What is Cramp Bark?
Found in the mountainous regions of Europe, South America, and Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan, cramp bark (also known as the guilder-rose or Viburnum Opuius in the scientific community). The name of the plant comes from several cultures, but it is thought to have been first recognized by the Dutch, who claim that the tree was initially found in the forests of Scandinavia. The plant spread through pollination, as well as through aviary means (birds picking up the seeds and taking them to new locations) until it eventually found its largest claim to fame in the country of Ukraine, where it remains one of the country’s national symbols.
Cramp bark has a diverse history, being featured in folklore and poetry, such as the legend of Kalyna, who was thought to be a goddess during the birth of the universe. Kalyna’s presence in all things is reflected in the poem by the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, who wrote “Kalyna in the valley/Is bright and red/ like the smiling lips/of a young girl…” For hundreds of years, the plant came to symbolize familial ties, the birth of a young girl, or even sacrifice of safety, life, and limb on the battlefield. As a result, the plant remains a central part of Ukrainian culture today.
If you are looking for cramp bark in the woods, you will want to look upwards – the plant itself can grow up to 16 feet and will likely be found around eye level. When you see the guilder rose, you will be looking at a green, three-lobed leaf (it should appear similar to a maple leaf) with a rounded base. That leaf will contain both flowers and berries, the latter of which carry medicinal benefits relating to cramping and muscle tension. It is the bark, however, which carries the desired medical effects that have made the guilder-rose a household name across the western world.
When you are taking cramp bark, you will want to brace yourself for a bit of an experience. The plant may have excellent healing qualities for relieving abdominal pain, but several anecdotal accounts compare it to a “bark-flavored whiskey” that is “awful, really it’s just horrendous.” It most often comes in the form of a fine powder, as the bark gets ground into a fine grade for easy consumption. However, it also comes in the form of highly potent tinctures, which are in liquid form.
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Cramp Bark Benefits and Uses
While the most common application for cramp bark has been to relieve pain stemming from the abdominal region, the uses of cramp bark are actually far more widespread. The plant has historically been used to treat kidney pain, mumps disease, swollen glands, eye disorders, and even forms of cancer. It was thought for a long time that the guilder rose possessed magical healing powers due to its overall effectiveness as a homeopathic remedy. As a result, the plant is highly sought-after, particularly in alternative medical communities that seek natural medical solutions to given ailments.
Endometriosis: Due to the intense abdominal pain that the disease causes, bark from the guilder-rose has been used to treat endometriosis in women. In a 2001 issue of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, Doctor Teresa Low Dog discusses possibilities of medical treatment to help combat the effects of the disease. In addition to her discussion of conventional methods, she also discusses alternative options for pain management, arguing that tea/tincture concoctions can prove to be a powerful short-term option to manage the effects of endometriosis. Her study is one of several leading medical articles that help prove the effectiveness of certain holistic approaches towards effective pain management.
Pregnancy: Cramp Bark has been used for a long time to manage pain associated with child birth and pregnancy. In her 2001 article, Herbal Medicine in Pregnancy and Childbirth, Rachel Emma Westfall discusses the effects of cramp bark for women undergoing the often agonizing process of child birth. Similar to the findings of Dr. Low Dog, Westfall concludes that alternative approaches like cramp bark can help to “maintain good health and reduce the need for medical intervention.” Westfall does not take a specific stance on the issue, but rather lists out the different merits and potential hazards of the plant.
Period Cramps: Far more common than either endometriosis or child birth, cramp bark is most often used as a means of treating pain associated with period cramps. This is, by far, the most common use for the plant and it is the reason why it has become such a household item across the western world. Joseph Mayo discusses the potential benefits of cramp bark in his 1997 article A Healthy Menstrual Cycle, in which he states that the plant effectively “relax[es] the uterine muscle by acting as antispasmodics and are used to relieve cramping.” Mayo’s work may provide the reader with the most direct and concise description of the actual medical effects of the bark when ingested by a human being.
Cramp Bark Dosage
When using cramp bark for medicinal purposes, herbalist David Hoffman suggests putting “2 teaspoonfuls of the dried bark into a cup of water and bring [it] to boil. Simmer gently for 10-15 minutes. This should be consumed hot three times a day.” This is likely the simpler route for consumption, although the effectiveness is not necessarily as powerful as it would be through other means.
Another option is through tinctures, where the dosage is “4-8mL of the tincture, three times a day.” For the unfamiliar, tincture delivery consists of creating an extract from a given herbal supplement, which is then ingested in much smaller (but more potent) amounts. Tinctures often contain a high ethanol concentration in order to make them more effective. This method takes time, as it involves mixing the herb (in this case, the cramp bark) with a highly alcoholic substance in a single container. The container is then left to sit for several weeks in order for the mixture to take its full potency. This method is fantastic if you are pro-active about the preparation of your remedies, but not necessarily the most practical when you are already experiencing severe abdominal cramps.
There are also many extracts of cramp bark available. Generally extracts that are in capsules are most practical for most people.
The best thing to do is plan your delivery methods accordingly. If you are currently experiencing severe cramps, cramp bark tea (the first method described) is going to be your best bet. Make the tea using the method described above and you will be able to get a quick, short-term solution to your pain.
If you are someone who experiences chronic pain or you simply want to prepare for times when these cramps are severe, it will be a much smarter idea to try and prepare a tincture, which will be far more potent than the tea. The important thing to remember with all of these methods is that neither is inherently better than the other, as both have benefits and disadvantages that need to be taken into account.
Cramp Bark Side Effects and Warnings
Finally, a warning: While the effects of cramp bark can be useful for those wishing to alleviate themselves of menstrual cramps or even just general muscle cramps, there are nonetheless potentially serious side effects to eating the plant. While it is safe to eat cramp bark in small doses, the plant is can be toxic and needs to be eaten in the correct dosage, as listed in the section above. If eaten in unsafe amounts, the plant has a history of causing vomiting and diarrhea. For this reason, users should carefully follow the instructions on the label when utilizing the plant for medicinal purposes.
On a related note, it should be added that while medicinal plants can be utilized with great effectiveness for short-term problems, they are not a substitute for trained professionals who have dedicated their lives to health. If you are experiencing pain that cannot be tolerated, the safest thing to do is to visit a doctor or in extreme cases to use emergency services. For my readers in America, I know this is a particularly hard pill to swallow given the exorbitant cost of medical treatment in the U.S. Nonetheless, your life is not something to gamble with.
Buying Cramp Bark
Although there are minor risks associated with the use of cramp bark (as there are going to be with any medicine, traditional or otherwise), the use of cramp bark has a long history of proven effects in communities all over the world. The effects of cramp bark have helped shift local economies, create national identities, and provide much needed relief for millions of people throughout history. Its effectiveness has been proven to be short-term medication in various medical and academic journals over the last two decades. If you find yourself in need of a cheaper, natural pain reliever, cramp bark may prove to be one of the best options available.