Q & A: Herbs for Uterine Fibroids

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I have a fibroid fifteen centimeters in diameter that causes me to urinate very frequently. I would like to avoid a hysterectomy by shrinking the fibroid using herbs or other natural remedies. I have seen mention of chaste tree berry as helping fibroids, but I have not been able to find any information as to dosage and contraindications. I am fifty-three years old and still menstruating.
—B. F., Mountain View, California 

Keville responds: Uterine fibroids are fairly common, especially for women in your age group. It usually demands a devoted regimen to shrink them, but it can be done. You’re off to a good start with chaste berry, also commonly called vitex (Vitex agnus-castus), since it helps regulate your hormonal balance to slow fibroid growth and helps prevent their recurrence. Using herbs such as prickly ash bark (Zanthoxylum spp.), cleavers (Galium aparine), mullein (Verbascum spp.), or ginger (Zingiber officinale) is important to help the lymph and blood system eliminate fibroid tissue from the body as it breaks down. Herbs can also relieve common side effects of fibroids, such as raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus) for excessive bleeding, yellow dock (Rumex crispus) for low iron, and cramp bark (Viburnum opulus) for uterine cramping. All of these herbs are very safe and can be combined into one formula. You’ll find that a number of commercial products designed to help women’s conditions contain these herbs, or you can buy them individually and blend your own mix. A general recommendation is to drink 1 cup of strong tea, take 1 dropperful of tincture, or down 1 to 2 pills four times a day, but check the labels for specific dosages, because some herbal products are more concentrated than others. I also suggest doing sitz baths a few times a week. A sitz bath increases circulation. To do the bath, place a large container of cold water next to a tub filled with enough hot water to reach just to your navel when you sit in it. Add three drops each of lavender and rosemary essential oils to the bath water. Then alternate back and forth several times between the hot and cold waters, staying in the hot bath for up to 10 minutes and the cold for up to 3 minutes, as tolerated. Do the sitz bath a few times a week. A good diet, acupuncture, and moderate exercise are excellent adjunct therapies to go along with the herbs when treating fibroids.

Rountree responds: Fibroids are very common benign (noncancerous) tumors that arise from the smooth muscle cells of the uterus. Up to 50 percent of women have at least one of them and they are the main reason that women get hysterectomies. The exact cause is not understood, but it is clear that the hormone estrogen plays a major role in their onset and their progression. Conditions where the estrogen level is increased, such as pregnancy and perimenopause—the year or two just before menopause—are associated with increased growth of fibroids. In contrast, fibroids usually shrink after menopause, when estrogen levels decline.

Unfortunately, there is no consistently reliable formula for shrinking fibroids. Waiting for menopause is sometimes the best option. Fortunately, if symptoms become intolerable, there are newer surgical techniques that allow removal of the tumor without taking out the uterus, so hysterectomy is not the only choice if all else fails. That being said, there are many anecdotal reports of women who have been successful at reducing the size of fibroids or even eliminating fibroids by using natural methods. The first and most important step is to help your body get rid of excess estrogens by losing excess weight, avoiding alcohol and saturated fat, and eating high-fiber foods. Calcium D-glucarate, a substance found in cherries, oranges, apples, broccoli and cabbage has been shown to increase the excretion of estrogens in the stool.

Vitex is one of the most frequently prescribed herbs for fibroids. It appears to work by increasing the ratio of progesterone to estrogen, an effect that could theoretically be helpful in treating fibroids. There is a fair amount of evidence for the use of vitex in treating many different types of menstrual disorders, but, unfortunately, little documentation of its ability to help fibroids regress. The dose used in medical studies is 40 drops daily of a standardized European preparation that contains 9 g of the fruit in 100 ml of an alcohol-based tincture. You would need to take vitex for several months before being able to tell if it is working.

Another natural therapy that is commonly recommended is castor oil packs. The theory is that substances in the oil called lectins will be absorbed through the skin, where they activate the immune system to attack the fibroid, making it regress. The basic method involves soaking a clean cloth in castor oil and laying it over the lower abdomen, then covering it with plastic wrap, followed by another layer of cloth. Put a hot water bottle or heating pad on top and leave everything in place for at least an hour. This usually needs to be done every day for a month or two before a response is seen.

Kathi Keville is director of the American Herb Association and the author of eleven herb and aromatherapy books including Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches seminars throughout the United States.

Robert Rountree, M.D., is a physician in private practice in Boulder, Colorado, where he practices integrative medicine. He is co-author of Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child (Avery, 1994) and Immunotics (Putnam, 2000) and is an Herb Research Foundation advisory board member.

The information offered in “Q & A” is not intended to be a substitute for advice from your health-care provider.

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