Herbs for Female Health
Mother Nature was very kind to her sisters, because She created so many wonderful herbs for the health problems they suffer from. Herbs work so well for treating menstrual and gynecological disorders that herbalists often wonder why women ever use anything else.
The Female Menstrual Cycle
Every month women shed blood in menstruation. Since all four humors, in varying proportions, are present in the bloodstream, menstrual health depends on having the right balance of humors in the general circulation.
Menstrual disorders of various types arise when the various humors in the bloodstream get out of balance, and run into either excess / aggravation or deficiency. Since the uterus and female reproductive tract also serve as an outlet for eliminating morbid or superfluous humors from the body through the monthly menstrual period, various premenstrual symptoms, according to the superfluous or aggravated humors involved, tend to appear and build up within the two weeks previous to the monthly period, which finally brings discharge and relief.
And so, the female menstrual cycle offers the physician a valuable window into a woman's overall humoral balance and true state of health. In adjusting the overall balance of the humors, the physician works mainly through the liver and the Natural Faculty, by adjusting the metabolic processes of humor formation. This also involves making the necessary dietary and lifestyle changes to bring the humors back into balance.
Modern medicine tells us that the liver is the main organ that metabolizes estrogen, progesterone and other steroid based female hormones that are usually unbalanced in menstrual disorders. And so, we're working with the liver here as well. And herbs are the best medicines to improve liver metabolism so that each woman's body can get to the root of the problem and reestablish its own innate hormonal balance. Since no pharmaceutical drugs are capable of improving and normalizing liver metabolism, MDs must rely on invasive and artificial hormonal manipulation.
Premenstrual Syndrome and its Remedies
According to the aggravated or offending humor involved, premenstrual syndrome has four basic differentiations, plus a few extra syndromes involving deficiency. By their fruits, or symptoms, you will know them.
These basic types are not mutually exclusive. Provided that they are not of a directly contradictory nature, two or more of these types can coexist in the same woman, in varying degrees and proportions.
The most common type of premenstrual syndrome is the Nervous or Melancholic type. It's characterized by strong abdominal pains and cramping, indigestion and appetite fluctuations, headaches and migraines, and depression, melancholy or mood swings. Pain and tenderness of the breasts is also common. The menstrual period will often be irregular, and the menstrual discharge is often dark, thick and scanty; clots are common.
For the abdominal pains and cramping, European Angelica root (Angelica archangelica), Chaste Tree berries (Vitex agnus-castus), Yarrow (Achillea milfolium), Blessed Thistle (Carduus benedictus) and Peony root (Paeonia officinalis) are very effective. They may be powdered or taken as a tea.
For headaches, migraines, depression and mood swings, the following herbs are very beneficial: Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis), Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium), Saint John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum), and Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) are very effective. Take them either as a powder or as a tea.
For breast tenderness and swelling, the teas of Dandelion herb (Taraxacum officinale) and Blessed Thistle (Carduus benedictus) are great. If tenderness and swelling are severe, apply apply external poultices or hot fomentations of Poke root (Phytolacca americana) directly to the breasts. Or, you can take Phytolacca, or homeopathic Poke root, internally.
For women with Melancholic type PMS who are frail and delicate of constitution, a decoction of nourishing roots like the following is beneficial: Take equal parts of Angelica root, Dandelion root, Burdock root (Arctium lappa), Valerian root, Lovage root (Levisticum officinale), and Peony root. To this mixture, add half a part of Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra). If there should be water retention, replace the Licorice root with Fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare).
For Melancholic PMS with severe nervous and spasmodic symptoms, male a powder from equal parts of the following herbs: European Angelica root, Chaste Tree Berries, Yarrow, Blessed Thistle, Feverfew, Motherwort and Fennel seed. The dose is one teaspoon, three times per day.
Perhaps the handiest remedy for light to moderate menstrual cramping is to chew on the seeds of Cumin, Dill, Fennel or Anise. One of the strongest and most efficacious remedies for Melancholic PMS and menstrual cramping is the legendary Greek herb, Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus). It's been quite hard to get lately, but it deserves to be much better known, and more available. Take it as a powder in one half to one teaspoonful doses, or as an infusion, or steeped tea.
