CINCINNATI, OHIO. Menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea, menstrual pain) are the most common gynecologic complaint and the leading cause of short-term absenteeism among adolescent schoolgirls. There is compelling evidence that menstrual pain is caused by the action of inflammatory prostaglandins and leukotrienes upon the uterus. These inflammatory compounds are derived from the omega-6 fatty acid, arachidonic acid.
Researchers at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center reasoned that interventions, which would decrease the level of the prostaglandins and leukotrienes, would be beneficial in reducing menstrual pain. It is known that fish oils (eicosapentaenoic acid [EPA] and docosahexaenoic acid [DHA]) compete with arachidonic acid for the enzymes needed to produce prostaglandins and leukotrienes and that fish oils also suppress the conversion of linoleic acid (the main omega-6 fatty acid in the diet) to arachidonic acid. The researchers carried out a clinical trial involving 42 girls between the ages of 15 and 18 years. All the girls experienced significant menstrual pain during their periods. The extent of pain was evaluated using the Cox Menstrual Symptom Scale at entry to the study and after 2 months of daily supplementation with a placebo or 1080 mg of EPA + 720 mg of DHA. The treatment period and the fish oil dose were selected to permit optimal incorporation of the EPA and DHA into the phospholipids of the cell membranes.
At the end of the study the Cox rating had decreased from an average of 69.9 to an average of 44.0 in the fish oil group. No change was observed in the placebo group. The amount of painkiller (ibuprofen) tablets consumed during the menstrual periods dropped by more than 50% during the fish oil treatment as compared to the placebo treatment. The researchers conclude that fish oil supplementation has a beneficial effect on dysmenorrhea symptoms in adolescents.
Harel, Z, et al. Supplementation with omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in the management of dysmenorrhea in adolescents. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vol. 174, April 1996, pp. 1335-38