Whether plagued with painful periods or struggling through symptoms associated with menopause, more and more women are turning to home remedies for reproductive health and alternative therapies such as acupuncture, acupressure, aromatherapy, and herbal treatments for relief.
For the last 50 years, conventional medicine has often viewed such natural female processes as menopause and premenstrual syndrome as diseases. As a result, some doctors have advised women to undergo risky surgeries such as hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) and oophorectomy (removal of one or both ovaries) or to take synthetic hormones, which may relieve reproductive symptoms but may increase the risk of certain cancers and cause unpleasant side effects.
Before the advent of modern medicine, women turned to medicinal plants such as vitex (Vitex agus castus) -- also known as chasteberry -- to ease menstrual cramping, blunt the pain of childbirth, and alleviate uncomfortable symptoms that may accompany the onset of menopause. Vitex, by all accounts, is safe for moderate consumption, and many women report that it is capable of relieving the myriad, often painful, symptoms that signal changes within a woman's reproductive system.
It is ironic that in an era marked by undreamed-of technological advances in medicine, more women are looking to those simpler times when nature provided remedies. Before discussing the use of vitex and other home remedies for reproductive health, this article will begin with some background information on the female reproductive cycle and related health issues.
The Menstrual Cycle
Menstruation is a normal part of a woman's reproductive cycle. The process begins when a girl enters puberty and continues until midlife, when menopause brings an end to her periods. Each month, when a woman's ovary releases an egg, it also secretes the hormones estrogen and progesterone. These hormones stimulate the endometrium (the tissue lining the uterus), encouraging it to thicken and engorge with blood so that it can nourish a fertilized egg. If the egg is not fertilized by a sperm, the ovary stops production of the hormones, which prompts the uterus to shed its lining and eliminate it in the menstrual flow. This process is repeated approximately every 28 days.
There are, however, problems or discomforts related to this reproductive process that can arise. Some of these more common problems, along with their conventional medical treatments, are discussed in the following sections.
Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)
Menstruation can produce some discomfort, but the degree of severity differs from one woman to another. In the 10 to 14 days leading up to their periods, some women develop premenstrual syndrome (PMS), with symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, depression, mood swings, bloating, headaches, breast tenderness, fatigue, sugar craving, and weight gain.
It used to be that many doctors considered such symptoms to be psychological, if they conceded that they existed at all. Now we know that PMS is a physical condition that may cause extreme discomfort in many women.
But we don't know for certain what causes PMS. Hormonal, nutritional, and psychological factors are all possibilities. In and of themselves, the symptoms of PMS are not indicative of disease. But if your period brings severe pain and discomfort, you should discuss it with your doctor, who can check for an underlying cause, such as endometriosis (the growth of endometrial tissue outside of the uterus, such as on the intestines) or the presence of an ovarian cyst (a fluid-filled sac that forms in an ovary).
Amenorrhea (Lack of Bleeding)
Amenorrhea is characterized by lack of menstruation. Any number of factors may prevent you from having your monthly period. If you are pregnant, for example, you won't menstruate until well after the baby is born.
Amenorrhea also may result from delayed onset of puberty, excessive exercise, an increase in psychological stress, illness, or anorexia nervosa -- a condition marked by refusal to eat and extreme weight loss.
An imbalance in your hormone levels may also disrupt your menstrual cycle and cause missed periods. In the short term, such an imbalance is not usually serious. However, if you are not having periods, you may not be producing enough progesterone; a long-term lack of progesterone increases your risk of developing uterine diseases, such as endometrial cancer.
Depending on the cause of your lack of periods, you may be able to take steps to reestablish normal menstruation. If your lifestyle is the suspected cause of your amenorrhea, you might need to find ways to lessen the stress in your life or reduce an overzealous exercise regime.
For disorders such as anorexia or endometriosis, medical treatment of the condition may also result in a return of periods. If your failure to menstruate is caused by a hormonal irregularity, a holistic practitioner might suggest diet and lifestyle changes, herbs, acupuncture, and other natural treatments. A conventional doctor, on the other hand, might suggest that you undergo treatment to replace the missing hormones. In rare cases, surgery is necessary to remove a benign or malignant growth that is affecting the menstrual cycle.
Dysmenorrhea (Painful Periods)
If your period is painful and marked by excessive clotting, you may have dysmenorrhea. For some women, dysmenorrhea is typical. In rare cases, however, it may be caused by endometriosis, fibroids (noncancerous tumors), or other abnormal growths in the uterus.
Painful periods also may be caused by hormonal changes during your menstrual cycle. Your body could be making an excess of prostaglandins, hormone-like chemicals that cause uterine contractions during menstruation and labor. Contractions during menstruation ensure that all menstrual blood and unwanted tissue are expelled from your body. But excess prostaglandins may cause repeated contractions, and even spasms, which you may experience as painful cramping.
If your periods are mildly painful, you may find that herbs such as valerian, hop, cramp bark, chamomile, and black haw bark, or over-the counter analgesics such as aspirin or acetaminophen, will help your symptoms. You can also try ibuprofen, mefanamic acid, or naproxen, which inhibit the synthesis of prostaglandins.
In more severe cases, you might want to visit a naturopathic physician or licensed acupuncturist for a treatment plan or see a conventional physician, who may prescribe birth control pills or progesterone, which may alter your hormone levels and relieve your pain.
Menorrhagia (Heavy Menstrual Flow)
Menorrhagia is marked by heavy menstrual flow. The condition may result from stress, a hormonal imbalance, endometriosis, pelvic lesions or infections, or uterine growths such as fibroids. You may suspect menorrhagia if your periods last longer than eight days, your tampons or napkins are saturated with large blood clots, or you have to change your tampon or pad more than every one to two hours.
Usually menorrhagia is not a problem. But excessive bleeding may signal other more serious problems, including lack of ovulation, low levels of progesterone or other hormonal imbalance, an excess of certain prostaglandins, uterine fibroids, pelvic infection, or endometriosis. Untreated, menorrhagia may lead to iron-deficiency anemia.
If your periods are excessively heavy, your doctor may suggest that you take iron and folic acid supplements to treat or prevent anemia. Your doctor may also prescribe an antiprostaglandin analgesic, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, for pain and hormones, such as progesterone and birth control pills, to override imbalances.
You also may experience relief from a minor surgical procedure called dilation and curettage (D & C). Although D & C is basically a diagnostic procedure, it sometimes also relieves excessive menstrual flow either temporarily or permanently. In a D & C, the doctor widens the cervical opening, then uses a scraping instrument or gentle suction to remove the inner layers of the uterus. If this procedure itself does not provide relief, it may help the doctor to identify the underlying cause of the excessive bleeding so that it can be treated.
When it comes to herbal home remedies for reproductive symptoms, many women choose vitex, the fruit of a tree that women have relied on for centuries.Learn more about using vitex for reproductive health on the next page.
For more information on reproductive health, see:
- To see all of our home remedies and the conditions they treat, go to our main Home Remedies page.
- Visit our main Herbal Remedies page for information on all of our herbal remedies and the conditions they treat.
- Learn about ways to manage menopause symptoms with things you have around the house at Home Remedies for Menopause.
- Find easy ways to soothe the symptoms of unpleasant monthly periods at Home Remedies for Menstrual Problems.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.