Phlegmatic type PMS is characterized mainly by puffiness, edema, and water retention before the menstrual period, which are relieved by its onset. In addition, there will be weepiness, moodiness, hypersensitivity, and dull, aching pains in the pelvis and sacrum that often have a heavy, bearing-down feeling. In addition, there may also be frequent or recurring vaginal yeast invections or white, cheesy discharges like leucorrhea.
The menstrual discharge will often be thin and watery, because excess Phlegmatic humor is diluting the blood. In addition, the monthly cycle, as well as the period of bleeding, may be longer than normal.
Phlegmatic type PMS usually occurs in women who are constitutionally predisposed to it. However, sometimes Phlegmatic type PMS symptoms may be brought on by undue exposure to cold and chills during the premenstrual period. Cold and chills have a great power to induce or aggravate menstrual cramping. One important female remedy to dispel chills and relieve menstrual cramping is an infusion of Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris).
The core problem with Phlegmatic type PMS is usually that the Metabolic Heat is weak, resulting in the deficient production of blood and the excessive production of phlegm. So, in addition to more gynecologically specific remedies, the whole metabolism must be stimulated, and the diet corrected, to bring the humors back into balance.
To construct a typical herbal formula for a woman with Phlegmatic type PMS, we first start out with a great synergistic pair of women's herbs: European Angelica root and Lovage root, which nourish the blood and improve its circulation, and stimulate the liver, digestion and metabolism. To this, we add Elecampane root (Inula helinum), which stimulates the stomach and digestion and eliminates excess phlegm, and Fenugreek seed (Trigonella foenum-graecum), which nourishes the blood, stimulates liver metabolism and eliminates excess phlegm. Next come Ajwain seed (Ptychotis ajowan) and Juniper berries (Juniperis comunis), two heating emmenagogue herbs that are good for rheumatic aches and pains, stimulate digestion and metabolism and eliminate excess phlegm; Juniper is also a diuretic. To drain the excess dampness from the body via urination, we add Couchgrass (Agropyron repens), a diuretic. To sweeten the brew, you may add some Fennel seeds. Make this formula into a standard decoction; or it may also be taken as a powder, in teaspoonful doses, two to three times per day.
To this basic formula you may add Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) if the heavy, bearing down sensation is severe. If leucorrhea or excessive menstrual flow is a problem, you may add Ladies' Mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris).
If excessive heat and choler affect the liver and the blood, there will be Choleric type PMS. If excessive heat and choler overly agitate and thin the blood, there will be excessive menstrual bleeding. If excessive heat and choler bake the blood dry, the blood may be thickened, predisposing the woman to painful menstrual blood clots. These two blood conditions are not mutually exclusive, and may coexist, although one or the other usually predominates. Because excessive inflammatory bile congests the liver and gall bladder and doesn't flow properly into the bowels, there will often be constipation, which can get quite severe.
Since excess heat speeds up the metabolism and the ripening of the humors, the menstrual cycle tends to be shorter than normal. In addition, there may be auxiliary symptoms like headaches, migraines, dizziness, vertigo, irritability and red, sore, bloodshot eyes. If Choleric type PMS gets chronic or severe, gynecological cysts, growths and tumors may develop.
What's needed for Choleric type PMS is bitter herbs that cleanse and detoxify, and cool down the excess heat and inflammation. Among the women's herbs that do this and are recommended for Choleric type PMS are Aloe Vera, Madder root (Rubia cordifolia), Saffron (Crocus sativus), Rhubarb root (Rheum palmatum), and Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha). Luckily, most of these exotic and rare herbs can be found in a convenient, ready-made medicinal tincture called Swedish Bitters, which is also a great tonic for Choleric type PMS. It's available at your local health food store.
