It’s an age-old question (for those who menstruate at least), and one that still plagues the front covers of lifestyle magazines, blogs, and even YouTube channels alike to this very day–how to relieve symptoms of PMS?
PMS stands for Premenstrual Syndrome and is frequently in use as an umbrella term to describe a whole range of physical and emotional symptoms that people feel just before their period starts. The most common culprits include; cramping, mood swings, bloating (my personal arch nemesis), and skin problems. But the list goes on, with symptoms ranging from swelling in the hands and feet to brain fog. And if this wasn’t enough, it’s not uncommon for your symptoms to change month to month. It’s like a lottery… but the only winner is your uterus, chuckling whilst it rubs its little ovaries together like a cartoon villain.
Scrolling through medical and lifestyle websites that advise on the topic, it’s interesting to note that thousands of years later, natural remedies are still major players in providing PMS relief. Other than this, more modern suggestions of paracetamol seem the only alternative. Yet for many sufferers, this advice radiates the same energy as the school nurse prescribing a wet paper towel for a compound fracture. So in today’s age when self-care is perceived as a relatively new thing, marketed to us as herbal teas, salt baths, and aromatherapy that all have their roots in ancient cures, it’s clear that our ancestors were onto something by turning to nature (leeches excluded) to help ease the physical and emotional discomfort experienced during a period. So let’s turn back the clock, and look at some historical PMS remedies that still work today.
Castor Oil Packs
For thousands of years, castor oil really was the MVP (multi-purpose vegetable product). Made from heating and then extracting oil from castor beans, this all-rounder was used for a plethora of medicinal, industrial, and cosmeceutical purposes. In Ancient Egypt, it was often given to pregnant women to induce labour. For this reason, and for the safety of both mother and child, it’s important for me to say that castor oil should be avoided at any stage during pregnancy! Castor oil was viewed by the Ancient Greeks and Romans as the ultimate health elixir. With it being labelled ‘the secret of beauty’ in the holistic practice of Ayurveda medicine, this powerhouse plant really is the foundation of health and beauty as we know it today (you’re welcome, YouTube Beauty Gurus).
So what does this have to do with periods, you ask? Well, castor oil packs are celebrated for their impressive anti-inflammatory properties. When heated and placed on the stomach, the castor oil helps to alleviate cramping, whilst the high levels of Omega 9 present in the oil help stimulate blood flow and promote circulation. Ready-made castor oil packs can be expensive, but there are resources online guiding how to make your own.
In addition, the anti-inflammatory and moisturising properties of this beautiful bean also mean (ha, rhymes) that if you suffer from other symptoms of PMS like muscle aches, swelling or dry skin, a drop of inexpensive castor oil applied to the skin could definitely be something to look into! FYI though, some people are allergic to castor oil, so always be careful! Erm…another thing. Castor oil has a reputation for being a highly effective laxative when orally consumed. So just keep this in mind if you’re considering using it to help relieve your period symptoms. You don’t want to be dealing with two leaks. That was gross. I’m sorry!
Ever stubbed your toe whilst on your period, and then immediately burst out in tears and profanities? Glad I’m not the only one. Well, that’s all thanks to your hormones hitting the Woah inside your body during this time. As its name suggests, chasteberry was traditionally used as an anaphrodisiac by both men and women alike. In Ancient Greece, women would use the leaves of the plant as bedding during religious festivals to remain ritually chaste. But this isn’t the only time that they medicinally prescribed plant mattresses to women. In a Medieval text named, “On Treatments for Women”, in an attempt to regulate bleeding, menstruating women were instructed to “sit on wild rocket cooked in wine, with a linen cloth put between them and the rocket”. Hmm, I think you’re better off saving it for the salad…
Centuries later in the Middle Ages, the humble chasteberry was still being consumed for the same celibate reasons by monks in Europe. Taken as a fluid extract, the plant has traditionally been used to help regulate pesky hormones and treat premenstrual stress syndrome. Although there is limited clinical evidence for these claims, it is also believed to help reduce the severity of breast tenderness. Much like my Ex, chasteberry’s ability to toy with your emotions means it is not to be used by those who take dopamine related medications. For the same reason, its use is discouraged if you are on the pill or undergoing hormonal replacement therapy. But if you suffer from increased stress during your time of the month, this zen plant might be worth looking into. Remember, like with any dietary supplement, it’s always important to check with your doctor first!
