Maintaining female hormonal health is a continual challenge for the modern woman. It is particularly difficult to keep hormones in balance in today’s fast-paced world with the abundance of highly processed foods, chemical-laden products and easily obtained over-the-counter medications which all wreak havoc on the body. Even before a girl reaches puberty, supporting endocrine function by eating primarily whole foods, healthy fats (avocadoes, nuts and seeds, virgin coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil) and good-quality proteins is necessary.
A whole foods diet provides much needed nutrients to the body, enabling the body to maintain good hormonal health. A diet high in processed and refined foods, as well as highly phyto-oestrogenic foods like soy, sets the body up for hormonal imbalance, which can lead to oestrogen-related health issues such as breast cancer or uterine fibroids, difficult monthly cycles, and difficult or extremely uncomfortable menopause.
That said, there are some foods and herbs that are phyto-oestrogenic, such as legumes and red raspberry leaves, which play a more supportive role in the body and therefore should be incorporated into the diet. With most phyto-oestrogenic foods that benefit the endocrine system, it is because they perform a nourishing, supportive role instead of displacing oestrogen, leading to oestrogen build-up.
In addition to following a primarily whole foods diet, these 10 key supplements and herbs are worth keeping in your home to support optimal hormonal health:
1. Black Cohosh
Black cohosh, known as Actaea racemosa, is an ambidextrous herb because of its ability to support female hormonal changes on opposite ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, black cohosh has been extensively studied for its ability to help calm menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, insomnia and mood swings. This same herb is also beneficial in women of reproductive age suffering from premenstrual syndrome and dysmenorrhoea (difficult menstruation). Black cohosh has this unique ability because of its oestrogen modulating properties. It does not have overt oestrogenic effects on the body. Rather, it selects which oestrogens in the brain and bones to mimic, leaving the oestrogen in the uterus alone. Because of this, studies are showing it does not lead to oestrogen-related cancers.
2. Dong Quai
Dong quai (Angelica sinensis) is known in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a “blood builder.” It serves as a tonic for women in a deficient state. Women who lose large amounts of blood during their cycle or are going through menopause may find dong quai of benefit for them. If you notice you tend to have drier mucus membranes, dry skin, or have constipation during your cycle or while going through menopause, dong quai is a moistening, nourishing herb that may help alleviate those symptoms. It has also been shown to help with female reproductive disorders such as irregular menstruation, amenorrhea (lack of menstrual cycle) and dysmenorrhea.
3. Evening Primrose Oil
Evening primrose oil (Oenothera biennis) is a supplement containing about 25% essential fatty acids, including linoleic acid and gamma linolenic acid. Evening primrose oil has been shown to ease symptoms of PMS such as abdominal cramping, breast pain, lower back pain and mood swings. Some women who are peri or post-menopausal have also experienced relief from evening primrose oil. Women experiencing PMS symptoms appear to be high in omega-6 and low in other essential fatty acids such as linoleic acid. This being so, fish oil is another supplement that woman of all ages can benefit from.
4. Fish Oil
Fish oil is high in omega-3s. Presumably, good quality fish oil will contain adequate amounts of the essential fatty acids, EPA and DHA. Omega-3s are essential for female fertility and in helping carry babies to term. Furthermore, taking a fish oil supplement in the first trimester of pregnancy has been shown to increase the baby’s mental acuity, visual and motor development. The anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3s may also help reduce inflammation caused by endometriosis. As for menstrual pain and menopausal symptoms, fish oil may help reduce the unpleasant symptoms associated with both.
Maca (Lepidium meyenii) is beginning to become well known in the western hemisphere. Maca is a root tuber that is not only high in protein, complex carbohydrates and iron, it is also nourishing and building to the body and may help enhance fertility and improve libido. Women going through menopause and enduring PMS symptoms may find relief with regular intake of maca. Due to maca’s adaptogenic action on the body, it helps you better deal with stress and balance your body’s overall health, which then leads to a regulation in hormonal health.
6. Stinging Nettle
Stinging nettle or Urtica dioica, is a gentle herb for everyone. I consider it a female hormonal support herb because of its high nutritional value. Nettles are rich in many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, particularly vitamins C, B, K and minerals such as calcium, choline, magnesium and silica. Both women of reproductive age and those who are peri and post-menopausal find that they can better deal with stress, have better immune health and a more balanced hormonal system by keeping their nutritional store stable, and nettles are excellent for this. For pregnant women and those who are lactating, nettles not only serve as a tonic, but also help provide energy after childbirth and may help stimulate milk production.
7. Red Raspberry Leaf
Red raspberry leaf (Rubus ideaus) is another herb beneficial for women in their reproductive years. Like nettles, it is rich in nutrients, including vitamins A, B, C, E and minerals such as calcium, iron and phosphorus. For women experiencing PMS symptoms such as menstrual cramps and back pain, red raspberry leaf has been shown to alleviate such symptoms, often within a short period of time. Red raspberry leaf is highly recommended by herbalists and midwives for women during pregnancy. Not only does red raspberry leaf provide the nutrients in high demand during pregnancy, it can strengthen and tone the uterus, which may reduce miscarriages, ease childbirth and make childbirth shorter than it otherwise would be.
Many women going through menopause suffer from hot flushes, making it difficult to get through some days and nights. Sage, Salvia officinalis, is a drying herb that has been shown to reduce night sweats and hot flushes when the dried leaves are consumed in tea form. Although sage essential oil can be placed on pressure points such as the inner wrist, sage tea is what has been studied to be the most beneficial.
As mentioned earlier, reproductive health begins prior to reaching puberty. Some girls have difficulty keeping weight on for various reasons, which can lead to hormonal imbalance, and an Ayurvedic herb that has a slightly sweet taste and is wonderfully nourishing is shatavari, or Asparagus racemosus. This herb is traditionally given to children who have difficulty putting on weight. Women who are undernourished and also have difficulty putting on or holding onto their weight do well by taking shatavari. Further, women looking to bear children find that taking shatavari for a period of time helps provide more nourishment so they can conceive.
10. Chaste Tree Berry
Lastly, there is chaste tree berry, also known as Vitex agnus-castus. Chaste tree is an interesting herb compared to the others mentioned in that it is not necessarily a herb that works best when taken on a daily basis. Some women find that it works best when taken during the progesteronal phase of their monthly cycle (typically the two weeks before menstruation or during the luteal phase). Doseage and whether or not this herb will work for your unique physiology is also a factor to be considered. Women who suffer from oestrogen dominance, PMS, or any menstrual issues due to too much oestrogen and pre-menstrual breast tenderness may find chaste tree berry useful. Women dealing with infertility, uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts and endometriosis may also benefit from this herb. All of these health issues are a result of too much oestrogen in the body and a lack of progesterone.
All the herbs and supplements mentioned above are best taken under the supervision of a knowledgeable herbalist or holistic health practitioner. Not all herbs or supplements work for everyone, and a combination of herbs or supplements may work better than just one. A knowledgeable practitioner will be able to better assess what is going on with you and match the best herbs and supplements to your body constitution.