Herbs for Women
As women, we face unique health issues. From puberty through menopause we deal with hormonal fluctuations, monthly menses, ovulation, pregnancy, and lactation. We may suffer from premenstrual, or menopausal tensions, including irritability, mood swings, bloating, breast tenderness, uterine discomfort, headache, nausea, insomnia and general malaise. Some of us deal with uterine fibroids, breast and ovarian cysts, yeast infections, cervical dysplasia, vaginal dryness, and incontinence.
Breast cancer is a devastating illness often striking women in the prime of life. As many as 44,000 women die from breast cancer each year. Many more suffer the effects of disfiguring surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, not to mention damage to self image and sexuality, or the constant fear of a recurrence, and even worse, a painful death.
As we age we are warned to guard against osteoporosis, or thinning and weakening of our bones. Our risk of heart disease climbs rapidly. As many as 36 percent of American women, or about 375,000, die from heart disease each year. In addition, coronary risk factors such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension are all on the rise among women.
Estrogen therapy has been considered as cardiovascular protection for women, but recent clinical trials have cast doubt on its efficacy in doing so. In fact, some data suggests that estrogen, as well as progesterone, therapies may have the opposite, or deleterious effect. What a dilemma! What are we women to do?
We know that our birthright is surely good health; hale hearts, strong bones, strength and vitality. What we need are some tried and true, safe and simple ways to nourish ourselves, ease our daily discomforts as well as help guard against, and therefore prevent, serious, life-threatening disease. As an herbalist, and as a woman, I'd like to share with you some of the herbs I have found to be invaluable on my personal journey toward health and well-being.
Let's begin with angelica, called Herb of Angels, and one of my favorite herbs for women. The roots and leaves of European Angelica (Angelica archangelica) and Dong Gui (A. sinensis), its Asian cousin, are warming, strengthening, and energizing to the reproductive organs, as well as the digestive, circulatory, and endocrine systems. Angelica is a mighty medicine with many nourishing, restorative and revitalizing gifts. In China, Dong Gui is regarded as a supreme female tonic. For thousands of years, healers around the world have used these herbs to regulate menstruation, relieve cramping and menopausal distress, promote healthy blood circulation, balance hormones, and generally ease the journey through the childbearing and menopausal years. Women who integrate Angelica/Dong Gui into their weekly self nourishment program often experience side effects which include, but are not limited to, increased sexual pleasure and libido, the alleviation of constipation, a rosy complexion, and sound sleep. Both angelicas offer abundant minerals and vitamins. They are brimming with antioxidants, including rich stores of vitamins A, B, (especially B12), and E. Those B vitamins, in combination with abundant niacin, magnesium and calcium, help strengthen the nerves, relieving tension and promoting sleep. And all that vitamin E helps to keep skin, internal organs and tissues, especially those of the bladder and vagina, well lubricated, moist and flexible. The angelicas' high iron content nourishes and builds blood, prevents anemia and increases vital energy. Generous supplies of phytosterols (hormonal precursors found in plants), glycocides, saponins, and flavonoids support the body's production of all important hormones, stabilizing emotional swings, and easing hot flashes, irritability, and hormone related headaches. Both these herbs are also rich in coumarin derivatives which promote antispasmodic and vasodilatory effects, and therefore are useful in relieving muscle tension and painful menstrual cramps. Coumarins are nourishing to the heart and circulatory system. They lower blood pressure and thin the blood, thus reducing risk of stroke. Women use angelicas to regulate menstrution after coming off the Pill, to relieve symptoms of premenstrual discomfort and to help stabilize blood sugar levels. The angelicas also contain limonene, which detoxifies carcinogens and disrupts the growth of cancerous changes within the cells.
Apple (Malus communis). Remember the old adage that an apple a day keeps the doctor away? Believe it! Apples are magnificent health builders, rich in magnesium, iron, potassium, carbohydrates, vitamins C, B and B2. Apples are rich in oxygen-carrying atoms, act as purifiers, cleansers, and vitalizers and are stimulating to the heart, brain and nerves. Apples help keep your cholesterol levels down and help guard against heart disease, stroke and cancer. According to a study published by the National Cancer Institute, pectin binds with certain cancer-causing compounds in the colon, speeding their elimination from the body. Recent research indicates that apple cider and honey can dramatically improve cancer cure rates. In one study 387 men and women undergoing chemotherapy for a variety of cancers took daily doses of apple cider and honey (one to one ratio) and had twice the remission rates of patients who had chemotherapy alone. Drinking a glass of water with a tablespoon of honey and one of apple cider has been suggested to enhance longevity and relieve fatigue. This same combination speeds up metabolism and suppresses the appetite, thus assisting in a weight loss program and helping to guard against obesity. Chinese physicians use apples to treat diabetes, and modern Western medicine supports this use. Several studies have indicated apple pectin helps control blood sugar levels, and daily consumption may act as a balancing tonic for those with hypoglycemia or diabetes.
Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). Called such names as Root of Life and Wonder of the World, ginseng has been in use for at least 5,000 years. Long believed to be fountains of youth by the people who use it, ginseng roots have been verified by scientists to be energizing, rejuvenating, immuno-protective and adaptogenic (helps one adapt to daily stresses). Loaded with antioxidants, rich in phytosterols, offering an abundant supply of essential fatty acids, minerals, especially the calcium so necessary to keep our bones strong, vitamin B complex, and vitamin D, ginseng root is an excellent herbal ally for women. Its abundance of plant hormones and other nutrients are particularly necessary for our glandular systems, and help our bodies to balance production of both estrogen and progesterone. Ginseng is especially nourishing and rejuvenating to our hormonal functioning and regular use is associated with relieving even the most severe premenstrual and menopausal problems. American Indian women revered this herb as a female tonic, and it was considered by them to enhance fertility. Ancient Chinese legends also tell us that ginseng is a fertility aid. Adaptogenic ginseng helps anytime you are under stress, whether physical or mental. It helps relieve anxiety and depression and greatly strengthens the adrenal system, particularly vulnerable to stress. Ginseng rebuilds vitality, increases energy and stamina, and reduces fatigue. Ginseng is an invaluable herb when trying to regulate blood sugar levels, and regular use helps reduce the risk of adult onset diabetes. Ginseng has also been clinically proven to lower blood pressure and to nourish and strengthen the heart and circulatory system. The effects of ginseng are neutralized by vitamin C, so let at least three hours pass between taking either of them. Ginseng's effects are doubled by taking it with foods rich in vitamin E. A typical dose of ginseng? Try chewing a piece of dried root the size of your pinkie finger nail, drink 1 cup of infusion, or take 10-40 drops of tincture daily. Do not use while pregnant.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla or M. matricarioides). Soothing to the nerves, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, antibacterial, sedative and pain relieving chamomile has a well-deserved reputation as a women's herb. Perhaps best known as an herb to soothe the stomach, chamomile's antispasmodic properties help allay nausea, and are an excellent ally when dealing with uterine cramping or congestion. It is a well known emmenagogue and will help bring on the menses when late, and is useful for scanty or irregular menstruation and menopausal discomforts. German chamomile is often referred to by its Latin name, Matricaria, which suggests its use as a gynecological herb. It is commonly called "mother herb" by the German people, alluding to its role as an herb for female disorders. In fact, in Germany, chamomile tea is readily available and given freely to both mother and babe while in the maternity ward. When feeling stressed, tense or uptight, a nice warm cup of chamomile tea will help soothe those jangled nerves. Chamomile also makes a wonderfully relaxing bath herb, and a soothing massage oil.