Coming in at number three, herbal teas. These beneficial beverages are renowned all around the globe for their ability to encourage spiritual alignment and heal a countless array of physical and emotional ailments and afflictions. According to Full Leaf Tea Co., the earliest verbal record of the use of herbal teas can be traced back to 2737 BC in China. The sheer diversity and ease to which these remedies can be consumed and enjoyed are testimony to their longevity, making them one of the most popular everyday treatments for those on their period. Here are four of the most effective (and in my opinion tastiest) herbal teas that you may wish to give a go at home:
Whilst some herbal teas can taste like you’ve fallen mouth open into a pile of grass, if you’re a novice like me, I think raspberry leaf tea is the perfect flavour option to get you going. Being high in magnesium and fragarine, this fruity drink helps to relax and smooth muscle tissue which is great for those who suffer from cramping. Also, its ability to reduce aches and pains means that it is commonly drunk to help reduce feelings of depression, mood swings, and fluid retention!
Much like pomegranates and garlic, cinnamon is one of those ‘superfoods’ that really does wonders in enhancing the natural healing abilities of the human body. It’s believed that cinnamon gets its powers from the fact that it is rich in polyphenol antioxidants. As well as tackling inflammation and lowering blood pressure, cinnamon is also thought to help reduce bleeding. However, you should always note any noticeable changes or concerns regarding the heaviness of your period and check them by your doctor straight away!
Chamomile and Ginger
For healing tonics, this dream team is possibly the GOAT (greatest of all teas). In the East, ginger was produced and valued for its medicinal purposes for over 5000 years. Passed down by word of mouth, the healing properties of ginger are said to relieve symptoms of anything from a common cold to cancer. In recent years some of these claims have been scientifically tested, with ginger extract even being found to promote radioprotective effects in mice that were exposed to gamma radiation. However, more work is to be done to test how effective it truly is. When drunk, this semi-spicy root makes a natural alternative from over-the-counter painkillers. To minimise the pain and nausea felt whilst on your period, allow the ginger to steep for ten minutes in a cup of hot water. However, it’s important to note that if you experience heavy bleeding, you may wish to avoid this one as many note ginger to increase blood flow!
Like many herbal teas, chamomile has been a historical staple since ancient times, used in creams, incense, and oils as a cure-all for a variety of health concerns. In 19th century North America, chamomile was one of the key ingredients used in Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. Patented in 1876, the herbal tonic rose in popularity for its ability to target a whole variety of ‘women’s problems’. The formula comprised alcohol, liquorish, chamomile, and black cohosh. Similar to the therapeutic benefits of chamomile, black cohosh was commonly used in traditional Native American medicine to help reduce menopause symptoms and encourage hormonal balance. Alcohol aside, the popularity of Pinkham’s remedy stemmed from the fact that because a woman made it, it was trusted by women. What Mrs Pinkham’s period potion provides is an early insight into how important representation in the field of female health and medicine truly is.
Best known for its sleep-inducing benefits, chamomile tea is excellent if you suffer from insomnia or simply struggle to get a good night’s rest because of stress or anxiety overload. We can explain the calming element of the flower because of the active agent of chrysin, which basically works as a mild sedative when drunk! A study in 2010 found that women who drank chamomile tea for a month noticed that the severity of their period cramps had reduced, and had also reported a drop in mood swings as well. There’s clearly a reason chamomile has withstood the test of time, but always do your own research to make sure it’s right for you!
The Take Away
Although taboos surrounding menstruation still have devastating and excluding effects on those who have periods, as Delaney, Lupton and Toth reveal, the figure of the bleeding female is one that has historically resonated throughout time with an admirable strength:
[…] the magical nature of menstrual blood has some helpful aspects. Menstrual blood has been known to cure leprosy, warts, birthmarks, gout, goitre, haemorrhoids, epilepsy, worms, and a headache. It was effective as a love charm, could ward off river demons and other evil spirits, and was occasionally fit to be an honorific offering to a god.
Taboos stem from fear, and what the above quotation suggests is that the stigma surrounding menstruation originates not from the orchestrated uncleanliness or weakness of the woman, but from her perceived duality by the patriarchal society and its fear of her seemingly divine power to create and carry life.
The history of menstruation is an area with limited research. If there’s a taboo now, just imagine what it must’ve been like a hundred years ago. Although information can be found in medical journals, these of course were often written by men, meaning that the everyday practices used by menstruators will not have been recorded, but rather passed on as oral testimonies from one to another. However, as Mrs Pinkham’s invention illustrates, by the end of the 19th century the voices of more menstruators were being heard. With women being accepted into Universities (albeit slowly), this meant that more research into female anatomy could take place going forward into the 20th century.
If these historical, herbal remedies can teach us anything, it is this: what we experience when we have a period is natural. Remember, our sweet sis, Mother Nature, has our back. We only need to pause and take the time to look around the natural world to realise it.
By Lara Bland
Make your own Castor-oil packs