‘Focus on’ series
Help your hormones with herbs
Hot flushes, night sweats, mood swings and memory problems… For men it may be true that only two things in life are certain – death and taxes. But, for women, there is also no avoiding the menopause – and those who get through this life stage symptom-free are, unfortunately, in the minority.
Your menopause (usually around 51-52) is your last ever period – and you’ll only know for sure that you’re menopausal when you’ve gone a whole year without menstruating (or two years if you’re under 50).
So when we talk about menopausal symptoms we’re often talking about the things that start happening in the perimenopause – the years leading up to our last period.
Only an estimated 2 out of 10 of us will escape without any menopausal symptoms, according to NHS stats, and 45% will find these symptoms difficult to cope with.
Even if you’re lucky enough not to have noticeable symptoms, other changes to your body — brought on by the dwindling of the crucial female hormone oestrogen – will be taking place. Oestrogen helps to keep our bones strong and our heart healthy – and even if you never have a hot flush or night sweat, the loss of oestrogen will still be taking its toll and putting you at increased risk of heart disease and osteoporosis, not necessarily immediately, but in later life. Skin becomes less elastic, and joints lose their lubrication: many of the symptoms of old age are due to these hormonal changes.
HRT – which is now out of favour with a lot of women, and their GPs – addressed these symptoms, and had a protective effect on the heart, skin and bones. But for those who want an alternative, there are herbal remedies that can make a huge difference to your wellbeing.
Black Cohosh is a member of the buttercup family and native to North America. It also goes under the even less attractive names of black snakeroot, bugwort, and rattleweed among others – and is avoided by insects. But it has hormone like actions and is traditionally used for symptoms of the menopause such as mood swings, hot flushes and night sweats. Due to its hormone like actions, it shouldn’t be used if you’re under 18, pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you’re likely to become pregnant. It’s also contra-indicated in women with liver disease or a history of liver damage, and in women who have or have had oestrogen dependent tumours.
Sage is a wonderful herb – and one we’re all familiar with. Medicinally, it is antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, and fantastic when used in a gargle if you have a sore throat. But it also works marvellously against hot flushes and night sweats. One of the problems caused by fluctuating or dwindling hormone levels around menopause is that the hypothalamus – our body’s thermostat (among other roles) – gets mixed messages and will turn the body temperature up, unpredictably. Sage acts to regulate this thermostat, keeping our temperature even – so we can control it the way we always have done, by adding or removing an extra layer, instead of the furnace firing up inside us!
According to research in the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behaviour, sage is also a memory aid – the reason for its associations with wisdom, and a useful add-on if your memory is suffering during the menopause (the good news is we’re assured this is a temporary state, you won’t remain permanently befuddled).
Red Clover contains all four of the specific isoflavones (plant oestrogens) that have been shown to be most beneficial to the human body – genistein, deidzein, formonentin and biochanin A. Taking a dose of 80mg red clover (which contains10-20 times the quantity of isoflavones in soya, a popular food among menopausal women) daily has been clinically proven to reduce night sweats by 75% and can also relieve insomnia in menopausal women, even when they are not suffering with night sweats. It also has an important role for women who do not have obvious symptoms, as it seems to have a protective effect on the heart and bones.
Valerian grows wild in North America and Europe – but it’s now cultivated for its medicinal purposes, and is traditionally used for the temporary relief of sleeping problems caused by anxiety. Combined with hops, it makes an especially good sleeping aid – which, unlike a sleeping pill, will not leave you with morning after grogginess.
Dong Quai is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a female tonic. As such it can help balance hormones — and ease hot flushes, night sweats and vaginal dryness (another symptom of oestrogen loss). Different parts of the dong quai root are believed to have different actions – the head of the root has anticoagulant activity, the main part of the root is a tonic, and the end of the root eliminates blood stagnation. As well as menopause, it can be used for weakness after childbirth, period problems, and PMS, but it’s not suitable if you have a bleeding disorder (or are taking blood thinning drugs), excessive menstrual bleeding, diarrhoea, abdominal bloating, or when you have a cold or flu. Dong quai can also cause photosensitivity, so limit sun exposure and wear sunblock.
Agnus castus, also known as Vitex, chasteberry, and monk’s pepper, is another hormone balancing herb, particularly useful during the perimenopause if periods come thick and fast and you suffer more mood swings and irritability. It can also help with breast tenderness, bloating and menstrual cramps, making it a good all rounder for women who are feeling more like their teenage daughters! Don’t take it if you’re pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or breastfeeding. Don’t take Agnus castus if you are on the Pill or using other hormonal contraceptives, as it may interfere with them.
St John’s Wort
St John’s Wort is traditionally used to treat mild depression, and this can be a feature of the menopause for many women who find it hard to come to terms with their new life stage and the changes to their body. This herb has a huge amount if evidence behind it and is widely prescribed by doctors in Europe (especially Germany) in place of conventional antidepressant drugs. But it is not suitable if you’re on the Pill and many other medications (it can interfere with their actions), and should also be avoided if you suffer with photosensitivity.
Rhodiola, or golden root, is a hardy plant that thrives close to the Arctic Circle in the dry mountainous areas of Scandinavia, Siberia, Northern China and Canada is another mood lifter and traditionally used to relieve stress (rather than depression), fatigue and exhaustion. It enhances energy, and is useful if you’ve been sleeping badly, feeling anxious, and suffering with tired-all-the-time syndrome around menopause. In Russia and Scandinavia it’s recognised as an official medicine for treating fatigue, memory and poor concentration – symptoms many of us will be familiar with, even when we’re not going through the menopause!
Always buy licensed herbal medicines carrying a THR (Traditional Herbal Remedy) licence number, and read the patient information leaflet before self-medicating. Talk to a health practitioner (herbalist, pharmacist or doctor) before mixing remedies.
This article has been produced by Women’s Health Concern and reviewed by one of our Medical Advisory Panel.
Review date: March 2012
© Women’s Health Concern. Charity No. 279651
Email advice: firstname.lastname@example.org