Chaste Tree (vitex agnus castus) is highly esteemed the world over as a supreme female tonic. Vitex exerts a powerful influence over the endocrine system and is especially nourishing to the pituitary gland, which controls and coordinates the menstrual cycle. The berries of this North African shrub are phytosterol rich and help balance the hormones by promoting the production of progesterone and normalizing the estrogen cycle. Extensive laboratory studies with Vitex have demonstrated its ability to stimulate the production of luteinizing hormones, which enhance the progesterone cycle, and at the same time inhibit the release of follicle stimulating hormone, normalizing the estrogen cycle. Regular use of Vitex will help regulate menstruation, relieve emotional swings associated with premenstrual tension, and come to your assistance when dealing with premenstrual abdominal bloating, breast swelling and tenderness, and craving for sweets. Its ability to restore hormonal balance enhances fertility, and it helps normalize reproductive functioning when coming off birth control pills, after giving birth, having a miscarriage or an abortion. Women in the midst of menopause find that Vitex will ease menopausal flooding, help eliminate night sweats and hot flashes, lubricate dry vaginal tissue, even out excessive mood swings and help relieve depression. Vitex also stimulates the production of prolactin, and is taken by nursing mothers to ensure an abundant supply of milk as well as rebuild strength and vitality and increase energy. Consistent use of Vitex has a strong anti-inflammatory effect on the endometrium and has consistently been shown to offer significant assistance in the shrinking of fibroids.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). Strength-building, energizing, vital-enhancing dandelion roots are rich in iron, manganese, phosphorus, protein, and vitamin A. They also contain bone-building calcium, nerve-soothing niacin, and magnesium, potassium, zinc and vitamin C complex. Consistent use of dandelion roots is said to create a potassium rich, anti-cancer environment, help rid free radicals from the blood stream and is considered an excellent choice when dealing with cancer. Dandelion roots have traditionally been used to heal breast tissue. Grating the fresh root and applying it externally as a poultice will help heal sores, impacted milk glands and cysts. Infused in oil it is excellent for breast protective massage. Chinese physicians use it this way to treat breast cancer. Ayurvedic healers use dandelion in similar ways. Regular use of dandelion roots lowers cholesterol, reduces high blood pressure and helps prevent arteriosclerosis. Root dug in the fall contains a full quarter of the weight in insulin and will help stabilize blood sugar levels, help reduce hypoglycemia, and prevent adult onset diabetes. Rich in phytosterols, the roots are a safe and effective tonic for the reproductive system. Dandelion roots regulate and stabilize hormonal production and also inhibit the growth of the fungus responsible for vaginal yeast infections (candida albicans). Everyone knows that dandelion leaves are incredibly nourishing and delicious, but did you know the flowers and sap are medicinal also? Dandelion flowers steeped in wine are an apertif said to strengthen the heart, and the sap is a discutient, which means it absorbs and dissolves diseased tissue, tumors and abnormal growths. A typical dose of dandelion root tincture is 10-100 drops daily, or 1-2 cups of dried root infusion daily.
Lady's Mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris). Many have said, and I believe this myself, that the dewdrops held in the cup formed by the leaves of Lady's Mantle are a magical elixir, and enhance the potency of any medicine it is added to. I like to simply lick these drops of dew with my tongue! Lady's Mantle is a superb uterine tonic, has a strengthening effect on the female reproductive system, helps regulate menstruation and controls menstrual flooding. Its content of salicylic acid and other sedating properties make it effective at alleviating menstrual cramping or uterine discomfort. Lady's Mantle is also used to shrink fibroids. This herb possesses a reputation as a fertility enhancing herb and also has a special affinity for the breast. Lady's Mantle is an invaluable aid when dealing with lumpy breast tissue or achy breasts, easing tension and relieving breast discomfort. The leaves and flowers can be used externally as a poultice. External application of Lady's Mantle will result in increased tone and firmness to breast tissue. Use it regularly to restore tone to sagging breasts. When dealing with vaginitis, Lady's Mantle infusion (well strained) is recommended to help dry up excessive discharges. Make a standard infusion and use as a douche or as a sitz bath to treat vaginitis, vulvitis, genital sores or herpes, or to heal perineal tears after childbirth. To help regulate menstruation or to prevent flooding, take 10 drops of Lady's Mantle tincture three times daily for a week before menstruation is due.
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca). This beautiful pink fuzzy plant, as its name implies, has a host of special benefits for women. Females from puberty to old age find this herb indispensible! If you suffer from PMS, get to know motherwort. It consistently quiets the nervous irritability associated with the premenstrual condition. Motherwort helps restore emotional balance when feeling stressed and tense. It soothes and strengthens the entire nervous system. Motherwort is an excellent tonic for the uterus and reproductive organs, is unfailing at relieving menstrual cramping, and will consistently bring on menstruation when late. Motherwort is a very good herb for girls just coming into puberty and just 10 drops in water a few times a week will help regulate menstruation and ease their transition into womanhood. Also an ally of high repute for menopausal women, motherwort will balance hormones, moderate mood swings, ease hot flashes, depression and heart palpitations. Motherwort is a gentle heart tonic and very strengthening to the heart and circulatory system. Tests conducted in China have shown motherwort's ability to relax the heart and other studies have demonstrated this herb's ability to prevent internal blood clots that trigger heart attack. German tests show motherwort's sedative action and Russian researchers found that it contains chemicals that reduce blood pressure. A typical dose of motherwort is 10-20 drops twice daily, or as needed.
