Essential Oils for Menstrual Cramps

(Last Updated On: August 3, 2018)

Essential oils are the pure essence of a plant. They are extracted from the seeds, roots, barks, stems, leaves, or flowers of a plant by a process of steam distillation.

Essential oils give plants their scent, and they also play a role in protecting plants from potential predators and disease. They also assist with the pollination process which ensures the survival of the plant. But the oils aren’t only helpful for plants, they bring us plenty of benefits too.

They have been used in cooking, beauty therapies, and medicines for thousands of years. Essential oils are also widely used in aromatherapy practices, and they are very effective for this purpose as once inhaled, they can easily reach the part of the brain which governs emotion, memory, and mood, via the smell receptors in the nose. This makes them ideal for bringing about benefits in relation to altering the mood and reducing stress levels. Some essential oils are stimulating and some are relaxing. Some oils can even possess both characteristics.

There are over 3000 known essential oils, and their composition varies depending on how they are harvested, what time of year it is, and how they are processed. All these factors impact on the purity of an oil. Oils can be used alone or as part of a blend, depending on the desired benefits of the user.

How essential oils are used

How essential oils are used

Inhalation

Essential oils are absorbed very quickly by the smell receptors in the nose and travel to the limbic system of the brain, which governs mood, emotion, and memory. This makes some oils very effective for boosting mood, while others can be used for calming purposes. There are many reports of oils being effective in the treatment of mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. Oils can be put into a diffuser so they disperse throughout a room, or they can be inhaled directly from a handkerchief or from the bottle. If you mix the oils with water, they make a good room spray or linen spray. They are also very effective for cleaning household surfaces like toilets, showers, and kitchen worktops.

Topical use

Essential oils can quickly penetrate the skin. They are widely used in massage, and when diluted with a carrier oil, they can be dispersed in the body more easily and bring about considerable local or systemic benefits. Always do a patch test on the skin of your upper arm to check for sensitivity, and start with a small amount of oil at first. A little bit of oil goes a long way. Never apply oil to the ears or near the eyes, or to any areas of sensitive or broken skin. Take particular care with citrus-based oils as these are known to cause skin reactions and photosensitivity in some people.

Try adding a few drops of oil to your bath, to a hot or cold compress, or to your favourite body lotion to get the benefits.

Ingestion  

Many oils have a long history of use in cooking or baking. As well as giving food taste and aroma, they can add many health benefits to it.

Taking an oil as a supplement gives you a very concentrated dose of benefits, but always be sure to follow instructions on dosage, as some oils can be highly toxic in large amounts. Natural does not mean safe. Always speak to your doctor before ingesting any essential oils, especially if you have an existing health condition or you are on medication. You can use oils instead of dried herbs and spices in cooking, or you can add them to milk, smoothies, and soups. Remember that a little goes a long way though, and that they are very potent, so start off by using a small amount of oil.

The menstrual cycle

Some essential oils are known to have hormone balancing qualities. Many women can feel that they are at the mercy of their hormones, but hormones are a fact of life.

The average woman has a period every 28 days, but some cycles can be as short as 24 days or as long as 35 days.

Menstruation can begin as early as the age of 10, and can last until a woman is aged 50-55. In the course of a lifetime, an average woman will have around 480 periods.

The menstrual cycle is controlled by hormones. During each cycle, rising levels of oestrogen cause an egg to develop in the ovaries and release it. This is called ovulation. The womb lining also starts to thicken.

After ovulation, the hormone progesterone thickens the womb lining further, ready for a potential pregnancy.

The egg travels down the fallopian tubes and if pregnancy doesn’t occur, the egg is absorbed back into the body. Then levels of oestrogen and progesterone fall, and the womb lining comes away and leaves the body as your period.

A period is made up of blood and the shedded womb lining. The first day of a woman’s period is day one of the menstrual cycle. The average period lasts around 3-7 days, and on average, 3-5 tablespoons of blood is lost.

Ovulation

Ovulation occurs when an egg is released from the ovaries. An egg can live for 24 hours after it is released. Pregnancy occurs if a man’s sperm meets the egg and fertilises it. Sperm can survive inside the fallopian tubes for up to 7 days.

Contraceptive methods, such as the pill and the contraceptive injection work by preventing ovulation so that pregnancy can’t occur.

Common period problems

Common period problems

There are several common problems that can occur during the menstrual cycle. If you are having problems, it’s a good idea to keep a diary of your symptoms, so that when you go to see your doctor, they can get a good idea of what’s going on.

Painful periods

Pain during periods is common. It’s normally caused by contractions of the uterus which pushes out the blood during menstruation.

Gentle exercise can help to relieve the pain, and so can over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.

If the pain is so bad that it affects your day to day life, see your doctor. Hormonal contraception such as the combined pill, the contraceptive patch or the contraceptive injection might be prescribed to help to reduce pain.

