Herbs for Health: Remedies for Menstrual Problems

Humans have long been using herbs to regulate mentruation, relieve cramps and ease birth. Find out what herbs could help you with your own menstrual complaints.

| June/July 1997

  • Chaste tree
  • Dong-quai
  • Black cohosh
  • Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
  • Chinese hawthorn (C. pinnatifida)
  • Dried Chinese hawthorn
  • Saw palmetto berries
  • Dandelion

Women’s use of herbs dates to the roots of herbalism. By tradition, the keepers of herbal knowledge have always been women, and they have probably been taking herbs to relieve menstrual disorders since humans first nibbled on leaves and fruits.

The menstrual cycle, the time from the onset of one menstrual flow to the beginning of the next, is a cascade of hormonal events controlled by the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and ovaries. At the beginning of a normal cycle, the hypothalamus, a cluster of nerve cells in the center of the brain, releases a hormone that triggers the anterior pituitary to manufacture and release luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) into the circulatory system.

These initiate the enlargement of several ovarian follicles (structures containing the developing egg). As they grow, they secrete estrogens (female hormones), which stimulate the lining of the uterus (endo­me­trium) to begin rebuilding itself after menstruation. High estrogen levels in the blood produced by the enlarging follicles stimulate a sudden surge in the release of LH, which stimulates the maturation of the egg in a single follicle and its subsequent release from the ovary on about the fourteenth day.

The ruptured follicle is transformed into the corpus luteum, a glandular mass that begins producing progesterone and estrogen. These hormones signal the anterior pituitary to stop releasing FSH and LH, thereby stopping development of additional follicles. Progesterone also signals the endometrium to prepare for implantation of a fertilized egg. If no fertilized egg arrives, however, the corpus luteum stops secreting hormones, and the drop in progesterone causes the endometrial cells to die and slough off on about the twenty-eighth day, marking the beginning of a new cycle. Normally, these events occur every month for thirty-five or forty years (unless a women becomes pregnant), but stress, illness, or hormonal imbalances can interrupt them.

Menstrual disorders

Among the most common of menstrual disorders are amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Amenorrhea, an absence or abnormal cessation of menstruation, may be caused by emotional stress, strenuous physical activity, binge dieting, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, or anatomical, hormo­nal, or chromosomal abnormal­ities. Drugs such as corticosteroids and barbiturates can also disrupt the menstrual cycle. The low estrogen levels accompanying this condition lead to loss of bone mass.

Dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation) is characterized by cramps in the lower abdomen and sometimes the back and thighs. It is most common during the first day of menstruation.

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