When it comes to blood and the female menstrual cycle, the main problems are that it's deficient, as in anemia; that it's stagnant and prone to clotting; or that it's too thin, which leads to excessive or prolonged menstrual bleeding. Excess blood manifests mainly as localized congestion and stagnation affecting the female organs.
Deficient blood as related to the female menstrual cycle is experienced primarily as a feeling of profound devitalization and fatigue every month after the menstrual bleeding is finished. In addition, there will be the classic signs of anemia: dizziness, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, a pale complexion; a pale tongue, nails and conjunctiva; dry skin and hair, and the like.
One special food to eat in this condition is Nettles (Urtica dioica), which are an excellent blood tonic. If fresh Nettles are unavailable for cooking, you can buy the dried leaves from an herb store and grind them into a powder. A dose is one teaspoon, taken three times per day, preferrably with meals, as a green blood food.
If the blood is both deficient and tired, and its circulation poor, as indicated by pains and cramping, a great herbal duo is European Angelica root plus Lovage root. To make a complete blood tonic from this duo, add the following herbs, in equal proportions: Peony root, Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus), Fenugreek seed, Elder berries (Sambucus nigra), and dried Black Currants (Ribes nigrum). Make a standard decoction from the mixture and drink three cups per day.
There are many types of Angelica root growing around the world, and many, if not most, can be used as women's menstrual and blood tonics. The best and most famous of these is Dong Quai, or Tang Kuei (Angelica sinensis), the super-fragrant Chinese Angelica, also called the Women's Ginseng. The next best type of Angelica to use as a women's blood and menstrual tonic is European Angelica.
Although not an herb, another great and powerful tonic to the blood, endocrine system and Vital Force is Human Placenta. The dried placenta may be powdered and then be put into capsules or pressed into pills.
Closely related to deficient blood is thin blood, which is not so much a lack of total blood volume, or of the Sanguine humor itself, but rather a deficiency of sufficient black bile residues to give blood the necessary thickness and clotting ability. The primary symptom is excessive menstrual bleeding, usually of a light or bright red color, lighter than normal blood; there may also be bleeding between menstrual periods. Because of the excessive blood loss, there will be some fatigue and devitalization.
The basic Unani remedy for this condition is Rose petals (Rosa damascena). Either take a cup of the warm standard infusion (a heaping tablespoon of the petals per cup of water) three times per day, on an empty stomach, or powder the petals and take a teaspoonful as a dose, three times per day. Alternatively, the Rose petals may be mixed into a blend with an equal part of Ladies' Mantle.
If menstrual cramping is also present, another equal part of Yarrow may be added to the mixture. Yarrow is effective for menstrual cramps, and also has a mild hemostatic effect.
Blood stagnation is a major problem and aggravator of menstrual pain and troubles. Blood stagnation leads to clotting of blood during the menstrual period. The cardinal symptom of blood stagnation and clotting is a sharp, stabbing pain in the lower abdomen or pelvic region that is relieved after the clot or clots are passed. This fixed, sharp stabbing pain is qualitatively different from the usual colicky, spasmodic pain of menstrual cramping.
Emmenagogues, or herbs that promote the flow of women's menstrual periods, also, by and large, disperse stagnant or clotted blood, and improve its circulation. Women's tonics that have a strong emmenagogue and blood activating properties are: European Angelica root, Lovage root, Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), Zedoary root (Curcuma zedoaria), Turmeric (Curcuma longa), Myrrh, and Calendula (Calendula officinalis).
These herbs are all capable, to a greater or lesser extent, of stimulating the menstrual flow if it is sluggish or suppressed. But because they activate the blood circulation and disperse clotting, they should NOT be used during pregnancy, as they run the risk of provoking an abortion. Essentially, the embryo is much like a big blood clot; if the clot dispersing provocation is strong enough, the pregnancy will be aborted. The risks for herb-induced abortion are greatest during the first trimester of pregnancy, followed by the second trimester.
In ancient Greece and Rome, the herb Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) had quite a reputation for being an inducer of abortions. Drinking successive cups of the strong tea until an abortion was produced was something like a "morning after" concoction. Although Hippocrates clearly forbids abortions in his Oath, this provision was, even back in his day, as controversial as it is today.
