As our “baby boomer” women move into maturity the symptoms of perimenopause and full menopause can kick in, making life less than comfortable for many women. Menopause, which occurs when the ovaries stop releasing eggs and the female sex hormone estrogen, marks the end of fertility. Although it is a natural process, rather than an illness, some women find its symptoms distressing. Though hormone replacement therapy helps relieve symptoms, it may increase the risk of stroke and some forms of cancer. It is for this reason many women are turning to plant based therapies for relief from the symptoms associated with menopause. Estrogenic like substances found in plants and foods are called phytoestrogens and there is a large amount of research going on all over the world into their effects upon the hormonal disorders of women. These phytoestrogens do not convert to human estrogens in the body (as was once thought) but in fact act by mimicking human estrogens and occupying estrogen receptor sites in the cells as needed.
Below is a list of some of the most commonly used herbs for women’s health:
Chasteberry (Vitex agnus-castus) is considered the premier woman’s herb and it is the herb of choice for normalizing the reproductive system. It has a stimulating effect on the pituitary gland, which regulates and normalizes hormonal production. It is an excellent herb for restoring and regulating the estrogen – progesterone balance. It is particularly beneficial in treating painful and irregular menstruation, infertility, PMS, menopausal problems, and other hormonal imbalances.
Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) is a native plant of North America it has been used by the Native Americans to treat fatigue and female disorders for centuries. Black cohosh has a well-established estrogenic action and is thought to reduce levels of pituitary luteinizing hormone, thereby decreasing the ovaries’ production of progesterone. Studies on the herb have notes improvements in symptoms associated with menopause including relief of complaints such as hot flashes, sweating, headache, vertigo, palpitation, and tinnitus.
Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa) contains the plant hormone diosgenin, which has a balancing effect upon the body’s hormones similar to the effects of DHEA and progesterone. Wild Yam can help to overcome the negative effects of declining levels of DHEA and progesterone that occur with aging. Its effects have been shown to help those with a range of peri-menopausal symptom including fatigue, depression and loss of sex drive.
Dong Quai (Angelica polymorpha/sinensis) is an ancient Chinese herb that has been traditionally used for female complaints such as absence of menstrual bleeding and premenstrual syndrome. Dong quai contains plant hormones such as beta-sitosterol and is considered in Chinese medicine to be a harmonizing tonic for the reproductive system.
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) – the flowers of this herb contain isoflavones, a type of phytoestrogen. Recent studies have shown that red clover is a gentle, safe hormone balancer that can be used to treat infertility, PMS and menopause symptoms. It is also gaining a reputation for its apparent ability to reduce the risk of estrogen stimulated cancers such as breast and ovarian. It is high in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients and is an excellent addition to a tonic formula for women.
Red Raspberry (Rubus idaeus) the leaves of this bush have been used for centuries as a uterine tonic. The alkaloid fragarine combined with several of the plants other constituents; serve to tone pelvic and uterine muscles, making it an excellent herb for the prevention of prolapsed uterus. It is high in B vitamins, flavonoids, calcium and iron that make it a perfect tonic herb for women of all ages.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) a wonderful culinary herb, sage contains estrogenic like substances. It can be used to ease menopausal symptoms and in particular it can be used to prevent night sweats and excessive perspiration.
Kudzu root (Pueraria lobata) has been noted to alleviate a variety of menopausal symptoms. It contains a number of isoflavone compounds that help alleviate hot flashes and night sweats as well vaginal dryness in postmenopausal women. Several studies have indicated that kudzu may also help manage metabolic syndrome, a condition marked by a cluster of health problems (including excess belly fat, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and insulin resistance) that are known to raise your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) a slightly bitter herb motherwort supports both healthy digestive function and cardiovascular function and is considered a specific in treating menopause symptoms where heart palpitations are present. Its action on the nervous system make it valuable in reduce PMS and menopause symptoms where anxiety is present. It is also helpful for sleep problems associated with menopause.
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glaba) contains hormonal steroidal saponins and has a balancing effect upon estrogenic activity. It can also act as a tonic for those with morning fatigue due to adrenal gland exhaustion. These saponins give the plant its ability to stimulate the production of hormones by the adrenal glands and to decrease adrenal stress and cortisol levels.
White Peony (Paeonia lactiflora sub. albiflora) is one of the most important women’s herbal tonics in Traditional Chinese Medicine and is given for wide range of women’s health issues including excessive menstrual bleeding, premenstrual syndrome, and the absence of periods, as well as gynaecological disorders, including polycystic ovarian syndrome, vaginal discharges, uterine fibroids, some types of female infertility and hormonal imbalances, and averting miscarriage. In perimenopause it is valuable for easing bleeding between periods, hot flashes and vaginal dryness.
Magnolia bark (Magnolia officinalis) – this beautiful tree is a wonderful treatment for anxiety, irritability and insomnia in menopausal women. The researchers found that the isoflavones and alkaloids in this herb effectively lessened the severity of classic menopausal symptoms, including hot flashes, while easing anxiety and excess cortisol production. One study from Italy found that magnolia bark extract when combined with magnesium was even more effective at improving sleep, mood, depression and anxiety in menopausal women.
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) – this well-known herb has the ability to treat mild to medium depression syndromes and balance out pre- and post-menopausal mood swings. Hot flashes and sleep disturbances also respond well with this herb. This herb combines well with black cohosh to alleviate anxiety and sleep related hormonal issues.
