Throughout history, women have handed down information from mother to daughter on how herbs can remedy some of the common maladies of life. Women, like the moon, change in cycles. Through menarche (the first menses), menstrual cycles, pregnancy, nursing, and menopause, herbs have been a common denominator for the wise woman and those she comforts.
Plants are sometimes referred to as being phytoestrogenic or phytoprogesteronic. This is because some plants have molecular structures similar to the hormones estrogen (phytoestrogenic) and progesterone (phytoprogesteronic). They can occupy the receptor sites in the body that would normally be taken up by these hormones. Plants can therefore, in some cases, both increase or decrease hormonal levels in the body.
Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) is a member of the Ranunculaceae family. The root or rhizome is used medicinally and works as both a smooth muscle and nerve relaxant. Black cohosh is a phytoestrogen, which means it has mild, estrogen-like properties. It is also anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, astringent (contracts tissue), diuretic, emmenagogic (promotes menstrual flow), and a vasodilator (widens blood vessels).
Black cohosh soothes irritated and congested uterine, cervix, and vaginal tissues. It helps relieve hot flashes, headaches, and edema, and helps prevent organ prolapsethe falling of an organ from its true position.
Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), a member of the Asteraceae family, improves liver function by stimulating bile production and lowering blood triglycerides (a type of fat). It is the liver that helps the body break down excess hormones, and for this reason dandelion can help a wide range of menstrual and menopausal concerns, and even breast tenderness.
Dandelion leaf is an excellent diuretic and can help alleviate fluid retention associated with PMS (premenstrual syndrome), yet the herb is rich in potassium so it does not present the depleting effects that chemical diuretics have. Both dandelion leaf and root can help prevent weight gain associated with water retention and the inability to metabolize fat.
Dong quai (Angelica sinensis) root is a member of the Apiaceae family. It contains vitamin E, and, among its many health benefits, it is an alterative (blood purifier), anticoagulant, antispasmodic, blood tonic, emmenagogue, muscle relaxant, and nervine.
Dong quai helps regulate the menstrual cycle, build the blood, ease cramping, and smooth emotional turbulence. Like black cohosh, it helps regulate estrogenic activity.
Dong quai has been used for thousands of years in China to regulate the menstrual cycle, for amenorrhea, and for dysmenorrhea. When women stop taking birth control pills, dong quai can be used to reestablish normal menstrual cycles.
During menopause, dong quai can relieve hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Dong quai is helpful in increasing vaginal lubrication and strengthening the bladder and vaginal walls. It can be used to calm insomnia related to the change of life, and, by stabilizing blood sugar levels, dong quai can help support calmer moods.
Dong quai should be avoided during pregnancy and during menstruation in women who bleed excessively. Though it can help relieve hot flashes, it is not suited for women who feel hot all the time, because of its own warming qualities.
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is a member of the Fabaceae family. It is considered phytoestrogenic. It helps improve adrenal function and keeps blood sugar levels more stable so moods are normalized. It can help promote normal ovulation and inhibits prostaglandin E2 production, which can cause cramping and moodiness. Licorice is anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and an energy tonic. Large doses should be avoided during pregnancy.
Raspberry leaf (Rubus species) is a member of the Rosaceae family. The leaves are rich in the important minerals calcium, magnesium, and iron.
Raspberry leaves have been regarded as a universal herb for women. They have been introduced to young girls beginning their menses as a welcome ritual to help them through their changes. Raspberry leaves can help alleviate menstrual cramps, reduce erratic food cravings, and curb excessive bleeding.
Raspberry leaf tea has long been used to increase fertility. Pregnant women in China, Europe, and North and South America have all used this herb as a tea for a wide range of female health concerns. Even pregnant cats have been known to seek out the leaves and eat them!
When used during pregnancy, raspberry leaves help to relieve morning sickness, prevent spotting, and improve blood quality thus preventing anemia.
