The complexity of the female system is both wondrous and poetic at the same. time. A woman during her reproductive years has a constant orchestration of female hormones flowing through her body. The endocrine system doesn’t just produce hormones on an on-and-off basis, similar to turning a tap on and off. Hormones are in a constant dance with each other, raising and lowering in level in response to the receptivity of the glands.
The female cycle is a continuous dance, This dance of the hormones creates the menstrual cycle. If the dance is too slow. the cycle is long: if too fast. the cycle is short. The average cycle is 28 days, the same as the cycle of the not an on-and-off event. moon. thus many cultures have called the female cycle the ‘moon cycle.’ The most important thing to acknowledge is that the female cycle is a continuous dance, not an on-and-off event.
If an individual takes hormone replacement therapy. whether it be for birth control or post-menopausally. they are not interacting in this dance. The dance now becomes more like a march. A march with an unaltering rhythm set onto a specific date. directed by some-one in a research lab. Even though there are times when there may be specific health benefits from taking hormone replacement therapy. compromises are being made.
As a practitioner of Natural Healing, my job is to try to help people find the rhythm of the dance that is best suited for them. I find that less than 10% of women who take hormone replacement therapy derive any actual real health benefits. By using botanicals and nutritional substances. we can often help a person become more coordinated in their own dance.
There has been a great trend recently towards finding botanical sub-stances that can work as hormone re-placements. One has never been found that is truly estrogenic. in its non-synthesized state. We may be missing the larger picture by doing this. Even though there are many products which contain herbs that are promoted as estrogenic on their label.
These hormones do not actually appear as such in the plant kingdom. Yes, female hormones can be made from some of these herbs in a laboratory. but our body cannot convert these botanical substances into these hormones. Besides. is that what we want to do anyway?
Many cultures around the world have taken another approach to this process. By using herbs that can aid in the orchestration of the dance. often the desired results can be achieved. Two of my favorite herbs for this orchestra-tion are dong quai from the Orient and vitex from Europe. I most often use dong quai. as I have found it most reliable. Other practitioners prefer vitex.
In the Orient. personalities are often given to herbs to help students learn their properties. Dong quai can be considered an “Empress herb.” As an Empress herb, it is not often used alone. You can imagine how an Empress can get if she doesn’t have her ladies-in- waiting. She, of course, needs sup-port staff. Now, when choosing support staff for an Empress, you have to be very careful. You need to choose only the best. Each lady-in-waiting needs to have good strengths and qualities.
It is equally important not to have a lady-in-waiting who is too strong. You can imagine the problems that might arise if a lady-in-waiting was at the same station as the Empress. Well, it just wouldn’t work! For this reason, I have found that vitex and dong quai do not work very well together. I like to choose the ‘lady-in-waiting’ support herbs from another group: blue cohosh, black cohosh, blessed thistle and rasp-berry leaves.
Dong quai (Angelica sinensis), sometimes considered “female gin-seng,” has many positive effects on the female system. I like to use it as a guar-anteed potency of 1% ferulic acid. In the Orient, dong quai is commonly used for menstrual irregularities, for menopause and for recuperating after child-birth. It has also been shown to be very helpful for women coming off hormone replacement therapy.
Dong quai goes far beyond be-ing a “female herb” though. It is quite appropriate for building up the system after illness, fortifying the blood, and enhancing metabolism and oxygen utilization in the liver. It has also been shown to slow down male-pattern bald-ness, strengthen the heart, prevent ath-erosclerosis, prevent lipid deposits, function as an anti-bacterial agent, and work as a calming agent.
Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) and blue cohosh (Caulo-phyllum thalictroides) help support the nervous and glandular systems. Both of these herbs, along with blessed thistle (Cnicus benedictus) are emmenagogues, used both to build up and regulate the female reproductive system. Raspberry leaves have often been considered “a woman’s best friend,” helping a woman through pregnancy and aiding in a quick, less traumatic delivery. It also has a toning effect on the female system.
These herbs, used in combina-tion, may be used to regulate hormonal fluctuations such as those that occur at puberty, after pregnancy, during menopause, upon cessation of birth-control pill usage or after a hysterectomy. They have also been found very useful in alleviating discomfort due to menstrual cramps, and reducing edema and depression associated with the menstrual cycle.
One of the most common times to choose hormone replacement therapy is post-menopausally. Contrary to popular opinion, a woman doesn’t just stop releasing hormones after menopause. Throughout a woman’s re-productive years she is depositing concentrated amounts of female hormones in the cellulite areas of the body, such as hips and breasts.
When a woman moves into the phase of life after the reproductive years, she will ‘time-release’ the accumulations from the reproductive stage. Again, here I have found the above herbs quite suitable for helping a woman through menopause and to learn a new dance. After menopause. it is rare that a woman needs the above formula. There are several foods that can help a woman go through menopause and remain healthy after it. The two most prominent foods are soy-based foods, especially tofu, and cold water fish (not shell fish).
I usually make the above herbal formula up in single zero capsules and suggest two or three capsules, 2-3 times daily, depending on the severity of the condition. If we can gently help the body to go along with its natural rhythm we can usually feel much better. Terry Willard, Ph.D., is director of Wild Rose College of Natural Healing in Calgary, director of holistic clinics in Calgary and Vancouver, current president of the Canadian Association of Herbal Practitioners, and author of six books on herbs.