Prescription medications are fast becoming part of the American woman’s daily routine. We are taking meds that even our moods, replace hormones, increase fertility, ease body pain, lower blood pressure, help us sleep and treat a variety of other ailments. We don’t often slow down to consider natural alternatives, which are often free from side effects and benefit our bodies in a more complete way. Herbal therapy creates a balanced health system that empowers women to kick the routine of symptom treatment and begin the process of whole body healing.
According to a study published in Women’s Health journal, women take more medications than men. They also respond differently to medications and are more likely than men to suffer medication-related problems. The most common health issues for women include endometriosis, cervical dysplasia, breast health, PMS and menopause. Side effects of these, such as depression, insomnia and physical pain are often treated with prescription medications that merely mask symptoms.
Herbal remedies can replace many of these drugs, as well as prevent illnesses that require them. Herbs are a staple of Chinese medicine, a system built on the premise of whole and balanced health. Over 5,000 medicinal substances are taken from plants, minerals and animal by-products. Eight to fifteen ingredients are combined into formulas in which they work synergistically. The most common way to ingest herbs is through a tea. However, pills, powders, liquid and dried extracts and syrups, are other effective forms. Herbs produce little to no side effects, giving them strong appeal over prescription drugs. Chinese medicine practitioners are constantly updating and modifying their patient’s treatment in order to optimize results and heal from the source.
The primary herbs for women in the Chinese tradition are medicines made from minerals and earth, plant roots, stems, bark and fruits. The Asian healing systems developed in an era of individual relationships between practitioner and patient, and the only tools available were those of the natural world and of the nature within. This concept has remained in today’s practices.
Herbal remedies are ideal for modern female ailments such as endometriosis. Among American women in their twenties, endometriosis is the leading cause of infertility after fibroid tumors. Although traditional Chinese medicine has no disease category for endometriosis, it does recognize, categorize, and effectively treat each endometriosis symptom. Women with endometriosis generally require three to six months of intensive Chinese herbal therapy. The pain associated with endometriosis will decrease right away, however, and the benefits will be long lasting.
Herbs can promote tissue healing through a blend of effects. In addition to using phytoestrogens (plant compounds that have estrogen-like effects) and other hormone-balancing plants, herb therapy aids circulation to and from areas of damage. Nutritive herbs provide building materials for the cells. Particular hepatic herbs may eliminate toxins. Improving immune-system function with herbs helps white blood cells cluster around and eat up debris or imperfect cells.
Danazol (Danocrine), alternatively, is a powerful Western drug similar to the hormone testosterone. It is taken for six to nine months at a time to control endometriosis. Like many Western drugs, it can cause uncomfortable side effects. Women who use it may experience pseudo-menopause, hot flashes, vaginal dryness, joint pain, weight gain, acne, depression, irritability, fatigue, decreased breast size, mood swings, liver malfunction, carpel tunnel syndrome, adverse effects on lipids, ankle swelling, muscle cramps, bleeding between periods, and voice changes. In extreme cases, side effects may include masculinization. There is a high rate of recurrent pain after pregnancy for those who conceive after this treatment. In addition, over 30% of these women have some kind of problem with fertility later on. While there are Western drugs for endometriosis that carry fewer side effects, herbal treatments offer effective, side-effect free alternatives.
Chinese herbs for menopause have demonstrated, via numerous in vivo and in vitro studies, a significant effect on the endocrine system to provide hot flash relief, alleviate vasomotor instability, loss of bone mass, and other conditions associated with menopause. Most importantly, they are much gentler and safer on the body.
Two herbal menopause formulas are frequently used: Three Immortals, which addresses the general patterns associated with the menopausal transition, and Great Yin, which is used for women who exhibit heat symptoms like hot flashes.
