Power Over Pain

Chances are good that you’ve seen a television commercial for a drug to treat PMS where the reported side effects toggle between absurd and grotesque. During the quick mention of these side effects—frequent or painful urination, loss of smell, ringing in the ears, etc.—have you thought to yourself, who would take this stuff?

The reality is that not every side effect happens to every person, of course, but the potential for an adverse reaction is always looming—and side effects become very real if you don’t use a medication properly. That is why detailed directions are on the label for every type of drug, including not only prescribed medicines, but also over-the-counter (OTC) medicines and herbal supplements.

OTCs for PMS

As women—especially those who suffer from particularly painful periods—when looking for solutions to cramps, bloating, headaches, and other symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), they often default to OTC medicines that contain ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or naproxen sodium (and, sometimes, caffeine). One of the worst assumptions to make is that an OTC medicine is totally safe just because it can be purchased without a doctor’s permission. The aforementioned ingredients are powerful—and dosage information is on the label for a reason. No matter how severe your PMS symptoms might be, taking an OTC medicine too frequently or in too high a dose can be harmful to your health.

The one common statement on an OTC label is that adverse health issues may occur if you use more than directed or use it longer than directed. The worst side effect would be an allergic reaction to the pain reliever, but other underlying health issues, prescription medicines, or excessive alcohol use may also produce or exacerbate harmful side effects. These can include gastrointestinal irritation, renal toxicity, stomach bleeding, heart attack, and stroke. So, if the label says “take one,” don’t think it is OK to pop two or three pills because your symptoms are “really, really bad.” In the same thought, if the label says “take every six hours,” you should not repeat the dose after three hours because you feel its effects have “worn off.” Again, just because a medicine is purchased at a grocery store and not dispensed by a pharmacist doesn’t mean that it’s safe to create your own dosage guidelines.

Even the caffeine dosage in a PMS medicine is something to consider when you’re feeling drowsy and cramped. A cup of brewed coffee ranges between 95 and 200 mg of caffeine, and a cup of tea ranges from 25 to 70 mg, so if you typically drink these beverages, you’ll want to rethink your medication dose. A PMS OTC typically has 60 mg of caffeine—the equivalent to a strong cup of tea!—so if you have already had your morning cup of coffee (or two or three cups), this medicine is going to act like another cup of coffee. And instead of acting as an anti-fatigue agent, it will make you hypersensitive and jittery.

Herbal Alternatives

A PMS OTC choice at the right dosage and frequency is one option to treat PMS symptoms—but it’s not the only option. Aside from the familiar products that we all know about as a method of alleviating cramps, moodiness, fatigue, and irritability, you can opt for all-natural alternatives.

Diet, exercise, adequate sleep, and proper hydration go a long way to keep you balanced throughout your entire cycle. There are also herbs, vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids that treat PMS symptoms.

>> Red clover is a rich source of isoflavones, plant-based compounds that act as phytoestrogens, which produce estrogen-like effects in the body.

>> Chaste tree berry contains flavonoids that exert an effect similar to the hormone progesterone, which helps regulate the menstrual cycle, reduce premenstrual fluid retention, and alleviate cravings.

>> Saw palmetto provides hormonal balance by stabilizing and lowering testosterone levels in the body; it also increases blood mobility, which relieves bloating and pain.

>> Griffonia seed provides a natural source of 5-HTP, an amino acid that directly affects the serotonin receptors in the brain—causing a sensation of relaxation without drowsiness.

>> Green tea extract is an herbal derivative that contains powerful antioxidants and acts as a light diuretic. It also adds a trace amount of caffeine to increase energy levels and focus.

The three herbs—red clover, chaste tree berry, and saw palmetto—have long been used for hormonal balancing and treating PMS symptoms. When taken together, the herbs work synergistically to stabilize hormonal fluctuations. Green tea (on its own or in a supplement) provides a small dose of caffeine to sharpen focus, and it acts as a mild diuretic to help with bloating. For a mood boost, 5-HTP supplements directly cross the blood-brain barrier and elevate the level of serotonin. This is important because serotonin is responsible for “feeling good”—and pain relief naturally follows an enhanced mood.

So, are these natural ingredients specific enough to treat what is happening in the body during the PMS phase of a woman’s cycle? Some research says that, due to the hormonal fluctuations of progesterone and estrogen at this phase, serotonin levels in the brain drop—and that is what leaves us ladies feeling exhausted and irritable. When we’re feeling low, water-weight gain and cramps are exacerbated, so of course the knee-jerk reaction is to control the pain.

However, just like a PMS OTC, an herbal supplement also has dosage and frequency recommendations on the label. Those directions should not be ignored, because even though these ingredients are derived from plants, they are still potent! And just like an OTC, if you have underlying medical issues or are taking other medications, you should always check with a doctor before trying a supplement. For the most part, though, using natural supplements won’t cause long-term health consequences, especially to the degree of OTC meds, and can be used on an as-needed basis for years.

Modifying behavior—diet, exercise, sleep, and hydration—is a great place to start an “all-natural” approach to PMS relief. It is important to focus on overall health, but we also need to rethink our gut instinct to grab a painkiller when PMS strikes. Choosing plant-based products to treat PMS symptoms will put the power back in our hands—and body—so we can beat the bloat, conquer the cramps, and maintain our way of healthy living.

By Mayling Kajiya

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