PMT, PMS, heavy periods? Mother Nature Can Help!
(Originally published in InnerSelf Newspaper under “Do you live with a monthly monster”)
Female hormone imbalance leads to a variety of problems or what I call “hormone havoc” and in menstruating women include heavy and/or painful periods, headaches, mood changes, sore breasts to name just a few. As a medical herbalist I am bemused that herbal medicines have been seen in many cultures as “women’s business” and today herbal remedies often are labelled as “old wives tales”. I have no doubt this is because our wise foremothers claimed this arena eons ago when they realised that herbs are superb hormone balancers. Long before the medicalised era of synthetic hormone replacement (the ‘Pill’ for example) these wise women found relief from symptoms and a return to hormonal balance through the use of a wide variety of medicinal herbs. Today, being knowledgable of the risks associated with synthetic hormones including cancer, heart disease and blood clots, more women are suffering unnecessarily with monthly hormone issues because they are unaware of helpful natural remedies and lifestyle measures.
The most common hormone imbalance leading to PMT, migraines and heavy and/or painful periods is known as estrogen dominance. It is a relative excess of estrogen that is not adequately balanced by progesterone throughout the cycle. Often supporting the production of progesterone during the second half of the menstrual cycle will alleviate these symptoms. This can be achieved using a variety of herbs including Chaste Tree, Wild Yam, Black Cohosh and other less commonly known herbs available from a herbal practitioner. Migraines respond to a variety of herbal medicines including Rosemary, Lavender, Valerian and Jamaica Dogwood. Heavy periods need to be supported from several angles – both hormone balancing as well at uterine tonic herbs available from a herbalist such as Shepherd’s Purse or Ladies Mantle may be used. If heavy or prolonged bleeding has resulted in anemia or low iron stores iron may be supplemented or nutritive herbs used such as Nettles. Please note that all these symptoms can also result with hormonal imbalances other than estrogen dominance; therefore, professional assessment is recommended particularly if simple “over the counter” herbal or nutritional supplements don’t seem to help.
Another primary consideration is support of the liver and the bowels. Many women do not realise that liver function is critical for estrogen metabolism – a liver under stress due to high intake of alcohol, sugar and refined carbs will be less efficient at detoxifying and removing excess estrogen from the system. It is interesting that many premenstrual cravings are for sweet carbohydrate laden foods – this makes the situation that much worse! Another source of liver stress is high dairy intake – dairy can itself may contain high levels of both natural and synthetic hormones. It is also a difficult food to digest for many. To support the liver a wide variety of herbs are available – St Mary’s Thistle is the most common and is an amazing herb with many liver benefits. Indole – 3 – Carbinol, a constituent of broccoli, brussel sprouts and cauliflower, is also very useful for promoting optimal liver metabolism of estrogen. From a nutritional perspective providing adequate B vitamins, zinc, magnesium and amino acids is also helpful for hormone balance and liver support.
The bowels are also involved in removing estrogen from the system. If one suffers from constipation or an overgrowth of certain “bad bugs” in the gut there is an increased chance of estrogen metabolites being reabsorbed adding to the estrogen overload. Unfortunately bowel function is commonly affected by hormone imbalances and so another vicious cycle can ensue. Treatment of the bowel for dysbiosis or the overgrowth of “bad bugs” can help as can actively managing any tendency to constipation. Again a variety of herbs are useful including anti-microbials such as Cinnamon, Thyme and Wormwood as well as bowel tonics such as Rhubarb, Barbary and Oregon Grape.
The issue of synthetic hormones flooding the system from the environment further complicates the situation. We live in a soup of strong “xeno-estrogens” also known as “hormone-disruptors” found in plastics and other chemicals. Eliminating xeno-estrogens is very difficult but avoiding heating food in plastic and avoiding chemical additives, pesticides and herbicides will help. On the other hand eating “phyto-estrogens” rich foods such as legumes & beans can be useful as they contain a weaker form of estrogen and may successfully compete with the stronger female hormone with a net result of lower total estrogenic activity.
Painful pre-menstrual or menstrual symptoms including sore breasts and uterine cramps may not be due only to estrogen dominance but also to inflammatory prostaglandin production. Inflammatory prostaglandins are molecules that initiate inflammation and pain symptoms. They are more likely to be produced when the diet is high in dairy and red meat in particular. The fats found in these foods tend to initiate inflammatory cascades. A diet very high in Omega 6’s fats (sunflower, safflower and many other vegetable oils) can cause a similar inflammatory reaction. Supplementing evening primrose oil, fish oil and Vitamin E often helps to decrease the production of the inflammatory prostaglandins and may be helpful in alleviating these painful symptoms. Eating good quality oily fish such as salmon and sardines is another good source of Omega 3 fat which are anti-inflammatory.
In most cases of a “monthly monster” it is worth trying some of the diet, herbal and nutritional supplements mentioned. However, if your symptoms do not improve adequately with it is best to seek the advice of a professional medical herbalist. An individualised herbal formula and nutritional supplement program addressing your particular hormone issues is often the most efficient means of alleviating symptoms and restoring balance – the “wise woman” way!