Nettle (Urtica dioica). One of the finest nourishing tonics in the entire plant kingdom, nettle greens are mineral rich and contain abundant chlorophyll, iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and vitamins A, C and K. Nettle is a wonderful ally for the pregnant women or nursing mother. It not only provides optimum nourishment to build the brain, bones, blood, muscle, tissue, nerves, and organs of a healthy fetus, but will also improve the quality and quantity of breast milk. Midwives usually recommend pregnant women drink nettle infusions for the last trimester, as its abundant vitamin K helps prevent hemorrhage. American Indian women drank nettle tea during pregnancy to strengthen the fetus and ease delivery. They also used it to stop bleeding after childbirth. Menopausal women also have a friend in nettle. With its rich stores of minerals, especially calcium, regular use of nettles will nourish your nervous system, calm and steady your nerves and strengthen your bones, thereby preventing osteoporosis. Consuming this herb often also helps ensure a healthy heart. Regular use of nettles will boost energy levels, ease depression and mood swings, and support healthy functioning of the adrenal system, naturally stressed during menopause. Nettles are also highly regarded for their ability to balance blood sugar levels, enhance sexual performance and enjoyment, promote healthy hair growth, and alleviate chronic skin conditions such as eczema. A typical dose is 2 cups of infusion or 20 drops of tincture daily.
Oatstraw (Avena sativa). Another highly nourishing, revitalizing, restorative and rejuvenating herb! Oatstraw's abundant calcium helps build strong bones, thereby protecting against osteoporosis. It is effectively combined with other calcium rich herbs such as horsetail, nettles, comfrey, red clover, and red raspberry leaves for this purpose. Regular use of oatstraw lowers cholesterol, tones and supports the heart and circulatory system, alleviates hemorrhoids, strengthens the endocrine system, regulates hormone production and acts like a "love potion." A typical dose is 2 cups of infusion or 20 drops of tincture daily.
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense). Known by such names as "God Given" and "Prized Herb," red clover is a humble little field herb with incredible healing gifts. Brimming with nutrients, red clover is especially mineral rich, loaded with calcium and magnesium and contains profuse amounts of protein, vitamin B complex and vitamin C. Red clover infusions can be enjoyed daily as a vitamin and mineral rich beverage with absolutely no risk of side effects. The National Cancer Institute has found anti-tumor properties in this herb, and no less than 33 cultures around the world use red clover to treat cancer. It has been found to contain at least four anti-tumor compounds including daidzein and genistein. Red clover also contains significant amounts of antioxidants, especially tocopherol, a form of vitamin E shown to help prevent breast tumors in animals. Red clover is prescribed today for the treatment of breast, ovarian and lymphatic cancers. To augment other approaches to the treatment of these diseases, herbalists recommend drinking two to four cups of red clover blossom infusions daily. Massage red clover infused oil into the affected area several times daily, or use fresh flowers, or those strained from the infusion, as a poultice over the area. Phytosterol rich red clover blossoms have been used for centuries to balance the hormones and promote the production of estrogen. Red clover will help reduce the frequency of hot flashes and night sweats for menopausal women. Red clover is the number one fertility-enhancing herb and I can personally attest to its success in this area. It is a wonderful herb for regulating the menstrual cycle, although, because it thins the blood, it is best not used by women prone to heavy bleeding. Red clover contains salicylates and coumarins which are responsible for its blood-thinning abilities and make red clover an excellent choice to tone and strengthen the heart and prevent stroke. Red clover can safely be used by pregnant women and nursing mothers. It will deeply nourish and help replenish minerals lost through pregnancy and lactation. It will also produce abundant breast milk as well as keep the mother feeling relaxed and healthy.
Red Raspberry (Rubus idaeus). Loaded with calcium, iron, phosphorus and potassium, and brimming with vitamins B, C and E, red raspberry leaves are a storehouse of nutrients and highly tonic to the entire body. They are highly regarded as a female tonic due to their high content of fragrine, an alkaloid which is strenthening to the entire pelvic region, most especially the uterus and ovaries. Red raspberry leaves are taken by women all over the world during pregnancy to strengthen and tone the uterus in preparation for childbirth. The high calcium content of the leaves help nourish the nervous system and relieve pain, so drinking the infusion during light labor is a good idea if pain becomes an issue. Drinking the infusion in the morning will help allay nausea and relieve morning sickness. Raspberry leaves are an excellent fertility enhancing herb, and are often combined with red clover blossoms to promote conception and a successful, full-term pregnancy. The abundant calcium in the leaves makes red raspberry an awesome ally for strengthening the bones and preventing osteoporosis. They are also very astringent and effective when taken to control heavy menstrual bleeding. Studies indicate red raspberry leaves help reduce blood sugar levels, making it a useful herb in the management of diabetes.
