What Do We Know About Herbal Remedies and Menstrual Cramps? (Spoiler Alert: Not Much.)

herbalWhen I was entering adulthood and suffering from severe menstrual cramps, I suffered without relief for far too long. And I am certainly not alone in this experience. The most common gynecological disorder is dysmenorrhea — painful menstrual cramps — which strikes an estimated 90 percent of reproductive-age females. Furthermore, around 40 percent of American women use some form of complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM. “CAM” is a catchall for approaches to health care that fall outside of the mainstream. Given the popularity of CAM and the ubiquity of dysmenorrhea, it was no surprise that I experienced painful cramps, nor was it shocking that I tried a few herbal remedies, which are a type of CAM.


“Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean safe or effective, so be critical.


During my second year of college, at the age of 19, a friend recommended a couple of herbal remedies to add to my cramp-fighting arsenal. I tried them, but it was difficult to know if they really worked. My pain varied so wildly cycle to cycle that I had no way of knowing if I was just having a “good month” when I initially tried these products. Although I thought they worked at first, after I had accumulated more menstrual cycles under my belt, I started to wonder if my cramps were really any less painful. On average, I still seemed to be missing just as much school and work as before — but I wasn’t sure.

The problem was that I never collected any before-and-after data — I didn’t spend years ranking the severity and duration of my cramps, or keeping track of the hours spent in bed away from school, work, or other obligations. Furthermore, my initial sense of optimism could have colored my perceptions. Since we can be tricked by our own expectations and biases, it is important to have access to quality evidence — gathered in large, methodologically powerful studies.

Raspberry leaf tea was the first herbal remedy I tried. It tasted OK, and the ritualistic nature of drinking a hot beverage from a steaming mug was soothing. But is there any actual evidence that raspberry leaf can help relieve the pain of dysmenorrhea? Although it’s been used therapeutically since at least the 1500s, the only human studies I can find for any gynecological condition examine its use during pregnancy or labor — not for treating menstrual cramps. The only claims for raspberry leaf’s efficacy in treating cramps come from biased sources, like the manufacturers themselves. It seems the tea I drank during my late teen years had word of mouth and marketing going for it, but not much else. Continue reading

Contraception in the Zombie Apocalypse

The zombie hoard approaches. Photo: Caio Schiavo

The zombie horde approaches. Photo: Caio Schiavo

If you’ve watched a zombie movie with your friends, you’ve probably talked about what kinds of weapons you’d be packing in case of a zombie apocalypse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even has a list of supplies you’ll need for a zombie preparedness kit, which includes smart choices like water, duct tape, and bleach. (I would add toilet paper to that list. How you’ll miss it when you’re on the run!) But how many of you have discussed birth control?


You’ve probably picked out which weapons to use during the zombie apocalypse. But have you chosen a birth control method?


Even if your greatest dream is to have a baby, you must admit that the zombie apocalypse is the worst time to be pregnant, give birth, and raise a child. Fleeing and hand-to-hand combat can be a drag while pregnant, and childbirth can kill you, especially without access to trained personnel or hygienic supplies. And if you do manage to birth a baby into this cruel new world, diapers can distract from more pressing duties, and the infant’s cries can attract undead attention.

When you’re in hardcore fight-or-flight mode, taking a pill at the same time every day might be difficult, and besides, a supply of pills can take up valuable backpack real estate. Plus, even if you find an abandoned pharmacy to raid, birth control pills and condoms come with expiration dates and can be affected by high temperatures. The same goes for contraceptive patches and rings. For these reasons, you need a contraceptive method that’s well suited to the zombie apocalypse. Besides abstinence, what are your options? Continue reading