Heavy periods

Periods can vary in heaviness, but if your periods are so heavy that they impact upon daily life, see your doctor. Your doctor will ask questions about how often you have to change your sanitary protection, for example. They might then refer you for scans and tests to see if your heavy bleeding has a particular cause. Usual treatments for heavy bleeding include:

hormonal contraception, such as the intrauterine system, the contraceptive implant, contraceptive injection, or the combined pill. These can reduce the amount of bleeding you experience, or stop your period altogether.

A medication called tranexamic acid is known to be effective for reducing bleeding, and you normally take it for a few days before and during your period.

drugs such as ibuprofen can also help to reduce bleeding.

progestogen tablets can reduce bleeding. This is a synthetic version of the hormone progesterone.  

If other treatments don’t work, surgery to remove the lining of the womb, or the womb itself, might be considered. This is usually a last resort, however.

Irregular periods

An average period lasts between 2 and 7 days. However, some women can get irregular periods. The period might arrive early or late, it may be heavy or light, or they might last for a shorter or longer time. Often no 2 periods are the same. Hormone imbalances, and changing contraception can cause irregular periods.

Absent periods

Having no periods may indicate that you have an underlying health problem. See your GP if your periods stop altogether. There can be a few reasons why this might happen, such as dramatic weight loss, stress, or strenuous exercise.

PMS

PMS is thought to be down to fluctuating levels of hormones throughout the menstrual cycle. Not all women experience PMS, but many do, and the range and severity of symptoms can vary widely.  

If PMS is severe, it can seriously disrupt everyday life, and some women find it hard to function normally for up to a few weeks every month.

Symptoms of PMS can include:

  • mood swings
  • irritability
  • depression
  • headaches
  • bloating
  • breast tenderness

Symptoms usually worsen around ovulation, then disappear once the period has started. Current suggested treatments for PMS include:

  • Eating a healthy diet, reducing alcohol and caffeine, and taking regular exercise.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy and counselling might help with the way you think, behave, and deal with your symptoms.
  • Magnesium and Agnus Castus are reported to help some women.
  • The combined contraceptive pill can often lessen the effects of hormonal highs and lows.
  • Antidepressants may be prescribed to treat the emotional and psychological effects if pms is particularly severe.

Endometriosis

This is a condition where the cells that make up the womb lining appear in other areas of the body. This usually occurs in the abdominal area, and the pelvis, ovaries, and fallopian tubes.

Hormones cause the ovaries to release an egg and the womb lining to thicken. If the egg isn’t fertilised, the womb lining breaks down and sloughs off, and leaves the body as a period. Endometriosis causes cells elsewhere in the body to do the same, which causes inflammation, pain, and the formation of scar tissue.

Not everyone with endometriosis will get symptoms, but common symptoms that can occur include:

  • painful, heavy, or irregular periods
  • pain during or after sex
  • infertility
  • bowel problems
  • Endometriosis is usually diagnosed by a surgical procedure called a laparoscopy, where the abdomen is examined with a small camera. Current treatments for endometriosis include:
  • painkillers
  • hormone treatments
  • hormonal contraceptives
  • drugs that can induce a temporary menopause
  • In cases where other treatments haven’t worked, surgery can be carried out to remove the ovaries and womb.

Ovulation pain

Some women can get a sharp pain on one side when they ovulate. They may also get a little bit of light bleeding known as spotting when this happens too. A hot bath can help with the pain, and so can over the counter painkillers. The contraceptive pill suppresses ovulation so this can help too.

Menstrual cramps

Period pain is common and is usually a feature of the menstrual cycle. It can present as painful muscle cramps in the abdomen, which can also radiate to the back and thighs. The pain can feel like spasms, or it can be a dull and constant ache. The pain you experience can also vary with each period.

What causes menstrual cramps?

Common period problems

Menstrual cramps occur when the muscles of the womb contract. These contractions strengthen in intensity during your period as the womb contracts to push out the blood and old womb lining. When the womb contracts, the blood vessels get compressed, and this temporary oxygen deprivation causes the womb tissues to release chemicals that trigger a sensation of pain. These pain chemicals also trigger the release of further chemicals called prostaglandins. These cause the womb to contract more, which further increases pain.

Period pain can be caused by an underlying condition

Sometimes, period pain can be caused by an underlying condition. This is more common in women aged 30 to 45.

Conditions that can cause period pain include:

  • Endometriosis
  • Fibroids, which are tumours that grow in the womb and that can make periods heavy and painful.
  • pelvic inflammatory disease, where the womb, ovaries, and fallopian tubes can become infected by bacteria and end up being inflamed.
  • There may be further signs and symptoms of an underlying condition if this is what is causing your period pain. These might include:
  • irregular periods
  • bleeding in between periods
  • a thick or bad smelling vaginal discharge
  • pain during sex
  • Be sure to see your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.