Eleuthero (a.k.a. Siberian Ginseng) (Eleuthercoccus senticosus) is what herbalists refer to as an adaptogen plant. Eleuthero is a balancing herb and is excellent for use in a wide variety of conditions including adrenal exhaustion, diabetes, insomnia, depression, hypertension, as well as pre- and postmenopausal concerns. It is also extremely useful in increasing the body’s resistance against physical, chemical and emotional stressors including exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a highly valued adaptogen that is widely used in Ayurvedic medicine as a tonic that improves vitality and restores the body after long term stress, overwork and nervous exhaustion. It is said to relax and tone both the endocrine and nervous systems, and support reproductive health and increase libido. Some studies now indicate that it may act to inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
Holy Basil (also called Tulsi Basil) (Ocimum sanctum) a close relative of our traditional “pesto” basil, Holy Basil is a rich source of vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron. Holy basil has an adaptogenic effect on the body reducing cortisol levels, balancing blood sugars and reducing many perimenopausal symptoms. Some studies have also found it helps to improve memory and general cognitive function.
Rhodiola (Rhodioa rosea) is another one of our wonderful adaptogenic herbs and has been increasingly researched for its wide range of health benefits. It can help with depressive syndromes, memory loss, anxiety, cognitive dysfunction and menopause related symptoms. This herb is slightly stimulating therefore should be used somewhat cautiously for those who have fairly “high energy” personalities.
Maca (Lepidium meyenii) – a staple of the diet in areas of South America and is a slightly stimulating adaptogen that does not have an estrogen-like component to it but rather stimulates the body to produce its own hormones. It has been used to help with hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, loss of libido and irregular periods.
Kelp or Bladderwrack (Fucus versicolor) is a seaweed herb containing the mineral iodine and other trace minerals. Iodine is required for the synthesis of thyroid hormone from the thyroid gland. Thyroid hormones stimulate and control the metabolism (which makes it useful in weight loss). Iodine can also reduce the pain caused by fibrocystic inflammation in the breasts.
Nettle leaves (Urtica dioica) – herbalists have a saying “when in doubt give nettles”. This plant is superbly nourishing to the entire body and is a good source of calcium, magnesium, chlorophyll, chromium, iron and many other minerals and vitamins. It strengthens the adrenal glands, supports flexible blood vessels and bones, helps to give us a healthy heart, thick hair, beautiful skin, and lots of energy. Another wonder herb for us wonder women!
Flaxseed (Linus usitatissimum) is one of the highest sources of beneficial lignans, which are estrogenically active compounds that can exert beneficial effects upon a dry and fragile vaginal mucosa. Lignans, like many other plant steroids may give some protection against cancers occurring in hormone sensitive tissues such as the breasts and uterus. Flax is high in Omega 3 essential fatty acids which are supportive for the cardiovascular system, assist in liver and hormonal function and are essential for healthy skin, hair and mucous membranes. Other sources of these fatty acids are Fish Oil, Evening Primrose Oil, Borage Oil and Black Currant Oil.
In addition to herbal treatments lifestyle changes have a significant role to play in easing reproductive health issues in woman. The simple changes listed below can improve overall health for not only the reproductive system but bone health as well.
Exercise – a vital part of good health. In women it is a way to strengthen the heart, increase bone density, balance hormones, reduce pelvic congestion and reduce stress levels. Walking, swimming, cycling, dancing, tai chi and yoga are only a few of the many options available to women. It doesn’t have to be huge amounts, but anything is better than being sedentary!
Coffee – there are conflicting reports about the benefits versus the adverse effects of coffee consumption. Studies have shown that drinking 2 or more cups per day may double the risk of miscarriage and that each cup of coffee consumed per day can leech 11mg of calcium from bone tissue, increasing the risk of osteoporosis. Breast tenderness and cysts can also be reduced or eliminated by reducing consumption of coffee.
The benefits of coffee appear to be the alleviation of mild depression, and a decreased risk of diabetes as well as some types of cancer (endometrial cancer in women). So given that the jury is still out on coffee it is prudent to be somewhat cautious and keep your consumption to 1-2 cups of coffee per day.
Smoking – like coffee, smoking leeches minerals from bones and may contribute to osteoporosis. Women who smoke are more likely to experience menstrual irregularities, including premenstrual tension and are at higher risk for heart disease and certain types of cancers. The good news is that once you quit your risk factors for other diseases dramatically decrease in a relatively short time.
Sugars – in our society today sugar is in almost everything we buy in the supermarket from soups to salad dressings. It is having a huge impact on our overall health and it is recommended that you try to avoid all sugars if possible but most especially refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, and artificial sweeteners (e.g. aspartame, sucralose). These all have significant negative impacts on our body creating a stepping stone for fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, dental problems, weight gain, and even cognitive problems. If you do want something sweet try raw cane sugar, raw honey or maple syrup (all are rich in nutrients). The herb stevia is a good substitution for artificial sweeteners and is available in most grocery stores now.
Dairy – as with coffee, there is controversy over the impact dairy products have on our body (in particular milk). Many scientific studies have shown an assortment of detrimental health effects directly linked to milk consumption. The most surprising link is that not only do we barely absorb the calcium in cow’s milk (especially if pasteurized), but to make matters worse, it actually increases calcium loss from the bones. In facts statistics show that countries with the lowest consumption of dairy products also have the lowest fracture incidence in their population. If you do choose to keep dairy products in your diet it is recommended that you consume 2% or full fat milk to allow the fat content to bind more readily to calcium receptors in the body.
All material contained herein is provided for general information purposes only and should not be considered medical advice or consultation. Contact a reputable healthcare practitioner if you are in need of medical care.
At Tilia we have a range of products on our shelves that we have created specifically for women’s health concerns and as well our medical herbalists are always available to formulate custom blends to address your specific symptom picture and to help you once again celebrate the joy of being a happy, healthy woman!