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Black haw

Relieves menstrual cramps

In the 19th century, women with menstrual cramps couldn't reach into a medicine cabinet for Midol. Instead they drank a tea made from black haw bark. The "uterine tonic," first written about in 1857, was reputed to relieve menstrual pain, prevent miscarriage and ease the pain that follows childbirth.

Women have been using it ever since to relieve menstrual cramps. "I used to work in a drugstore in Massachusetts when I was in college, and a product called Hayden's Viburnum Compound was sold," recalls Norman R. Farnsworth, Ph.D., director of the Program for Collaborative Research in the Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It was the worst-smelling and -tasting thing. But women would come in and swear that when they had menstrual cramps, it worked." (Viburnum prunifolium is the scientific name for the herb.)

Can women today turn to black haw bark tea as an alternative to their over-the-counter medications? It may, in fact, be helpful.

The bark contains substances that appear to affect smooth muscle, says Glenn S. Rothfeld, M.D., clinical instructor in the Department of Community Health at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. "These substances have been shown to work actively on the uterus, particularly to relax it," he says.

"I would not encourage women to use black haw or other herbs to prevent miscarriage unless they are under someone's care who has expertise in treating with herbs," says Dr. Rothfeld. But the herb may be used for relieving menstrual cramps, he says. Pregnant women shouldn't take any herb for health or healing without the consent of an obstetrician.

To make a decoction or tea from black haw bark, says Dr. Rothfeld, use one ounce of herb to a pint of freshly boiled distilled water. Steep for 10 to 15 minutes and strain. Drink one cup two to three times a day to relieve cramping, he says.

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