For every human illness, somewhere in there exists a plant which is the cure. ~ Rudolf Steiner
Gabi is a 22-year old college student who has been struggling with constipation, irregular periods, breast tenderness, and acne since her teens. She also has trouble with anxiety and poor sleep, the latter usually due to stress. After 3 months of seeing me in my Functional Medicine practice where I emphasized some simple dietary changes including removing dairy and sugar to help balance her blood sugar and hormones, and added in some simple herbal supplements, her symptoms were entirely resolved. Want to know what I gave Gabi? Do you have other health struggles and want to use herbs? Read on…
Why Herbal Medicine?
Herbs are one of the central forms of medicine I use in my medical practice to promote, maintain, and restore health. I began using herbal medicines over 30 years ago, and in fact, am considered one of the leading herbalists for women’s and children’s health in the world. I love the simultaneous simplicity of the traditional use of herbs and the complexity of their chemical compounds and actions on our health. I have dedicated much of my life to understanding their medicinal properties.
Herbs come only second to food and mindful self-awareness in my approach to chronic health problems, and often come first, again, along with food, in treating many common acute health issues such as colds, digestive symptoms, and headaches. Herbs are highly effective, often comparing favorably – sometimes even better – to medications in clinical studies, and used properly they are almost always safer than conventional medications. Unlike pharmaceuticals, most are available from companies that prepare them in environmentally sustainable ways. I love that using them connects me to ancient women’s ways of healing, and also connects me to the earth more directly for my medicine. In fact, many of the health benefits we find in a plant-based diet are also directly found in using herbal medicines.
Herbal Medicine In My Practice
In my Functional Medicine practice I treat mostly women and see certain themes repeating themselves – particularly inflammation and autoimmune conditions, stress and anxiety, weight, and hormonal problems. While patients who come to see me get completely individualized health plans, including herbal plans, there are some herbs that I use so often that I can recommend them as generally beneficial to most women. I thought I’d share the 5 herbs with you that I recommend the most frequently based on the most common conditions I treat: hormonal imbalances, fatigue, weight problems, stress and mood issues, autoimmune conditions, thyroid disorders, fertility challenges, digestive disorders including IBS, skin problems, and sleep troubles, among others. The herbs below can be used alone or in any combination with each other to help with many of these conditions either directly, or by supporting your immune system and reducing stress. Of course, there are literally hundreds of other amazing herbal medicines I use in my practice – this is just a sample, but I think you will find these of great benefit in a variety of health situations and it’s a great way to get started using herbs in your life.
The herbs below are generally safe while you are taking most medications; there is some concern about interactions between curcumin and blood thinning drugs, so please check with your doctor first if you are on an anticoagulant medication. The following herbs are all safe while breastfeeding. However, I don’t recommend rhodiola and ashwagandha in pregnancy, not because they have been proven unsafe, but just because safety data really isn’t available on use in pregnancy. Chaste berry, or vitex as it is also called, used to be considered not for use in pregnancy, but the latest data suggests that it is safe and may be continued or started if needed for hormonal support.
Aviva’s Top 5 Herb Picks for Women
Curcumin is the active anti-inflammatory ingredient in turmeric. While eating turmeric is certainly health promoting, when it comes to preventing and treating inflammation and supporting your body’s natural detoxification abilities, the more concentrated form of the herb, curcumin is the way to go. I use it for women with leaky gut syndrome, allergies, eczema, joint pain and swelling, and most autoimmune conditions. It is also a good general health promoting herb that supports detoxification from environmental chemicals.
The dose is 1000-2000 mg daily.
Rhodiola is in a class of herbal medicines called “adaptogens.” Adaptogens influence the health of the adrenal glands, which control many functions in the body, including stress reactions, inflammation, blood sugar balance, hormonal balance, and immunity. Other adaptogens include ginseng, holy basil (tulsi), eleuthero, reishi mushroom, shitake mushroom, schisandra, and ashwagandha (discussed below). Each has many similar actions on health, and each has unique properties as well. In addition to helping to balance blood sugar, fighting fatigue, keeping you out of “fight or flight” mode thus helping you to reduce stress, and nourishing your immune system so you get sick less often, rhodiola is especially known for its effectiveness in relieving anxiety. Ideally, you want to look for products that say that are standardized to 2-3% rosavin and 0.8-1% salidroside. This is safe to take if you are on medications for anxiety, and you may even be able to wean off of your medications after a few weeks or so, but work with your doctor on this for maximum safety. Adaptogens are usually recommended for a minimum of 3 months, but can be taken daily for even more than a year.
The dose is 100mg-400mg/day depending on the severity of your symptoms and your response. I usually recommend starting slowly and increasing to the max dose if needed.
Like rhodiola, ashwagandha is an adaptogen, and has all of the immune supporting, fatigue relieving, stress hormone and blood sugar balancing actions of the other adaptogens. I mention it because it is my favorite adaptogen for the stress women experience from the overwhelm of constant multi-tasking and juggling of busy lives. It is gentle, non-stimulating, can help improve sleep and reduce chronic joint pain.
The dose is typically 1 to 6 grams per day of the whole herb in capsule form, or 2-4 mL of the tincture or liquid extract, 3 times/day, and like other adaptogens, is taken for at least 3 months, up to even more than a year.
1-2 Tbsp. of freshly ground flax seed taken daily can have tremendous benefits for your weight because it helps you to feel full, improves your bowel health and regularity because it feeds good gut flora and acts as a gentle bulk laxative, and helps to balance your hormones because in supporting good gut flora, flax helps your body to eliminate excess harmful estrogens you may have produced or picked up from the environment, which not only keeps you in better hormonal health, but may prevent breast cancer. Taken regularly, they also improve blood sugar – even in diabetics, reduce inflammation, and bring down cholesterol. Supplementation with flaxseed significantly increases omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. They are inexpensive, readily available, and have a pleasant taste. I recommend simply adding them to a smoothie/shake, or tossing them into your salad or onto grains (just don’t heat the flax seeds).
Dose: 1-2 Tbsp. fresh grounds seeds daily.
Chaste berry, or vitex, is nature’s hormonal balancer. While not containing any active hormones itself, this herb improves progesterone balance, effectively treats PMS symptoms, including depression and irritability, bloating, breast tenderness, cravings and acne, and helps to regulate menstrual cycles. Vitex promotes fertility; in fact, one of the “side effects” of some of the clinical trials that have been done is that women have become pregnant! It has also been used to prevent miscarriage in women who have a history of miscarriage, possibly due to effects on progesterone. Vitex also treats menopausal symptoms including some benefit with vaginal dryness, sleep problems, and hot flashes. It has very few side effects other than unpleasant taste and possible nausea. In a very small subset of women with depression, vitex may aggravate symptoms. If this happens simply discontinue use; however, it is quite rare.
Typical dosing is 20-40 mg/day, though up to 240 mg of products containing the herb have been shown to be safe and effective. Tincture or liquid extract is taken in doses of 20-40 drops up to 3 times/day, though some herbalists recommend as much as 1 measured teaspoon (= 5 mL) per day, either in one dose in the morning, or divided into 2 or 3 doses throughout the day.
Do you have experience with botanical medicines you’d like to share? Favorite herbs for women’s health? What do you wish you knew more about herbs?
I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!