abdomen, cover with plastic (a bag is fine), and place a hot water bottle or heating pad on top. Relax with your pack for 30 to 45 minutes. For the best outcome, sit quietly while you have your pack on, and avoid TV or other digital stimulation. Use your pack in the week or so before your period begins to help with cramps. If you’re already on your period, it’s probably best to skip it — castor oil packs can increase blood flow.
“Magnesium helps to relax the myometrium — the muscular layer of the uterus,” Emmett J. Hughes, D.C., an associate professor of basic and clinical sciences at the University of Bridgeport, says of this natural muscle relaxant. “Think Epsom salt. Magnesium is its primary ingredient.” Three or four days before your period begins, start taking magnesium citrate tablets or liquid. Dr. Hughes recommends an initial 400 mg dose and increasing until your stool loosens (then keep taking an amount just below that.) You can also try upping your intake of Magnesium-rich foods like whole grains, avocados, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens. But be aware of possible side-effects: low blood pressure or trouble breathing.
Another natural pill to treat PMS is Chasteberry (also known as Chaste-Tree Berry or Vitex). The herb of choice for women troubled by emotional PMS, it works by stimulating and regulating the pituitary gland, which normalizes the balance of hormones produced by the ovaries: estrogen and progesterone. Chasteberry may be combined with other herbs like St. John’s Wort and GABA, which address depression and anxiety respectively, to round out PMS almost entirely. Vitex may affect the dopamine system in the brain. Those who take dopamine-related medications like antipsychotic drugs should avoid it.
It’s not the sexiest time of your month, but an orgasm can relieve tension in the pelvic muscles, easing cramps (if only temporarily). As for how to have the big O, we’ll leave that to you!
We’re not joking, thanks to the anti-inflammatory properties of this healthy veggie. Use it to relieve breast tenderness by placing chilled cabbage leaves in your bra. They can also treat lower abdominal pain when placed on the stomach. It’s the same effect as a cold compress, but without the hassle. It also works hot: Warm up the leaves by blanching in boiling water, running a hot iron over them, or putting them in a microwave, and apply to breasts or abdomen.
To help your cramps, try to relax. “De-stressing and detoxifying are some of the most overlooked strategies for painful cramps,” says Dr. Hughes. “Some of the simplest solutions involve finding an activity like reading, going for a walk, or listening to music.” Saunas, hot baths, and short fasts are also accessible detoxification strategies.
Herbal teas, tinctures (liquid herbal extracts), and edibles have been a go-to remedy for centuries. Cramp bark, as its name suggests, has long been a reliable treatment for cramps because its oils suppress muscle spasms. “Cramp bark usually works rapidly for simple menstrual cramps,” says Jennifer Brett, N.D. director of the Acupuncture Institute for the University of Bridgeport. “If it fails to relieve symptoms, the discomfort is probably not due to uterine muscle spasm, but to some other condition.” Cramp bark works great as a tincture or a tea.
Red raspberry leaf is a sweet-tasting and highly effective cramp remedy when taken as a well-steeped tea or tincture. You can make your own tea from the dried leaves, or there are loads of commercial options available. (It also acts as an astringent to slow extreme bleeding.)
Plain old ginger has been historically revered for its anti-inflammatory properties. “The wonderful thing about ginger is, it’s so easily accessible and transportable,” says Cheryl Boiko, Proprietor of Remedies Herb Shop in Brooklyn, New York. Ginger root teas may be made from raw ginger, or powdered ginger. Boiko adds, “A teaspoon of ginger mixed into something tasty (like applesauce) is also an option.” But if heavy bleeding is a problem for you, ginger might not be your best cramp solution, as it can increase flow.
Women with troublesome periods, especially those who have issues like fibroids, cysts, endometriosis, and other conditions that can affect bleeding, may wish to slow their flow. And even the most regular among us may have reasons to lighten up — like day-one of your period landing on a travel day or the day of a big date.
Good news: There are time-tested herbs that slow and reduce bleeding. They can all be taken as a tincture or well-steeped tea (except for cinnamon bark, which can be taken as a tincture or in a powder-filled capsule.) In addition to red raspberry leaf (mentioned above), Shepherd’s Purse is a well-regarded hemostatic, used to stop or slow all types of bleeding, including nose bleeds. Yarrow contains tannins which constrict blood vessels to slow bleeding, as does Lady’s Mantle, which additionally alleviates cramping. Cinnamon bark is a uterine stimulant that relieves excessive bleeding and cramping.
If bleeding lasts more than seven days, or if you bleed through one super plus tampon every two hours or less, the bleeding could be an indication that something isn’t quite right. Listen to your body, and see a doctor if your period is consistently abnormal.