Herbal Medicine & Women’s Health

Sarah Giardenelli, ND, MSOM, LAc, is a certified naturopathic doctor and licensed acupuncturist.

Herbal medicine has been used throughout the millennium to support female health and to manage common women’s health concerns.  Historically, herbalism has been considered a female healing art.  While there are many excellent male herbalists, herbal medicine embodies the feminine qualities of intuition, trust, and gentleness. Women have been “doctors” for their families in this manner.

While many people enjoy learning about herbal medicine and have basic knowledge, consulting with a licensed professional – a Naturopathic Doctor (ND), an herbalist credentialed with the American Herbalists Guild, or a licensed Acupuncturist with a Diplomate in Chinese Herbology – is encouraged.  These experts are trained to appropriately match a patient’s overall constitution, specific symptoms and/or concerns to herbal medicines.  Additionally, they know when to refer to a patient to a conventional medicine provider.  With a growing awareness of how effective and affordable herbal medicine can be in supporting a patient’s overall health and/or treating specific diseases, many conventional providers now have herbal medicine experts on staff.

With questions regarding the purity of common herbal medicines making headlines, the quality of the product is more important now than ever.  There are many ways to identify quality herbal medicines and to safely incorporate them into your health program.  The Web site www.consumerlab.com offers information on the independent testing of health and nutritional supplements.  Industry leaders in quality herbal medicines check their products for purity, potency, and contaminants.  They also only use non-genetically modified ingredients and go beyond standardization to assure the consumer quality herbal medicine.

As someone with a deep respect for herbal medicine and who uses them in practice, I also appreciate companies that respect both historical blends of herbs and modern research.  I feel that historical knowledge is important and should always be considered.  Otherwise, we can become unnecessarily bound by the limited and often confounding herbal medicine research available to date.

Herbal medicine really is an individualized approach to wellness.  Herbalists tend to use combinations of herbals to help support women’s health.  However, unfortunately, this is rarely how they are studied.  There is some evidence that herbal combinations seem to be particularly effective in managing common women’s health concerns.  In one such study, 71 percent of women taking an herbal formula of dong quai, motherwort, licorice root, burdock root and wild yam root reported a reduction in the total number of menopausal symptoms.  Seventeen percent of the women taking the placebo reported a decrease in the total number of their symptoms.

Some of the most common mainstream herbals used to address women’s health concerns include:

  • Black Cohosh. Since 1956, about 1.5 million menopausal women in Germany have used black cohosh, which is prescribed by European doctors and sold in drug stores there. This herb relieves some menopausal symptoms and is effective in treating stress-related menopausal problems.  Conventional literature cautions use of black cohosh in women with history of breast cancer.  However, the supporting evidence for this concern is inadequate.  In fact, much of the more recent literature is demonstrating that phytoestrogenic herbs, such as black cohosh, may yield a cancer protective effect.
  • Flax and Soy. Many women’s health concerns are related to what is coined “estrogen dominance.” This is when there’s a higher ratio of estrogen compared to progesterone.  Flax seeds and soy seem to modulate the effects of estrogen in the body.  Flax seeds – containlignans – increase sex hormone binding globulin, helping to bind excess hormones in the body.  Soy is thought to reduce blood estrogen levels in the body and increase sex hormone binding globulin.  While studies have showed varying results, the newer phytoestrogen research suggests that phytoestrogens – including soy – have a more protective effect on the body.  It also indicates that soy confers a more modulating effect on estrogen levels.
  • Dong quai. Dong quai is a Chinese herb that was popularized in the U.S. as an herbal remedy for menopausal symptoms.  However, research has not supported any benefit of dong quai in resolving common menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes.  Instead, dong quai – sometimes referred to as female ginseng – has been used for thousands of years to support energy levels, relax muscles, and to regulate the menstrual cycles.  Research does confirm that dong quai yields beneficial effects in relaxing muscles and reducing pain and inflammation.
  • Red clover is yet another herb that has phytoestrogenic effects. While studies are mixed, several have demonstrated a significant reduction in menopausal hot flashes. Red clover is another herb that is traditionally used in conjunction with other herbal medicines.

There are many mainstream herbs beyond black cohosh, soy isoflavones, red clover, dong quai, and flaxseed that are coined as effective for supporting women’s health.  While many of these herbals can be very effective – hence, why they are mainstream – note that some are not.  Sometimes they are only effective in the context of an herbal medicine formula, or at a certain dosage.  As previously mentioned, herbal experts can help to guide you toward the best herbal medicine formulations for your specific constitution and needs.  For more information, I encourage you to speak with your healthcare provider.

References:

Hudson, Tori.  Menopause Botanicals. December, 14th, 2006. Accessed 2.11.15. http://drtorihudson.com/articles/menopause-botanicals/

Hudson, Tori. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). December 8th, 2009. Accessed 2.11.15. http://drtorihudson.com/general/endocrine-health/pcos/polycystic-ovarian-syndrome-pcos/

Weil, Andrew. Dong Quai Angelica sinensis. http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/REM00034/Dong-Quai-Dr-Weils-Herbal-Remedies.html

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