Our bodies rely on a delicate ballet of hormonal interplay. Every day, hundreds of chemical exchanges occur, involving a number of hormones within our bodies. These exchanges are required in order for us to digest food; process thoughts; eliminate waste; manage our heartbeats and blood flow; and more. Yet, despite their involvement in almost every function of our bodies, we often consider hormones only in regard to the reproductive organs, and focus on estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.
Many of our most common degenerative diseases have been linked to hormonal imbalance. For example, diabetes is a disruption in the hormone insulin. Other disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and addiction (and possibly ADHD and fibromyalgia) are related in part to a disruption of the hormone dopamine. And of course, there are better-known hormonal disorders including infertility, endometriosis and impotence.
While hormonal problems often are complex, the solutions can be simple: By eating well; avoiding chemicals and other additives in our foods; managing stress; and getting adequate sleep and exercise, we can help our bodies maintain hormonal balance. We can also turn to herbs we grow in own backyards to help support our hormone health. The plants in this article are easy to grow—some may already be growing wild in your yard. As always, consult your physician prior to altering your health-care practices. Some herbal supplements and remedies can interact poorly or interfere with other remedies or medications, and many should be avoided while nursing or pregnant.
A good place to start for hormonal balance is digestion. In my experience as an herbalist, whole food that’s organically raised and traditionally prepared is the best digestive medicine. The Slow Food movement has it right—meals are best eaten slowly while sitting down with friends. Eating well means taking our time; not eating on the run; not drinking large amounts of liquid with our food (large amounts of liquid dilute the digestive juices needed to break down food properly); and not eating for emotional reasons. To support hormone balance, we can help maintain steady blood sugar levels by eating at regular intervals and eating complete meals. Eating for balance means more than simply following the food pyramid. One of the best ways we can help our hormonal systems is by feeding the bitter receptors of the tongue. Bitter tastes stimulate and tone our gallbladder and liver, producing the digestive juices needed to help completely break down our food. Stimulate bitter receptors of the tongue with the following herbal preparations, or simply by eating or sipping on bitter foods and herbs along with meals.
Dandelion Root: This “weed” can be planted purposefully or just allowed to remain where it volunteers in your garden. (Make sure you don’t harvest dandelion that has been treated with pesticides.) Gather the root in spring or fall and eat it fresh or dry it. It tastes great in winter soups and broths. You can also eat the tender young greens in salads or sautéed in garlic and lemon juice.
Hops: The useful, beautiful green flowers of hops form on fast-growing vines. They’re easy to grow from seed or plant starts. Incorporate them into teas or tinctures and take around mealtimes. You may even choose to add them to homemade brews.
When digestion is derailed, the next contributor to hormonal imbalance may be the liver, our bodies’ main detoxification tool. When it becomes congested, the body may see a rise in inflammation, an increase in circulating exogenous estrogens and a strain on other organs in the line of hormone production.
Wild Yam: The root of this forest dweller (currently listed as “at-risk” by the United Plant Savers organization) has long been used as a general hormone balancer. It is associated with fertility and is adept at addressing congestion in the liver. Take it as a capsule, tincture or tea, and follow package directions. Note: Do not supplement with wild yam long-term as it may lead to kidney and liver damage, according to a 2008 study.
Burdock: Also called gobo root in Asian markets, this edible medicinal is used for supporting liver health. It’s an abundant weed that may already be growing in your yard. Slice it and use it as you would a carrot. Otherwise, buy in capsule or tincture form and follow supplement instructions, as high doses may be deleterious to the liver. Also, check with your doctor first as it may have negative interactions with several medications. Note: Burdock roots are similar in appearance to those of the poisonous belladonna. Make sure what you harvest is actually burdock root before using at home. If you’re allergic to chrysanthemums, daisies or ragweed, you may also have an allergic response to burdock.
The adrenal glands are Grand Central Station for hormonal reactions. They’re involved in just about every hormonal exchange in the body and are tied to the functioning of the thyroid and to the body’s response to blood sugar levels (read more about the adrenals).
Licorice Root: This root is added to teas and syrups for its sweet taste. It’s often used as a tonic to support the adrenals. If you wish to grow your own, it’s best to start the plant in a container that can be brought indoors in winter (except in warm climates).
Lemon Balm: The thyroid is also affected when our adrenals get too stressed. So it’s nice to know that this lemon-flavored member of the mint family is easy to grow and may be used in food, tea, tincture or capsule to support an overactive thyroid gland.
Yarrow: Yarrow leaf and flower can be added to food or used in tea. It often grows wild in prairie environments, but it can also be planted as an ornamental perennial. This bitter plant may be helpful in managing blood sugar. Don’t use yarrow if you take medication that slows blood clotting.
The reproductive organs themselves can be the source of hormonal imbalances. Luckily, many easy-to-grow plants make tasty additions to teas and foods and may assist hormone balance.
Calendula: The sunny yellow-to-orange flowers of this annual are a perfect accent for a sunny flower garden. Calendula is a beautiful addition to teas or salads and may have a general balancing effect on a woman’s menstrual cycle and assist the movement of fluids through the lymphatic system. If you’re allergic to ragweed, you may have an allergic response to calendula.
Chaste Tree: The chaste tree berry shrub (also known as vitex) prefers partial sun and is able to withstand winter in most of the U.S. It’s used as a general hormone balancer that may have a specific affinity with the pituitary gland. The delicate purple flowers are favorites for bees, but it’s the dried berry that we use medicinally in teas and tinctures. Chaste tree may have negative interactions with some medications, so consult your doctor.
How Does Your Garden Grow?
Herbs may be less particular about growing conditions than you might think. In my experience, they’ll grow in just about any kind of soil but appreciate the same things your average vegetables would like. Use the following tips to grow the herbs mentioned in this article.
Neutral pH: Soil pH of around 7 is universally acceptable.
Water: Not too much and not too little—some herbs get annoyed if their roots stay wet. Generally you should plant herbs in soil that drains well and keep them well-watered while they become established.
To Seed or Not to Seed: For most medicinal perennials, you’ll want to start seeds inside or start with plants from a reliable greenhouse (ask to make sure plants are free of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers). Most of them have long germination times and require special seed preparation such as scarification (cutting the seed coat to encourage germination) and stratification (pretreating seeds to simulate weather conditions that a seed must endure before germination).
Fertilizer: While some gardeners insist the medicinal value of your herbal harvest rises with a laissez-faire approach, I believe when we prepare the soil well there is more nutrition to be had from the plant that grows there. Use well-seasoned manure and compost to prepare the soil.
Dawn Combs is the owner of Mockingbird Meadows Herbal Health Farm and director of its Eclectic Herbal Institute. She is the author ofConceiving Healthy Babies: An Herbal Guide to Support Preconception, Pregnancy and Lactation.