For some women menstrual periods are no different from any other days: they go to work hit the gym run errands and bounce through their days with as much energy and vitality as at any other time. Others are not so fortunate. For them “that time of the month” means curling up on the couch with a hot water bottle against their back or abdomen and a bottle of ibuprofen within easy reach and doing a workout or even cooking dinner is out of the question. With increasing warnings about the dangers of NSAIDs and more people becoming interested in safe natural non-toxic remedies for common ailments an effective remedy for the pain of dysmenorrhea may be hiding in plain sight in the spice cabinet. We’re talking about ginger.
Like other “warming” spices such as curcumin and cayenne ginger has long been known for its anti-inflammatory effects and is often included in herbal remedies for pain relief. Now studies have shown that ginger may be effective for menstrual pain specifically. In a double-blind study comparing the efficacy of ginger ibuprofen and the NSAID mefenamic acid for relief of pain from primary dysmenorrhea in women age 18 and over ginger proved to be as effective as the drugs with no severe side effects reported in any of the cohorts. (The study employed 250 mg capsules of ginger rhizome powder four times a day for three days from the start of their menstrual period compared to 250 mg mefenamic acid or 400 mg ibuprofen capsules on the same protocol.)
In a randomized placebo controlled study with a cohort of university students with moderate to severe dysmenorrhea ginger given at 500 mg three times a day resulted in significant reductions in pain severity compared to placebo. Moreover pain reduction was greater when ginger was taken prophylactically starting up to two days before the onset of menstruation and continued for the first three days of bleeding than when it was taken only during the first three days of menstruation. This is an interesting finding because it suggests that taking ginger in advance of menstruation may help reduce the severity of dysmenorrhea even more than taking it only after bleeding has started. And while people might be wary of taking pharmaceutical drugs as a “precaution” they might not have the same trepidation with using a natural compound such as ginger.
In a separate RCT involving females of high school age ginger was shown to have similar effects to zinc sulfate in improving primary dysmenorrheal pain—both led to significant alleviation of pain when taken from the day before the commencement of menstruation through the third day of menstrual bleeding. This is noteworthy because dysmenorrhea is common in younger women and they may experience it as particularly incapacitating.
Ginger has also been shown to reduce nausea among university students with primary dysmenorrhea. Close to 83% of subjects taking encapsulated ginger during the first three days of menstruation reported an improvement in nausea symptoms compared with 47% in the placebo group.
Overall study findings support the efficacy of ginger for alleviating the pain of dysmenorrhea. A meta-analysis found that ginger powder given in the range of 750-2000 mg during the first 3-4 days of the menstrual cycle is the effective dose. A separate meta-analysis looking at studies that compared ginger to mefenamic acid or placebo determined that ginger is more effective than placebo and there was no significant difference between the effects of ginger and the NSAID.
The dose of ginger required to provide clinically relevant pain relief may be higher than that typically consumed in foods but for women who experience severe dysmenorrhea and prefer to avoid pharmaceutical-grade pain relievers it couldn’t hurt to consume extra ginger in the diet on top of taking it in capsules. Hot ginger tea can be very soothing (and spicy!) and potent fresh-grated ginger can be added to hot or cold beverages (such as kombucha) and used in salad dressing and in stir-fries.