Even some herbs that aren't strong emmenagogues, like Nettles, have uterine stimulant properties that make them contraindicated, especially in large doses, during the first trimester of pregnancy. The point is, if you're pregnant, don't take any herb until you've thoroughly checked it out. Strong laxatives and purgatives should also not be used in pregnancy.
Herbs for Premenstrual Syndrome are best taken on a daily basis, at least 2 to 3 times per day, at least for the duration of the premenstrual period, if not every day. Although in some cases, these remedies can provide instant relief for premenstrual symptoms, they heal the organism better, and more thoroughly, with regular or sustained use.
Herbs for Pregnancy, Labor and Childbirth
Just as there are herbs that can endanger or abort a pregnancy, particularly in its early stages, there are other herbs that can enhance pregnancy, labor and childbirth. It all depends on which herbs are taken, and how and when they are taken.
Human Placenta is a great restorative and nutritive tonic, to take as a nutritional supplement during pregnancy. Ladies' Mantle is an astringent tonic that helps women who are in danger of losing their pregnancy strengthen their carriage and retain their pregnancy. During the last trimester of pregnancy, taking Red Raspberry leaves (Rubus idaeus), either as a tea or as a powder in capsules, helps the pregnancy and improves the ease of delivery. Drink 3 cups daily, or take 2 to 3 capsules, 3 times per day.
Drinking a tea of Blue Cohosh during labor helps ensure an easy delivery. Although Blue Cohash is dangerous to take in the early stages of pregnancy, it helps ease things at the end of it.
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is a specific for shrinking and restoring the tone of the womb after childbirth. As a restorative for post-partum mothers, it is often added to blood tonic formulas like the one given for PMS due to blood deficiency. Three cups per day of the standard decoction of this Motherwort / blood tonic formula for at least a week, preferrably a month, after delivery is a good post-partum restorative and tonic, and also helps with lactation. Drink the tea on an empty stomach.
Herbs to Improve Lactation and Breast Health
Besides the monthly menstrual period, the other part of the female procreative function that gives the physician a clear window into a woman's overall health and humoral balance is lactation. Deficiencies and corruptions in the flow of milk in nursing mothers are due to deficiencies and imbalances of the mother's humors.
As a natural healing system, Greek Medicine advocates breast feeding, if at all possible, as the best way to nurse an infant. Nursing mothers, your own breast milk is the most precious gift you can give your newborn baby for the sake of his/her health! Mother's milk, especially the colostrum that flows in the first few days after childbirth, is incredibly rich in personalized immune system nutrients for your baby that are available nowhere else.
A good, plentiful supply of breast milk in nursing mothers is primarily dependent on a good, adequate supply of the moist, flourishing Phlegmatic and Sanguine humors, which form the mainstay of the nutrition not only of the mother herself, but, through conversion into her breast milk, for her baby as well. If insufficient lactation is caused by nutritive deficiencies, the mother's body will usually show signs of deficiency: a delicate constitution or build, low energy, a pale or sallow complexion, and the like.
Perhaps the best nutritive tonic to increase milk flow in nursing mothers is Fenugreek seed (Trigonella foenum-graecum), which has been shown to increase milk flow by up to 900%. A rounded tablespoon of the ground seeds, taken three times per day, with meals, is a good dose, as these seeds are very mild, safe and high in nutritive value. Other seeds to munch on to improve the milk flow are Anise (Pimpinella anisum) and Fennel.
The female breasts, having a nutritive function, have a close reflex relationship with the liver, the principal organ of the Natural Faculty, and with the stomach, the principal visceral organ of the GI tract. These organs are frequently corrupted and congested by accumulations of toxic, morbid forms of black and yellow bile, whose basic nature and temperament runs contrary to those of the Phlegmatic and Sanguine humors, which nourish and support lactation and breast function. These morbid humors, as well as heat, dryness and inflammation, can congest the liver and the breasts and onstruct the flow of milk.