Rose (Rosa rugosa). Flower of the Goddess and Queen of the Aromatics, roses have been in use since time immemorial. They are a beauty to behold, smell heavenly and possess much medicinal virtue. Roses have a nourishing effect on the heart and circulatory system and are soothing to the nerves. They are renowned for having a tonic, balancing effect on the female reproductive system. Wild roses, sweetbriar and other species, are rich in phytosterols, stimulate the production of estrogen in the body, and bioflavonoids which are also favorable to estrogen production. Any part of the rose plant, flower and leaves can be used to help balance the hormones, any time during a woman's reproductive years. Roses can be used to alleviate headaches, relieve menstrual cramping and strengthen the bones. They are fabulous for the skin, and will soothe any irritated skin condition. The fruits of the rose, or rosehips, are bursting with nutrients, especially vitamin C, E, selenium and zinc. We throw them into winter teas as a boost to the immune system. They also increase brain power, concentration and focus.
Saw Palmetto (Serenoa serrulata). Sweet, nutritive and tonic saw palmetto berries were highly valued by American Indian healers, and later used extensively by the Eclectic physicians around the turn of the century. Antiseptic to the urinary tract, bringing tone to the bladder, saw palmetto berries will come to your aid when dealing with urinary or bladder problems. It helps promote strong contractions of the bladder so that it can fully expel its contents. If an infection of the urinary system is suspected or diagnosed, it's a good idea to combine saw palmetto with echinacea in equal amounts. Saw palmetto has a strong reputation as an aphrodisiac which may be attributed to its ability to nourish the reproductive system as well as the endocrine glands, enhancing all around sexual health. Saw palmetto's nourishing and tonifying effects extend to the entire female reproductive system. Regular consumption of infusions of these phytosterol rich berries will bring health and vitality to ovarian, bladder, vaginal and breast tissue. Saw palmetto is a tissue builder, and will actually rebuild, moisturize and plump up dry or atrophied tissue in these areas.
Violet (Viola odorata). Violet leaves are highly nourishing, contain more vitamin C than any other leafy vegetable known, and are also an excellent source of vitamin A, both antioxidants. The leaves can be eaten during spring and summer, lightly steamed like spinach or dandelion leaves. They are nourishing to the lungs, nerves and reproductive systems. Violet leaves have a special affinity for the breast. Fresh violet leaves can be used as a poultice for treating lumpy breast tissue, cysts, infections and growths. Combine this external treatment with two or more cups of violet infusion daily or 20 drops of tincture twice daily to help relieve pain and inflammation in the breast. The infusion can also be used as a wash or fomentation, or the fresh leaves infused in oil, to be massaged into the area. American Indian legend tells us that the violet was long ago an amethyst crystal living deep within the earth. Great Spirit brought the crystal spirit to the surface of the earth as a special gift to the human kingdom, specifically as a cure for cancer. Some of the earliest writings speak of violet's ability to dissolve cancerous tumors of the skin, reproductive system, throat and breast. Medical literature from the early part of the twentieth century includes five different studies demonstrating violet's dissolvent and anti-cancer properties. To receive the anti-cancer effects of violet, drink at least two cups of infusion daily and poultice the area with the strained out plant material. Apply violet oil or salve as frequently as possible, and as appropriate.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Yarrow's astringent qualities make it a useful ally in slowing excessive menstrual bleeding, and it is often called upon to help shrink fibroids in premenopausal women. Yarrow is a hormone balancing herb and especially effective at helping the body produce progesterone. Sip yarrow infusions throughout the day to slow menstrual bleeding, or take 10 drops of tincture every two hours until bleeding slows. To help shrink fibroids take 20 drops of yarrow tincture, or one cup of infusion, twice daily. Yarrow is a powerful disinfectant, possesses strong antibacterial properties, and is an excellent herb to use against urinary infection or incontinence. It also helps to tone and strengthen the bladder.
Bio: Gail is a community herbalist with thirty years experience. She authored a book, Opening Our Wild Hearts to the Healing Herbs published by Ash Tree Publishing, N.Y. 2000. She is the owner/founder of Blessed Maine Herb Farm, an herbal products business, and runs a nine-acre organic herb farm.
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