Many traditional Chinese herbs have been used to supplement the Kidney yin in menopausal women. Some symptoms of Kidney yin deficiency include hot flashes, dryness and greying hair. Dioscorea, a mountain yam similar to the Mexican yam, is a popular ingredient for menopausal symptoms. The main formula for Kidney yin deficiency is Liu Wei Di Huang Wan, or Six Herbs Earth Yellow Pill (or Six Flavor Teapills). There is a modification of the Six Flavor Teapills called Eight Flavor Teapills (Zhi Bai Di Huang Wan), which is used in cases where more heat is present. For night sweats and disturbed sleep, Zizyphus Formula (Suan Zao Ren Tang) is sometimes more effective.
Hormone replacement therapy, the standard Western medical treatment for menopause, involves possible risks that include breast, ovarian and uterine cancer. Hormone replacement therapy is usually started after the early signs of menopause appear. It can create uncomfortable side effects that can be difficult to deal with over long periods of time.
Cervical Dysplasia, PMS and Uterine Health
According to Chinese medicine, cysts and tumors occur as the result of long-term blood stagnation. Herbal formulas for blood stagnation are commonly used for pain in the area of the uterus, such as Blood Palace Dispel Stasis Decoction (Xue Fu Zhu Yu Tang). Many formulas and treatment approaches exist for painful blood stagnation in the uterine area, and a qualified practitioner will help find the right formula.
It is believed that various natural herbs and supplements can improve the odds of early stages of cervical dysplasia (abnormal, precancerous cells in the cervix), helping abnormalities return back to normal cells. Studies have found that women with cervical dysplasia show a high frequency of general nutritional deficiencies, as high as 67% in one survey. Particular vitamin deficiencies most closely associated with cervical dysplasia include beta-carotene, vitamin C and vitamin B 6.
Some practitioners of herbal medicine feel that a class of herbs known as emmenagogues can be helpful in cervical dysplasia. These include squaw vine, motherwort, true unicorn, false unicorn, black cohosh, and blessed thistle. Also, maintaining a balanced diet, which is a focus of Chinese medicine, can help heal and prevent symptoms of cervical dysplasia.
Several herbal formulas have been designed specifically for common menstrual complaints. Free and Easy Wanderer’s Powder (Xiao Yao San) is one. It serves to smooth the liver in order to take care of cramping and emotional afflictions during the menstrual cycle. Some women, especially if they have other supporting signs and symptoms, benefit from extended use. This formula has very impressive results for many women, though it is not for everyone. It increases serotonin levels, leading some women to call these their “happy pills.” Yet it doesn’t have the common side effects of SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), such as weight gain and loss of sex drive.
In the area of breast health, nature has provided rich sources that help nurture and protect the body. Herbs and botanicals offer many benefits — some support the immune system, some have antioxidant action, some are hormone modulators, some help the body adapt to stress, and some support the liver, allowing it to do its essential job of detoxifying the body.
Vitex fruit, for example, is a hormone modulator. It specifically acts to balance the levels of protective progesterone and prolactin in the body with no adverse side effects. Low levels of progesterone and high levels of estrogen set the stage for all estrogen-sensitive cancers, so balance in this area is particularly important. Vitex’s hormone modulating benefits also help reduce uncomfortable PMS and menopause symptoms.
Astragalus herb has been used as a tonic in China for thousands of years. Modern research confirms that it is a potent immune system stimulator, and in addition possesses an anti-tumor effect. Regular use of astragalus supports the spleen and increases bone marrow reserves. It also encourages the production of immune-enhancing interferon in the body. Recent studies confirmed that the use of astragalus increased, by ten times, the body’s ability to kill cancer cells. As an added benefit, astragalus supports the adrenals, thus helping the body to ward off the effects of stress and sustain healthy production of progesterone.
Because medications affect women more adversely, it is important to be proactive about medication use. We should take responsibility for our health and ask clinicians about diagnosis, treatment, and medication use. It is important for women to understand the need for each medication we are prescribed and to know about alternatives. Becoming informed about medicine’s purpose and effects can help us be more proactive about our own treatment systems so we may benefit from side-effect from safer alternatives when Western drugs might not be necessary.