Ninety percent of women report having painful menstrual cramps at least some of the time. Around the Mediterranean, fennel seeds have been traditionally used to relieve painful menstruation. We call them seeds, but they’re actually whole little fruits.
It’s hard to create placebo seeds, so researchers used fennel seed extract to put it to the test. The women started out rating their pain as six out of ten, which then went down to a four within an hour after the taking the fennel seed extract. Both of these pain intensities were lower than the placebo group’s. Fifty-two percent of the women rated the fennel seed treatment as excellent, compared with only 8 percent of those in the placebo group who were just unknowingly given capsules containing flour.
But women don’t take flour for cramps; they take drugs such as ibuprofen. Mefenamic acid is in the same class of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs and may actually work better than ibuprofen, but it is not available over the counter. How did it do against an extract of fennel seeds? In a head-to-head study, most women started out in severe pain but ended up pain-free after treatment, and the fennel worked just as well as the drug class considered the treatment of choice––but without the drug’s side effects, which include diarrhea, rashes, autoimmune anemia, and kidney toxicity.
The drug also doesn’t help with the other symptoms of bad periods. During menstruation, women can feel nauseated, out of sorts, weak, achy, and diarrheic. But when put to the test, fennel seeds seemed to help; however, the control group wasn’t given a placebo, so we don’t know how much of that was a placebo effect.
One downside of taking fennel is that women bleed about 10 percent more. Menstrual cramps are caused by the uterus contracting so hard its blood supply is compromised, and we think fennel works through muscle relaxation. It also helps with infant colic, which is thought to be due to intestinal spasms.
Ginger is effective for cramps and reduces bleeding when an eighth of a teaspoon of ginger powder is taken three times a day during one’s period. This is important since up to 18 million young women in the United States experience iron deficiency anemia due to heavy menstrual bleeding. In a study, the amount of blood loss was estimated using a scoring system that gave points for level of saturation and clot size. On ginger, they went from half a cup per period down to a quarter cup. Ginger appears to be a highly effective treatment for the reduction of menstrual blood loss. It is cheap, at only about 6 cents a month, easy to use, and may have fewer side effects than other chemical medications and invasive approaches, even sometimes fewer than placebo. The researchers used lactose (milk sugar) for the sugar pills, which may have caused the reported flatulence.
Ginger may also work better for premenstrual syndrome (PMS). An eighth of a teaspoon twice a day of ginger powder for a week before one’s period yields a significant drop in PMS mood, physical, and behavioral symptoms, whereas fennel may help with PMS anxiety and depression but not with the emotional or physical symptoms.