The following article is written by Clinical Herbal Therapist, Susan Horning, who specializes in helping women balance their health + hormones using herbal remedies.
From menarche to menopause, there are a plethora of reasons that our hormones become unbalanced. Environmental toxins from the pollution in our cities, additives in our cleaning and body care products, use of plastics, unclean drinking water, and even the food we eat can throw our delicate hormonal system out of balance. Daily stress also takes its toll, especially for today’s ‘superwoman’ who may be working long hours, caring for a family, and managing a social life or whatever else. An overactive ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic nervous system, common for many women, can wreak havoc on our reproductive and digestive needs (we need to take care of our microbiome!). Many of us end up surrendering to ‘hormonal controllers’ such as the birth control pill to effectively set and control the amount of hormones in our system, or resort to drastic surgical measures to get things under control (of course, there are cases where surgery is absolutely necessary).
However, we CAN support and optimize our hormones and reproductive health, naturally. In this article, I’ll share about the natural tools available to balance our endocrine system and reduce our risk of hormonal-related problems such as PMS, uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts, PCOS, endometriosis, polycystic breast disease, cervical hyperplasia, cancer, and more.
Somewhere between food and medicine there is a field. In that field grows a plethora of botanicals – leaves, flowers and roots – many of which have been used for centuries by native communities to care for, heal, and support reproductive and hormonal health, but this isn’t something that is commonly talked about in our doctor’s offices when we’re getting a prescription for oral contraceptives. It’s something that we’ve had growing at our feet all along – the companion of an ageless old friend, Mother Nature.
What we are consuming impacts our hormonal health.
First, it’s key to note that there’s a direct link between our gut health and our hormonal systems. This link cannot be understated, and the following should be taken into consideration:
- Excessive amounts of caffeine have a direct correlation to the development of uterine fibroids. An alternative I love is this Matcha with any milk of choice.
- Cruciferous vegetables are linked to our estrogen and thyroid levels.
- Fibre plays a huge role in hormonal clearance from the intestines, so a lack of dietary fibre (constipation) can cause reabsorption of these offending hormones, circulating them instead of excreting them.
- Regular use of antibiotics can wreak havoc on our natural gut flora, which is vital for hormonal clearance
- Pre-biotic foods like leeks, onions, garlic, and bananas as well as fermented foods like kimchi, miso or sauerkraut can be great ways to help restore out-of-balance gut flora, and this may be necessary before our hormones can come into balance.
Phytoestrogens support the balance of estrogen and progesterone, which is key to hormonal health
Symptoms of hormonal imbalance are often related to the balancing act between our main sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone. More often than not, the scale is tipped toward the ‘estrogen dominant’ side, which can affect our cycle length, as well as our endometrial thickness.
We can use plants to balance these sex hormones and restore endometrial tissue health. Phytoestrogens, a plant class containing estrogen-like substances, act like endogenous estrogen, and are able bind to estrogen receptor sites and effectively ‘turn down’ the levels of circulating estrogen. This can be of benefit in both estrogen dominant and estrogen-deficient states, making them one of the most useful and versatile plant options for hormonal balancing.
The Top Phytoestrogens to Support Hormonal Imbalances
- Soy is one of our best food examples in this plant class, a wonderful protein-rich legume, best consumed when it’s organic, unprocessed, and fermented, like tempeh. Yum!
- Red clover (Trifolium pratense), which you may have seen growing in a park in your neighbourhood with it’s beautiful pink flowers, also helps with hormonal acne
- Hops (Humulus lupulus) which is found in beer (cheers!) also helps with anxiety and insomnia and even indigestion, but can have an anti-androgen effect in men to reduce sexual overexcitement
- Chaste Tree Berry (Vitex agnus-castus) which may be the most widely used plant ally for hormone imbalances. Chaste Tree Berry in particular can be used for hormonal modulation in the botanical treatment of fibroids (benign uterine tumours), which are common in 20-40% of menstruating women. As a dopamine agonist, it acts directly on the pituitary to reduce prolactin release, which may play a role in fibroid growth. It can also help balance the mood in cases of PMS, reduce mastalgia (breast pain), stabilize the hormonal system when coming off birth control pills, balance irregular menstruation, and help stimulate milk production in new mothers. No wonder it’s the most widely used plant for women’s hormones at all stages!
When we consume phytoestrogens, our body sends feedback to the hypothalamus and pituitary to alter the production of these hormones at the source, nudging our body back into balance.
Herbal Tonics for Hormonal Balancing
Other useful natural plant allies work as tonics for our system (improving tone and function). Herbal tonics I often recommend for hormonal balancing include:
- Raspberry Leaf (Rubus ideaus)
- Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
- Witches Herb (Alchemilla monicola)
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
All of the above have the ability to reduce excessive uterine bleeding (mennorrhagia) by their astringent and tonic effect on the uterus, helpful in many reproductive pathologies.
Noteworthy Hormone Balancing Herbs
- Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) is a primary herb for menopause and a soothing nervous system relaxant, but can also aid fertility, reduce premenstrual headaches/migraines, and regulate and normalize hormone balance, particularly in menopause.
- Dan Gui (Angelica sinesis) is known by the Chinese as ‘the women’s ginseng’ and acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory but has been used in TCM for centuries for women’s health to boost energy and strength following childbirth.
The health of our liver (the largest gland in the body) determines how effectively hormones are cleared from our system.
The liver is directly responsible for manufacturing the building blocks necessary for hormonal production. Herbs that work on the liver and bile system are called choleretic (increase bile flow) or cholagogue (increase bile volume) and act through what’s known as ‘the bitter principle’.
Top Bitter Herbal Aids
- Chamomile (Matricaria recuitita)
- Dandelion Root (Taraxacum officinalis)
- The Chinese herb Schizandra (Schizandra chinensis)
- Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris)
Bitter plants act as emmenagogues, helping encourage expulsive activity of the uterus to start or increase menstrual flow. They also have a direct effect on period pain, especially for congestive, hot-headed irritable conditions as the bitter flavour acts to cool and boost elimination. These herbs also have been traditionally used by herbalists to care for women before and after child birthing, and have a valued role in digestion to support irritable bowel and constipation.
While it may be tempting at first to treat botanicals like drugs, their behaviour in our bodies is decidedly different and milder than our medical counterparts. For this reason, botanicals should be taken more often and sometimes at higher doses to reap their rewards. To do this, we need to start to change how we treat our bodies – boiling the kettle for tea, rather than popping a pill. It’s no wonder that Integrative Medicine is now focused on the collaboration between herbs and drugs, rather than an either/or dynamic which has historically separated fields of quality care in our communities.
Noticing the complexities of the many aspects of our health as women, I’ve come to recognize a similar complexity found in nature. We are naturally connected to the world around us – the phases of the moon, the turning of the tides and can thus be healed and supported through the gifts of herbal and plant medicines. Botanicals have been a valuable ally for my own health, and I encourage everyone to reap the natural benefits herbalism provides.
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Susan Horning has a wealth of knowledge and wisdom and we highly recommend booking her for a private herbal consultation, to support specific health issues and overall wellness. In each session, Sue provides a full intake, followed by prescribing and creating herbal remedies (custom tea and tincture formulas) to support your body in regaining overall balance. Sue’s herbal consultations cost CAD$65, which is quite a bargain, and can be done on Zoom or in person in Vancouver. Learn more here.
Stats and facts in this article come from the following sources. If you have a question about any particular fact in this article, we can provide a direct reference.
- Gladstar, Rosemary. Herbal Healing for Women, 1993.
- Romm, Aviva. Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health, 2010.
- Tricky, Ruth. Women, Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle, 2011.