Besides being consumed regularly during pregnancy, women often drink raspberry tea during labor. This is because raspberry leaves contain an alkaloid called fragarine, which is said to make labor easier due to its effectiveness as a tonic for the pelvic muscles and uterus.
When taken after birthing, raspberry tea facilitates placental delivery, helps decrease uterine swelling, and helps prevent postpartum bleeding. Drinking raspberry tea until the time of birthing is so nutritious, it helps to ensure that the colostrum (the first breast milk) will be especially rich. However, it is not used excessively during lactation due to its astringent properties that can decrease milk supply.
When menopausal women use raspberry leaf, it helps promote healthy uterine tone and minimize hot flashes.
Henry Box, an English Quaker herbalist, said, A tea made from red raspberry leaves is the best gift God gave to women. Now, that might be exaggerating things a bit, but it does show great appreciation for such a versatile herb.
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is part of the Araliaceae family. The root and root bark are excellent adaptogens to help the body acclimate to stress and improve mental alertness and physical endurance.
Vitex berry (Vitex agnus-castus), also known as chaste tree berry, is a member of the Verbenaceae family. Vitex has been mentioned since the writings of Hippocrates. Vitex stimulates the pituitary gland, which is the master gland that regulates sex hormone production and helps to normalize progesterone levels.
Vitex is an herb of choice when needing to regulate an erratic menstrual cycle. It can help both menorrhagia (excessive bleeding) and polymenorrhea (periods that occur too frequently), as well as amenorrhea and spotting between cycles. It can also help women establish more regular cycles after they stop taking birth control pills.
Vitex is also used for problems associated with the menstrual cycle. These include premenstrual tension, premenstrual acne, breast tenderness, constipation, fluid retention, insomnia, herpes, and migraines. It can even help with some of the psychological difficulties, such as sweets cravings, anxiety, depression, and irritability.
Vitex is believed to work by stimulating luteinizing hormonal production and inhibiting follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which results in an elevated progesterone level and a more balanced estrogen level.
Vitex improves milk production in nursing mothers. Best results are obtained when women use vitex for the first ten days after birthing. It has been found to balance prolactin (the hormone associated with milk production) levels. Interestingly, it can also help decrease prolactin in nonnursing women who are having abnormal menses. It can help reduce pain and lumps in the breast. Vitex has been found to be helpful in fibroid cysts that occur in the smooth muscle.
Wild yam root (Dioscorea villosa) is a member of the Dioscoreaceae family. Wild yam improves liver and kidney function and can lessen dysmenorrhea and ovarian pain. It is anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, diuretic, and nutritive, and a cholagogue (improves liver function). Wild yam contains diosgenin, which is a precursor to progesterone and was once used to make birth control pills. Today wild yam, valued as an herb, is useful for dysmenorrhea, infertility, menopause, menstrual cramps, ovarian pain, and threatened miscarriage.
Soy products, which are eaten widely in the Far East, are hypothesized to play a role in this regions lower rates of cancers and heart disease and menopausal symptoms. Soy products such as beans, tempeh, tofu, soy milk, and miso contain isoflavones, an antioxidant which can reduce hot flashes and help inhibit tumor growth and cancer. Soy isoflavones also are a source of dietary phytoestrogens and have demonstrated the ability to reduce low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, also known as the more harmful type of cholesterol.
Eating a cup of soybeans daily is ideal, but for those who find this hard to swallow, there are now tablets available that contain isoflavones.
Any herbal protocol is best continued for at least six menstrual cycles, and in most cases can be continued long after that.
Herbs are beautiful allies for women to use throughout their lives. They are nourishing, comforting, and time-tested for thousands of years by millions of women. These herbs are genuine friends from the garden. Get to know them.
Brigitte Mars is an herbalist and nutritional consultant. She has been working with natural medicine for more than 30 years. She is the formulator or UniTea Herbs, and the author of Elder; Herbs for Healthy Hair, Skin, and Nails (Keats Publishing, Inc.); and The Herbal Pharmacy, a CD-ROM.
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