Q. Which herbs are especially helpful for women?
A. Every woman is intimately tied to nature. The menstrual cycle follows the cycle of the moon, ebbing and flowing every 28 days, in most cases. A woman’s body can grow and change, like the earth, to hold the life that grows within. And like the soil below us, a woman’s body can assimilate the nutrients needed to grow the perfect food for her children. Perhaps this connection with the cycles of nature has something to do with the powerful relationship that plants can have in supporting the health of women. For thousands of years, herbs have been consumed as part of rituals of menstruation and as part of supporting a woman through her transitions into puberty, motherhood and menopause. And today, botanical medicines provide potent medicine for modern women. Here are five herbs I think are well-suited to women’s health.
Vitex is one of the best herbs to support a woman’s menstrual cycle. Vitex has a powerful action as a hormone balancer by supporting good communication between the brain and the ovaries, so that the ovaries can produce healthy levels of estrogen and progesterone. Vitex is best consumed in its tincture form. Although the taste is strong, the result is powerful, especially for women with short menstrual cycles, trouble conceiving, cramping and PMS.
Red clover is the most concentrated source of phytoestrogens, or substances in the plant that look like the body’s own hormone, estrogen. This can be helpful when estrogen levels are low (such as during menopause), especially when used in combination with black cohosh. Red clover can help with the hot flashes, night sweats and vaginal dryness that can occur when estrogen levels drop. It has a very pleasant taste and can be steeped in a tea. The best part of this plant is that many of us have it in our yard. If you don’t use pesticides or herbicides, you can pick and brew the plants right out of your lawn.
This plant is not as well-known in the United States. However, in India most women incorporate the plant into their health regime. The translation of the plant’s name, shatavari, is “the plant for the woman with 1,000 husbands.” In addition to a balancing effect on women’s hormones, it also helps to support healthy energy levels and a healthy sex drive. It can support fertility and also soothe damaged vaginal tissue. The plant is traditionally consumed before bedtime as a powder mixed into warm milk.
The flower essence of black cohosh is prescribed for “knowing and trusting in one’s inner strength and resources.” The most commonly prescribed herb for menopause, black cohosh can be helpful to manage the hot flashes, fatigue and irritability that sometimes accompany menopause. It also has a mild mood-lifting effect. The root is the most active part of the black cohosh plant and can be consumed as a tincture, as a tea or in capsules.
Holy basil, also called tulsi, has fantastic stress-managing properties. It can help lower the levels of stress hormones like cortisol in the body. It is very calming and grounding, and can help with mental clarity, especially for mothers who are multitasking and under a lot of stress. Holy basil makes a wonderful tea and can also be taken as a tincture or capsule.
Women’s health can be complex, as multiple hormones interact with one another. Herbal medicines can make sure that the environment is right so that the hormones behave as they should and nothing gets out of hand. The use of these herbs, and many more, can be supportive to women in all phases of life.
Nourish and tone the female body with this light and refreshing tonic for women, recommended by Rosemary Gladstar, author of Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health (Storey Publishing, 2008). Combine 2 parts lemon balm, nettle, peppermint or spearmint, and raspberry leaf; 1 part milky oats; and stevia to taste. Steep in boiling water 30 to 60 minutes. Drink 3 to 4 cups daily.
For an in-depth reference, pick up Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health (Churchill Livingstone, 2009) by Aviva Romm. Winner of the James A. Duke in Botanical Literature Award, this reference blends folklore and recent scientific evidence.
Jaclyn Chasse, N.D. is a licensed naturopathic doctor who practices in New Hampshire.
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