To have healthy breasts, a woman needs to take good care of her liver, to guard and cleanse it from accumulations of morbid black and yellow bile. The first line of defense must be dietary: reduce salt and sugar intake, as well as saturated and hydrogenated fats, fried foods, and to drastically reduce or eliminate coffee consumption - even decaffeinated coffee.
If the breasts are congested due to accumulations of these morbid humors, they will swell and become tender. If the liver is toxic and congested, there will be discomfort, distension, and even pain underneath the ribs, particularly on the right side, over the liver. If liver toxicity and congestion become chronic, fibrocystic lumps in the breast will start to appear. The final degenerative stage of this process is breast cancer.
Blessed Thistle (Carduus benedictus) tea has a great reputation as a women's tonic, particularly when lactation is deficient or obstructed. It cleanses and stimulates the liver and stomach, improves the bile flow, and increases the surface and peripheral circulation of blood and lymph.
Two herbs that are even stronger to cleanse the liver and treat tenderness and lumps in the breast are Dandelion herb (Taraxacum officinale) and European Vervain (Verbena officinalis). European Vervain isn't the same as the American Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata), which has no therapeutic action on the breasts. Eating fresh Dandelion greens in salads is also great for detoxifying the liver and the breasts.
If the breasts get swollen and inflamed, applying hot poultices or fomentations of Poke root (Phytolacca americana) will provide relief. Poke root, taken internally in tincture form or homeopathically, is a powerful lymphatic cleanser with a specific affinity for the breasts and mastic tissue.
Women with breast problems, including breast cancer, endure so much pain, suffering and disfigurement at the hands of modern medicine, so tragically unaware of the great help available from herbal medicine, dietary therapy, and other natural approaches, in both prevention and treatment. This doesn't mean that orthodox measures like surgery aren't helpful or indicated, particularly in advanced cases that require urgent intervention; however, natural treatments should be relied upon much more.
Herbs for the Change of Life
When menstruation stops, menopause, or the change of life, sets in. The cardinal symptoms of menopause are hot flashes and night sweats, because the Radical Moisture, or the primal cooling, moistening hormonal essence of the organism, has dwindled to the point where it's no longer able to feed and produce the cyclic female hormones, especially estrogen.
Natural remedies for the symptoms of menopause are both symptomatic and radical, or designed to address the root of the problem - the deficiency of estrogen and other female hormones. Certain herbs contain estrogen-like phytohormones, or phytosterols.
Of these hormonal herbs, the most acclaimed one for treating the symptoms of menopause is Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa). Black Cohosh provides symptomatic relief for the hot flashes and nervous tension of menopause while supplementing the woman with phytohormones to ease the transition.
The Mexican Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa) is another herb rich in phytoestrogens. Although not an herb, Human Placenta is a nutritional supplement that's extremely rich in hormonal substances. Extracts of Soybeans are another source of phytoestrogens, and supplementing your diet with soy foods does seem to help the transition.
More traditionally, the herb Chaste Tree Berry provides excellent symptomatic relief for the symptoms of menopause. Another common herb that does this is Dalmatian Sage (Salvia officinalis).
When many women approach the age of 50 and their menstrual periods stop, they assume that menopause has already set in; in many cases, it's not yet true menopause, but merely suppressed menses. I knew of one woman who thought that she was going through menopause, but when she started taking Swedish Bitters, a powerful emmenagogue, her menstrual periods resumed, as they had merely been suppressed. For her, true menopause didn't set in until a couple of years later.
A key point of hygiene in Greek Medicine is the proper elimination of retained wastes. The undue retention of anything that should be eliminated or excreted from the body is seen as being harmful to one's health, and a potential source of morbidity and disease.
In Greek Medicine, the menstrual discharge is one such waste. In addition to the breakdown products of the uterine lining, the woman's body uses menstruation as a vehicle for eliminating superfluous or morbid humors. Although continuing to menstruate for longer than one otherwise would may seem tedious and inconvenient, it's better for your health in the long run to "get it all out".