Throughout most of history, women have been the guardians of the family or community's health, using nature's gifts of plants, seeds, roots and berries to soothe, energize or heal the ailments of their families and neighbors. The knowledge about these herbal remedies which were their only medicinals was then carefully passed down to the children, at least until 2-3 generations ago when Western medicine - and its emphasis on pharmaceutical drugs and surgery - became the norm. So much information was lost or forgotten in our rush to 'modern' medicine.
This is less true in some of the European countries, such as Germany, where herbals are frequently prescribed. They even have a government commission (Commission E) which evaluates the effectiveness and safety of herbs from around the world. There is currently a groundswell of interest in the US and other countries to bring herbals back into our lives, particularly when they can maintain and even improve a person's health and vitality.
Although the use of herbal remedies has not been recognized by the traditional Western medical community, their advice is not as revered, given the scientific research that is now substantiating the benefits of many herbal remedies. Unfortunately, many of the plants which were part of some old herbal remedies may not even be available anymore.
However, just because they're natural, don't assume that all herbs and botanicals are safe. They are not!!! Ever heard of the Hemlock Society?? Even those herbs that are safe for one age group may not be safe for a different age group - or for women during their reproductive years. So let's focus on those herbal remedies that have been shown to be both effective and safe for women. They really can provide benefits that are most helpful to women.
To say it very succinctly, herbal remedies are sought by most women for 2M's and 2P's. 'M' stands for Migraines and Menopause. 'P' stands for Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) and Pregnancy. For instance, women seek herbs and herbal formulations to avoid the multitude of unpleasant changes that occur right before menstruation when hormones create such havoc - leading to sugar and carbohydrate cravings, bloating, breast tenderness, uterine cramping, headaches, irritability, mood swings, fatigue, depression and sleeplessness. That's a lot to ask from a plant! But there are some very effective herbal remedies for women.
Here are examples of herbs that are very effective in women, their benefits, and how they act in the body:
Cramp Bark - prevents or reduces uterine cramping and discomfort, especially helpful for PMS
Dandelion Root - acts as a mild diuretic and a tonic to relieve the fatigue a woman often experiences when her hormone levels are high
Red Raspberry - uterine tonic, helping to nourish yet relax uterine smooth muscle and reduce or eliminate painful menstruation
Valerian Root - helps to reduce anxiety and provides a mild sedative effect for better, sounder sleep (especially helpful in PMS and menopause)
Chaste Berry (Vitex) - reduces prolactin levels and allows the hormones to return to normal, balanced levels; very valuable for PMS and menopause
Kava Kava - a Pacific island plant that offers anti-anxiety, analgesic (pain relief), muscle-relaxing, and diuretic benefits
Feverfew (parthenolide) - exceptional for preventing migraines, and ameliorating them if they occur; to be effective there must be 250 micrograms of parthenolide, the active ingredient in feverfew
There are many other herbs and botanicals that are beneficial to everyone, including women - such as echinaceae, ginseng, garcinia cambogia, gymnema sylvestre, ginger, butcher¹s broom and chamomile. But be careful! There are many herbs that are referred to as 'women's herbs' found in over-the-counter preparations that are dangerous and should not be used.
Herbs Women Should Avoid
There's a balance in what we want a government to do for us. On the one hand, we want it to protect our food, drug and water supply. On the other hand, we want freedom of choice in selecting home remedies and over-the-counter drugs. In that balance between protection and freedom, there is a 'buyer beware' area where some potentially harmful agents may be found in the herbal preparations and nutritionals which we can purchase. So let's review the list of herbs that women shouldn't use.
Some of these herbs should never be used, and some of them should not be used by women during their reproductive years or when they are pregnant. Pay careful attention to this list: many of these herbs are contained in herbal preparations you can buy legally at the health food store. Remember, just because they¹re legal doesn¹t mean they're safe - especially for women.
Here are examples of herbs that may be found in available products, yet should not be used by women. The reasons why are also given so you can be more knowledgeable about them.
Alfalfa - can aggravate SLE (systemic lupus erythematosis) and other auto-immune diseases, which women are more likely to develop (3:1 vs. men)
Angelica (dong quai) - absolutely not to be used during pregnancy or if you experience a heavy menstrual cycle! (Who's left?!) Extreme caution required at all times because excess dosage can negatively affect blood pressure, heart rhythm and respiration
Ephedra (ma huang) - just can't recommend this drug (ephedrine) because of its effects on the heart and blood pressure; women in particular are at risk of stroke when using the amounts found in some popular weight loss potions
Pau D'Arco - this herb has been used in many herbal preparations, but its active ingredient has been shown to be toxic in human studies
Borage Seed Oil - contains levels of unsaturated pyrrolizidine alkaloids, a substance whose long-term intake may cause toxicity
The following list contains herbs and botanicals that may be beneficial, but should not be used by pregnant or nursing women.
Cascara - a useful mild laxative but since it enters the mother's milk supply, it shouldn't be used by pregnant or nursing women
Aloe - the gel can be used on the skin, but the liquid is a very potent laxative that should not be used internally by pregnant women, children or the elderly
St. John's Wort - provides a mild anti-depressant effect; but because it is an MAO (monoamine oxidase) inhibitor, users should avoid tyramine-containing foods such as red wine, cheese, yeast, and pickled herring. Not to be used during pregnancy, or concurrently with other anti-depressant medications
This is certainly not a complete list, yet does emphasize the herbs that women could get into difficulty with because they didn't look at the label of an over-the-counter product. Make it a practice to read the ingredient list of every herbal or natural product. Remember, just because it's legal doesn't mean it's safe.