My favorite herbs for women's health are adaptogens! In fact, following the interview for my current position, Catherine Hunziker, owner and chief formulator for WishGarden Herbs, asked me which herb I would like to be, to which I emphatically responded, "Holy Basil!"
Adaptogens are generally regarded as plants that help the body adapt to stress -- and you may be wondering what that has to do with women's hormone balance. Prolonged stress causes heightened levels of cortisol. Excess cortisol increases blood sugar (which can ultimately lead to insulin resistance), can contribute to depression and fatigue, weakens muscles, and can cause headaches and high blood pressure.
To manufacture enough cortisol when experiencing long-term stress, the body steals supplies from the hormone pregnenolone, which ultimately converts into cortisol and/or the female sex hormone progesterone (this process is also known as "the pregnenolone steal"). Progesterone counteracts the effects of estrogen in a woman's body. It's the "pro" "gestation" hormone, and is often referred to as the pregnancy hormone. Declines in progesterone levels promote estrogen dominance (discussed in my previous post), marked by low sex drive, infertility, headaches, thyroid dysfunction, fatigue, PMS, and accelerated aging, to name a few. According to Dr. Christiane Northrup, "Estrogen dominance has also been linked to allergies, autoimmune disorders, breast cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cysts, and increased blood clotting." In short, stress wreaks havoc on sex hormone balance.
This is where adaptogens come in. They increase the body's resistance to the effects of long-term stress, support immune function, and ultimately the delicate balance of female hormones. That's not to say there aren't many other herbs that are beneficial for women's health, but with the level of stress the modern woman experiences, it's easy to zero in on the value in adaptogens. While I'm only highlighting Holy Basil here, ashwagandha, ginseng, rhodiola, and maca all deserve an honorable mention.
The following are some of my favorite herbs for the ladies:
Holy Basil -- the Hindu name for holy basil is tulsi, meaning "the incomparable one." Belonging to the mint family, holy basil is a preeminent example of an adaptogenic herb. The Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine published an article in 2014 reporting "increasing evidence for holy basil benefits improving physical, chemical, metabolic, and psychological stress." It's been shown to have a normalizing effect on blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood lipid levels. It's no wonder holy basil is revered as a goddess incarnated in a plant.
Vitex -- also known as chaste tree berry, vitex has a regulating effect on the pituitary, our body's "master gland." The pituitary controls many vital signals, including those sent to the ovaries determining the amounts of hormones to produce. By inhibiting follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), vitex increases luteinizing hormone (promoting ovulation), which increases progesterone. Women who discontinue their use of birth control pills can more quickly stabilize their menstrual cycle and induce ovulation with vitex. It's supportive for symptoms of PMS, such as headaches, acne, depression, and breast tenderness. All in all, vitex is a fantastic choice for women seeking to enhance their fertility.
Wild Yam -- a common misconception is that wild yam contains progesterone. It does not. It does, however, contain diosgenin, which can be converted into progesterone in a laboratory. Topical creams containing specific amounts (~80mg USP progesterone) can be applied in rotation to the skin of the abdomen, behind the knees, and in the crevices in the arms, but it's important to work with a qualified health care practitioner that can monitor your hormone levels. Still, when seeking to support healthy progesterone levels, one cannot forget wild yam. Wild yam does have an antispasmodic effect and supports a healthy inflammatory response, making it a great option for menstrual cramps.
Crampbark -- the name says it all! Crampbark is a wonderful nervous and muscle relaxant for cramping.
Writer Danielle Cicak is the Northern Colorado and Wyoming Sales Representative and Regional Educator for WishGarden Herbs located in Louisville, Colorado. In 2003, Danielle began her career working in the supplement aisles at Natural Grocers. Inspired to help others with their health and wellbeing, she pursued an education in holistic nutrition from the Nutrition Therapy Institute in Denver, Colorado. As a Master Nutrition Therapist (MNT), Danielle served as a Nutritional Health Coach (NHC) before advancing to become the NHC Development Specialist where she led and developed the NHC training program for Natural Grocers. As a Colorado native, Danielle is thrilled to work with another local, family-owned business that promotes health and activism through education: WishGarden Herbs! In her free time, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, creating healthy dishes in her kitchen, and enjoying the beauty Colorado has to offer!
For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, or to sell any product.