by Hillari Dowdle
Photography by: Antonis Achilleos
MANAGING THE MONTHLY CYCLE of hormonal ups and downs—mood swings, headaches, menstrual cramps, assorted energy drains—drives many of us to reach routinely for ibuprofen, antidepressants, sleeping pills, and other drugs just to stay on an even keel. But for generations, herb-savvy women have been turning to the plant world for nontoxic, natural remedies for these common complaints. It’s time we revisited those simple cures, urges Rosemary Gladstar, founder of Sage Mountain Herb Center in Barre, Vt., and author of the classic Herbal Healing for Women (Fireside, 1993). Given the high price of health care and the stresses of daily life, herbs are more relevant than ever, she says. “Treating yourself with home remedies is the easiest, least invasive, and oftentimes most effective treatment.” All it takes is a little know-how.
Problem MENSTRUAL CRAMPS
Solution CRAMP BARK (Viburnum opulus)
Dose Take one to two droppers of tincture in water every two hours as needed.
Proof This Native American herb is a safe and effective alternative to ibuprofen. “Cramp bark is a uterine sedative,” says author Brigitte Mars. “It reduces inflammation, relaxes spasms, and calms an overactive uterus so effectively it’s often used by midwives to halt premature labor.” Studies have shown that cramp bark has an antispasmodic effect on smooth muscle fibers like those found in the uterus and large intestine.
Problem HOT FLASHES
Solution SAGE (Salvia officinalis)
Dose Make a tea of one tablespoon dried sage steeped in one-cup hot water 15 minutes or more; strain and cool. Drink up to three cups a day. If you don’t like the taste, put the tea in a spray bottle (after it has cooled completely) and spritz it on your neck.
Proof “Sage has been passed down from generation to generation in Western herbal tradition as the sure-fire cure for hot flashes,” explains Bastyr University’s Sheila Kingsbury, N.D. It’s such an effective astringent that it’s been approved in Germany as a treatment for excessive sweating for both men and women. “Sage was also used in Native American cultures to clear negative energy so it may help ease some of the irrational fears that can cycle through your head during menopause,” says herbalist Margi Flint.
Problem HEAVY PERIODS
Solution YARROW (Achillea millefolium)
Dose Take two droppers of tincture every half hour until bleeding slows.
Proof Yarrow is the go-to herb for heavy menstrual bleeding, says Gladstar. “It slows excessive bleeding, relieves pelvic congestion, reduces cramping, and flushes out the liver so estrogen and progesterone are processed more efficiently,” she says.
Solution NETTLE (Urtica dioica)
Dose Make a tea of one tablespoon dried nettle herb steeped in a cup of hot water for at least 30 minutes (or overnight); drink warm, three cups a day.
Proof “Nettle tea is a rich plant-based source of iron, chlorophyll, and folic acid. It also contains vitamin K, which helps blood clot, so it’s great if you tend to get a little anemic because of heavy periods,” says Mars.
Solution ASHWAGANDHA (Withania somnifera)
Dose Take two 500 mg capsules two times every day.
Proof In Ayurvedic tradition, ashwagandha is the great vitalizer, says Ayurvedic practitioner Will Foster. “It’s called the Indian ginseng, but it has more than just a tonic effect. It balances scattered energy, which means that when stress or hormonal changes leave you feeling drained, ashwagandha can help fill up your tank.” The herb’s name means “smell of a horse”—a deliberate nod to the strength and vitality of horses, says Foster. “Take ashwagandha when you need to increase your horsepower.”
Solution KAVA KAVA (Piper methysticum)
Dose Take one dropperful of tincture in warm water as needed (but not to exceed three doses a day). You can take it every day, but not for more than a consecutive three-month period.
Proof Kava kava is native to Polynesia and Melanesia, where it was traditionally used as an intoxicating herb for ceremonies and celebrations. In small doses, though, it can calm anxiety. “It relaxes the musculature while it clears the mind,” explains Gladstar, who often prescribes the herb for everyday stressors like airplane flights, public speaking, work presentations, and interpersonal confrontation as well as for symptoms of PMS. “The herb was often used to calm combatants within tribes or families,” she notes. “It is said that when kava enters the heart, there can be no hate. It dispels frustration so you can work through conflict and find peaceful solutions.”
Contraindication Kava kava should not be taken with alcohol, or used by anyone with hepatitis or other serious liver disease. Avoid while pregnant.
Problem LACK OF CONCENTRATION; LOSS OF MEMORY
Solution WATER HYSSOP (Bacopa monnieri)
Dose Take one 500 mg capsule, twice daily. Foster suggests starting off slowly—perhaps with a 100 mg dose twice daily—and increasing the dosage in 100 mg increments up to the recommended 1000 mg a day. “If the herb makes you feel spacey (or increases existing feelings of spaciness), that’s a sign you’re taking too much too fast,” he advises.
Proof Used in Western European, Chinese, and Indian herbal traditions, this herb is called brahmi in Sanskrit, which means consciousness. It can help if you feel particularly distracted or scattered just before or during your period as well as for everyday focus. “Bacopa can sharpen concentration, memory, and overall intelligence, and it also promotes longevity,” says Foster. Its ability to improve mental performance (by enhancing nerve impulses between cells in the brain) has been documented in multiple studies in the United States and abroad.
Solution VALERIAN (Valeriana officinalis)
Dose Take two 500 mg capsules one hour before bedtime as needed.
Proof Many studies have affirmed the safety and efficacy of valerian for treating garden-variety insomnia—a common problem during menopause. “It works in the same way Valium or Xanax does, but the effect is much milder; There is no hangover afterward nor any risk of addiction,” says Kingsbury. There’s just one catch: “It’s a reliable sedative for most people, but a small percentage will get jazzed up instead,” she cautions. ˘ Contraindication Don’t take valerian if you’re taking prescription sleep aids.
WHERE TO FIND IT
FOR BULK HERBS, TEAS & TABLETS
Mountain Rose Herbs (mountainroseherbs.com)
Frontier Natural Products Co-op (frontiercoop.com)
Banyan Botanicals (Ayurvedic) (banyanbotanicals.com)
FOR HERBAL TINCTURES, OILS & GLYCERITES
Herb Pharm (herb-pharm.com)
Gaia Herbs (gaiaherbs.com)
OUR PANEL OF HERB EXPERTS
MARGI FLINT, author of The Practicing Herbalist (EarthSong Press, 2005)
WILL FOSTER, L.Ac., an Ayurvedic herbalist in Knoxville, Tenn.
ROSEMARY GLADSTAR, founder of Sage Mountain Herb Center in Barre, Vt., and author of Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health (Storey Publishing, 2008)
SHEILA KINGSBURY, N.D., chair of the Botanical Medicine Department at Bastyr University
BRIGITTE MARS, author of The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine (Basic Health Publications, 2007)