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

Let’s Talk Contraception: Birth Control Pills — Not Just for Preventing Pregnancy

pillThere has been a lot of political posturing recently about whether the government should require health insurance to provide birth control without a co-pay as part of a preventive health care package. So many people, including politicians, can only “see” the contraceptive side, which is pretty important, by the way. Approximately 15.8 in 100,000 women in the United States die from pregnancy or pregnancy-related issues yearly, and that number has doubled in the past 25 years. We have one of the worst maternal death rates of all developed nations, right near the bottom of the list.


Birth control pills can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including painful periods, acne, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids.


But putting all that aside, let’s look at the how oral contraceptives pills (OCPs) are actually used in this country, and for what reasons besides contraception. You may argue that many birth control pills are only approved for contraception purposes by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so other uses are not valid. But many drugs that may have narrow conditions of approved use are often prescribed off-label by physicians when they have data and information about how effective they can be for other conditions where not much else works.

According to a 2011 study using data from the 2006–2008 National Survey for Family Growth, the Guttmacher Institute reported that 14 percent of all women using birth control pills — that’s 1.5 million women — use them for purposes other than preventing pregnancy. Granted, 86 percent of OCP users report using them for birth control. But over the years, these OCPs have helped many people as treatments for dysmenorrhea, menorrhagia, endometriosis, menstrual-related migraines, acne, uterine fibroids, and polycystic ovarian syndrome. Continue reading

Let’s Talk Contraception: Do Birth Control Pills Cause Blood Clots?

Alarming ads urge you to call a lawyer if you’ve been “injured” taking certain birth control products, such as Yaz, Yasmin, or NuvaRing. These injuries include venous thromboembolisms (VTEs), heart attacks, and strokes. It’s frightening to wonder if you are endangering your health by taking a pill to prevent pregnancy or treat dysmenorrhea (painful cramps).

Should you stop taking your pills? What is a VTE and why should you worry? VTE is a blood clot that usually starts in your leg, but may break loose and travel to your heart or brain and cause a heart attack or stroke. It can be life-threatening, so it is a serious side effect to be concerned about. All birth control pills may increase your risk for a VTE, but it has always been considered so small that most women can safely take the pill. About 3 to 9 women in 10,000 who use birth control pills for more than one year may have a VTE compared to 1 in 5 women out of 10,000 who are not pregnant and not on the pill.


Birth control pills are considered very safe for the majority of women, but all medications carry some risk of adverse effects.


When oral birth control pills were first developed, they contained much higher doses of estrogens and progestins — types of hormones — especially estrogen. It was also noticed that there was a higher risk for developing a blood clot while using birth control pills than in nonpregnant women who didn’t take the pill. It was thought that the high dose of estrogen was responsible for this risk. So, with continuing research and development, eventually the dose of estrogen was decreased to the lower level used today to minimize the chance of a clot. The type of estrogen in pills today is almost exclusively ethinyl estradiol. Continue reading

Endometriosis Treatment

endo medsIt’s still March, so it’s still Endometriosis Awareness Month! Today we’ll be looking at endometriosis treatment questions and answers. If you missed the first two posts in this series, you can click to read more about an overview of endometriosis as well as info about diagnosing endometriosis.


Why are there so many treatment options? Which one is best?

There are so many options because there is no “magic bullet” option — that is, no single treatment that works best for everyone. The two main categories of treatment include medication and surgery, but each option has its own benefits and drawbacks. When deciding on the best option for a given individual, some helpful questions to consider might be:

  • Do I have any current health concerns that would render some treatments unsafe? What types of health risks are acceptable to me?
  • Am I currently trying to conceive, or will I be in the next six to 12 months? Will I ever want to be pregnant in the future?
  • Aside from significant health risks, what types of factors — side effects, treatment frequency or duration, cost — would make a treatment difficult for me? How long do I need this treatment to last before I can reevaluate?

For specific questions, your best bet is to check with your health care provider. Continue reading