How long does period pain last?

Period pain usually starts when you begin bleeding, though it can start a few days before your period. The pain lasts on average 48 to 72 hours, although it can last longer. It’s usually at its worst when your bleeding is heaviest, so you will usually experience it in the first few days of your period.

Treating period pain

Treating period pain

In many cases period pain can be treated at home.

  • Painkillers
  • Ibuprofen and aspirin can help to manage your pain.
  • You can take paracetamol but studies have shown that it doesn’t reduce pain as effectively. If your pain is particularly bad, you could try asking your GP for a stronger painkiller such as codeine.
  • Stop smoking, as smoking is thought to increase period pain
  • Exercise, it might be the last thing you want to do when you’re in pain, but studies have shown that it can help to reduce pain. Try gentle swimming, walking, or cycling.
  • Heat can reduce pain in the abdomen. Apply a heat pack or hot water bottle to your stomach.
  • Taking a warm bath or shower can relieve pain by helping your muscles to relax.
  • Massage can reduce pain by helping the muscles to relax.
  • Relaxing activities like yoga or Pilates can help to reduce pain and discomfort.
  • A TENS machine can help to reduce period pain by sending a mild electrical current through your abdomen.
  • See your doctor if your period pain becomes severe or your periods change, (if they become heavier or irregular), as this can be a sign of something more serious.

Essential oils for menstrual cramps

Menstrual cramps are a problem for many women, and while there are medications available to help ease the discomfort, some women prefer a more natural solution. There are many kinds of home remedies available to ease cramps, including heat packs and exercise, though one of the oldest natural remedies for menstrual cramps is the use of essential oils.

Some of the best essential oils for menstrual cramps are:

Marjoram essential oil

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Marjoram oil can help to dilate the blood vessels and helps to relax muscles. This allows circulation to increase which reduces pressure and inflammation in the womb. The oil also has analgesic properties so it can reduce pain.

Clary sage essential oil

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Clary sage is very helpful in that it regulates a woman’s menstrual cycle, and it has also been linked with relieving symptoms associated with menopause.

Lavender essential oil

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First Some Lavender Oil Basics

Lavender is as an effective anti-inflammatory. It improves blood flow and reduces cramps, and it can also help ease to relieve headaches associated with hormonal changes.

Geranium essential oil

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Geranium oil is known for its soothing qualities and it can also help to alleviate unpleasant symptoms that occur during menstruation.

Ylang-Ylang essential oil

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The oil has antispasmodic properties that can help to reduce blood pressure and relax muscles to soothe cramps.

Ginger oil

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Ginger Essential Oil

Ginger oil is boosts the circulation, it is an effective analgesic, and it has anti-inflammatory properties which makes it very effective for treating menstrual cramps.

Cinnamon essential oil

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Cinnamon is a natural anti-inflammatory which has analgesic properties, so it can help to relieve pain and bloating associated with menstruation.

Yarrow essential oil

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Yarrow (Achillea Millefolium)

Yarrow is well known for its ability to reduce bleeding, and it is also an analgesic and anti-inflammatory, so it can help to relieve cramping.

How to use essential oils for menstrual cramps

The best ways to use essential oils for menstrual cramps are massage and aromatherapy.

Massage

Oil is applied topically to the lower abdomen. Add a few drops of your chosen oil to a carrier oil such as avocado, coconut, or olive oil, and massage it into your skin. Studies have shown that massage can reduce menstrual cramps and the associated pain by as much as 50%.

Aromatherapy

Adding your chosen essential oil into a diffuser will release the oil into the air. As you inhale the vapour, the oil will help you to relax and this will relieve cramping. If you do not have a diffuser, you can always sprinkle a few drops into your hands and inhale the aroma, or you can also inhale it directly from the bottle, or from a handkerchief.

The risks of using essential oils

The risks of using essential oils

As these oils are natural products, they are mostly safe, but they can still interact with other medicines and some health conditions, so they should only be used with caution, and after speaking to your doctor.

Always do a patch test to check for sensitivity and always dilute your chosen oil with a suitable carrier oil.

Written by Irina Radosevic MD
Irina graduated from the University of Belgrade, School of Medicine as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and spent over 3 years working in the Clinical Hospital Center Zvezdara, in the Department of Emergency Medicine. She also undertook a postgraduate in Cardiology from the same University and had previously worked for over a year as a Physician and Nutritionist Dietitian for the Fitness club Green Zone. She eventually left her chaotic but fulfilling job in the ER to pursue her passion of writing, travelling and mountain climbing which has included writing a first aid course for the alpine club of Belgrade. Irina currently works as a VA for PintMedia focusing on medical and travel writing. Feel free to connect with Irina on LinkedIn and FaceBook. Her CV can be seen here.