Certainly, women have plenty of options when it comes to addressing physiological maladies, and a visit to an internist is always vital to rule out or treat a serious condition. But given what we’re learning about the potential side effects of some pharmaceutical options, plus the growing number of women who wish to work with their bodies holistically, herbal remedies are moving front and center in addressing matters pertaining to female health.
This doesn’t mean it’s advisable for a woman suffering from perimenopausal symptoms to stroll into a health food store and pick up a pretty bottle with a picture of a rose on it that calls itself “herbs for women.” Herbs are medicine, and strong medicine at that. Yes, they can heal if used correctly—but there are issues of purity, formulation, dose and contraindications to consider. Plus, one person’s reaction will be completely different from another’s.
Any woman who is serious about trying herbal medicines to treat a diagnosed health condition should have those herbs prescribed by a qualified professional. With the help of a certified herbalist (a member of the American Herbalist Guild, american herbalistguild.com), licensed acupuncturist, doctor of Oriental medicine, naturopathic doctor or similarly trained expert, herbs can be an ally both as primary, and as complementary, medicine for women.
Many health concerns for women are a result of fluctuating hormones. “Hormones operate like the tide: they’re constantly moving in and moving out,” explains Tracy Whynot, L.Ac, owner of PLACE360 Health + Spa in Del Mar, California. Herbs can help counteract the ebb. “Our goal is to balance yin and yang,” Whynot continues. “Some herbs help ‘build up’ and some help ‘break down.’ Herbs have a property, a temperature and a direction.”
In the instance of infertility, for example, “the trouble might be in the body’s ability to hold on to a pregnancy,” says Whynot. “In this case we can use tonifying herbs that strengthen the blood. But if the issue is blood stagnation—which is a completely different problem—we use herbs to help get things fl owing.” She notes that older women dealing with symptoms of menopause or vaginal dryness may benefit from herbs that support the jing, or “essence”, identified by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as the basis for all growth, development and sexuality. Jing, which flows through the kidney channel, decreases with age and tonic herbs are prescribed to strengthen it.
But before a prescription can be written, it’s essential to find the root cause of the problem. To do this, naturopathic doctor and owner of Dr. Debs Herbals, Deborahe Prock, looks to basic concepts. Suppose the concern is hormonal imbalance in a 45-year-old woman. “I always point out that the liver is partly responsible for getting rid of hormones that the body no longer requires,” she says. “So doing a liver cleanse once a year is priceless, especially when a woman is entering menopause.”
Because one needs to factor in causes, because every woman’s reaction is different, and because appropriate dosages and durations vary, herbal prescriptions are very specific. Also, herbs are so strong and directional that they’re always used in mixed formulations. Custom is best, but there are some oft-used combinations that support common women’s health issues.
“Dong quai [aka ‘female ginseng’] and chuan xiong [aka ‘Szechuan lovage root’] are the yin and yang of menstrual health and the herbs most used in TCM formulations,” says Whynot, who also recommends dandelion for water retention, PMS, suppressed lactation and bloating.
Prock creates a tincture of black cohosh, astragalus, licorice root and wild yam root for menstrual discomfort and relief from menopausal symptoms. “Ovarian cysts and fibroids are huge issues these days, and 99% of women with ovarian cysts will also have fibrocystic, or lumpy, breasts,” she says. “My favorite tincture to help women with fibroids is ginger root. And a castor oil pack is wonderful for painful periods and ovarian cysts.” Prock’s simple prescription is to apply castor oil to the abdomen, cover it with a sheet of plastic wrap and place a hot water bottle or heating pad on top of the plastic.
For fertility, Whynot also looks to rehmannia, goji berry, ashwagandha and eucommia, again depending on the specific issue. For breast health, turmeric and chasteberry are frequent go-tos, with the latter also alleviating PMS symptoms of breast tenderness, mood swings and headaches. Pulsatilla helps with menstrual pain and cramps, and horny goat weed encourages blood flow and addresses menopause-related hormone fluctuation.
The role of herbs during pregnancy has been hotly debated. The majority of Western practitioners discourage it, stating that research is too inconclusive or limited to enable them to make recommendations. Alternative practitioners, however, assert that there’s a legitimate place for herbal medicine in easing undesirable symptoms in pregnant women. History may bear them out: we know that the use of raspberry leaf during pregnancy to ease morning sickness, increase lactation and relax the uterus dates all the way back to the sixth century.
We also know, however, that herbs are also capable of worsening certain conditions. Black cohosh and wild yam may produce estrogen-like activity that’s unsafe for women with hormone-sensitive cancers such as breast, ovarian and uterine, as well as endometriosis.
Emerging research may eventually confirm or deny contraindications for a wide range of herbal remedies in the specialized area of women’s medicine. Regardless, the decision of whether or not to seek herbal support for a health issue remains with women themselves. And there’s no debating that.
–by Andrea Renskoff