Why does eating a handful of fresh basil seem to relieve menstrual cramps? Sounds crazy, yes, but it's true and (who knew?) there are actually several good scientific reasons why. Years ago, the sous chef of the hotel I cooked at turned me on to this basil thing. I had terrible cramps at work and he told me to roll up 10 or 12 leaves of fresh basil and chew them. By the time I had picked the last green bit from between my incisors, the cramps had abated.
Since then I've used basil dozens of times and though the effect varies, it has always worked at least a little bit. I've persuaded other women to try it to good effect but they all want to know: why? How does this work?
After days of research on the Internet, conferring with an intrigued chemistry grad student and a skeptical doctor friend, I think I know the answer. As best I can understand, the dreaded cramps are caused by prostaglandins, chemical substances (made of eicosanoid molecules) that perform many functions, including initiating both labor and menstruation. During labor, prostaglandins tell the uterus to contract and help push the baby out. During menstruation they tell the uterus to contract and expel the shedded uterine lining and menstrual fluid. Some women's bodies seem to produce an excess of prostaglandins (we don't know why), turning normal contractions into really painful cramps.
Excess prostaglandins can also be blamed for causing a similar reaction in the smooth muscles of the intestine. That's why many women complain of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea at the beginning of their periods. Other kinds of eicosanoids (pronounced: eye-COSS-a-noids) triggered by menstruation may also be responsible for increased pain sensitivity, so not only are the contractions worse, we feel the pain more acutely.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) are usually very effective at relieving the pain of menstrual cramps because they block the synthesis of eicosanoids into the prostaglandins responsible for cramps. It appears that compounds in basil do the same thing.
Unfortunately, NSAIDs can have negative effects on the kidneys and lining of the stomach—women with sensitive stomachs or kidney problems won't want to take them. Also, when you take pills they have to dissolve in your stomach before they can start working. That means a delay of around 20 minutes before they kick in. For women who suffer from very painful cramps, 20 minutes is a long time.
Pharmaceutical companies have spent incalculable amounts researching NSAIDs but nobody seems to be paying much attention to basil. One study, done by the Center For Holistic Urology at Columbia-
Basil may work so quickly because it is absorbed rapidly into the blood stream through the mucous membranes of the mouth. Or, perhaps, in addition to preventing prostaglandins from causing cramps it also interferes with the compounds responsible for increased pain sensitivity. It's hard to tell. More importantly, it doesn't really matter why it works or how it works. What's important is that simply nibbling on something you have growing in a pot on your patio could ease your pain or that of someone you know. What have you got to lose?
Next time the cramps hit you hard, roll up 10 or 12 leaves of fresh holy basil. Chew 'em up. If it works, great. Next time try eating a bowl of pesto or making a tea from the leaves. Who knows? That could work, too. Just use common sense and don't go eating way more basil than you normally would in a day. If it doesn't work, no big whup.