Food

4 of the Most Effective Herbs for Balancing Hormones

How you can help relieve stress and alleviate hormonal symptoms.

Photo Credit: Black Cohosh by Lisa Sheirer/Flickr.com

It's no secret that hormones play a critical role in our day-to-day lives. But while a healthy, balanced regimen of sleep, relaxation, diet, and exercise is important in maintaining hormonal health, the intake of specific plants and herbs can make all the difference when treating hormonal imbalances or conditions.

1. Maca root (Lepidium meyenii). Maca root is native to Peru and is known for its powerful, hormone-enhancing benefits. There are a couple ways to consume maca: tablets/capsules or as a powder. It’s best to consult your physician on the dosage, but a low dosage is typically recommended in the beginning. People most often take maca to improve libido, energy levels, mood, and fertility. According to one study, the balancing effects of pre-gelatinized organic maca — edible maca that has been cooked and then dried making it cold water soluble— on sex hormone levels relieved symptoms in perimenopausal women including frequency of hot flushes, night sweating, interrupted sleep pattern, nervousness, depression and heart palpitations.

Although maca does not affect the hormones directly, it has hormone-balancing effects by providing nutrients — calcium, phosphorus, vitamins B1 and B12, and fatty acids — to the body, which are used by the endocrine system. Its qualities help alleviate a range of stressors including fatigue, anxiety, stress, depression, and sleep issues.

2. Chasteberry (Vitex, Agnus Castus). Chasteberry is the fruit of the chaste tree, a tree native to Central Asia and the Mediterranean region. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, chasteberry has been used for thousands of years by women to relieve menstrual problems and to stimulate the production of breast milk. Scientific research is limited on how menstruation and fertility interact with chasteberry, but there has been some work showing that women who take chasteberry experience some reduction in premenstrual symptoms like breast pain or tenderness, edema, constipation, irritability, depressed mood, anger, and headache.

Vitex (chasteberry extract) is also believed to stimulate the release of leutenizing hormone (LH) and inhibit the release of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), giving off a progesterone effect. As this process impacts the pituitary gland, it leads to an increase in progesterone production and helps regulate the menstrual cycle. The fruit is also believed to suppress the release of prolactin from the pituitary gland. Prolactin is a protein secreted from the pituitary gland and helps women produce milk, along with regulating metabolism, the immune system and pancreatic development.

3. Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa). Black cohosh has been used for more than 200 years, mainly by Native Americans. Not only is it known for its healing properties in treating menopausal and premenstrual symptoms, black cohosh has also been used to reduce inflammation associated with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and neuralgia. The University of Maryland Medical Center notes that in “a review of scientific studies, researchers concluded that a combination of black cohosh, willow bark, sarsaparilla, guaiacum (Guaiacum officinale) resin, and poplar bark (Populus tremuloides) may help relieve symptoms of osteoarthritis.”

Furthermore, scientific evidence suggests that black cohosh may act like estrogen in some parts of the body: the brain, bone, and possibly to varying degrees, in the vagina. Because black cohosh contains sugar compounds (glycosides), anti-inflammatory properties (isoferulic acids) and estrogenic qualities (according to some studies), it’s believed to help with hormonal regulation.

4. Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens/Sabal serrulata). Saw palmetto has been used to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), a noncancerous enlargement of the prostate gland. While many therapeutic herb treatments center on women’s hormonal health, a number of plants help men as well, with saw palmetto being an important one. Researchers are still unsure exactly how the plant works to help treat BPH. Some evidence suggests the chemicals in the plant may influence testosterone levels, and reduce the amount of an enzyme that leads to the growth of prostate cells. When treating individuals with BPH, saw palmetto is usually combined with nettle extract, a botanical, native to Africa and western Asia.

One clinical trial found that 2,939 men with symptomatic BPH who took saw palmetto extract "reported greater improvement of urinary tract symptoms and urinary flow measures compared to control subjects.” Saw palmetto may also help in managing androgenic alopecia (hair loss or male pattern baldness). 

A natural approach to the treatment or relief of hormonal conditions and symptoms can prove beneficial in managing physical health. Given the endocrine system controls how the body functions, our psychological health, and emotional well being, it is useful to know how hormones interact with a range of herbs and plants.

While various herbs and plants promote hormonal health, it’s important to investigate the potential side effects that may accompany them. Herbs can also be used as advocates in the medical treatment of more severe hormonal conditions, but it's important that they not become a cure-all for serious hormonal issues. Also, it’s beneficial to understand how certain herbs collaborate with others before choosing to treat any hormonal conditions or illnesses. 

Andreea Nica is a writer, educator and media strategist, and the founder of Organicommunications.

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