Herbs for Women's Health

Women have been relying on herbal medicines for centuries, and more women than men turn to herbs today. Recent surveys indicate that 79 percent of U.S. women take herbal medicines. Statistics also show that women are much more likely to take charge of their own health — they see their primary physician regularly and typically act on medical concerns instead of ignoring them. Women are also more likely to try a novel or unconventional type of health care treatment, both to treat a specific condition as well as to promote general well being.

Natural Estrogens

Many medicinal and edible plants contain compounds called phytoestrogens, which are chemically similar to the sex hormone estradiol (the primary estrogen in humans). Estradiol is critical to many body processes, including reproduction, sexual functioning, the synthesis of bone, and the modulation of several diseases (including cancer and heart disease). Phytoestrogens seem to modulate estrogen levels in the body, which can cause a host of beneficial effects and may avert certain diseases.

Many of the so-called women's herbs contain a group of phytoestrogens known as isoflavones, which are found in soy (Glycine max). Another type, lignans, are found in soy and flax (Linum usitatissimum). A third type, coumestans, is found in red clover (Trifolium pratense) and alfalfa (Medicago sativa).

Research has linked phytoestrogen intake with many health benefits, including preventing osteoporosis, managing cholesterol, and reducing the risk of some cancers.

However, consuming excessive amounts can cause problems. Experts suggest sticking to recommended doses of herbal remedies and eating a sensible amount of phytoestrogen-containing foods (like soy). See Chapter 18 for more.

Using Herbs Wisely

Following are some tips for women on using herbal preparations.

  • Talk with Your Doctor. Be sure to tell your doctor about any herbs you're considering, especially if you're pregnant or are being treated for a serious and/or chronic condition.

  • Don't Assume That “Natural” Means “Good.” Herbal medicines are considered supplements — or foods — and not drugs, so they're handled much differently than pharmaceuticals. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't require that the manufacturer prove an herb's safety, quality, or efficacy. This certainly doesn't mean that all supplements are suspect, just that you should use them with care.

  • Know Your Body. Everyone responds differently to chemical agents, whether they're from a plant or a pharmacy, so different people will require different doses. If you know you're sensitive to medications, start with a very small dose of the herbal preparation. Even if you're not overly sensitive, you should never exceed the recommended dosage.

  • Pay Attention. Most herbs have very low risk of interactions or side effects, but you should monitor yourself when starting any new therapy.

  • Be Patient. Most herbal remedies take a bit longer to produce effects than prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medicines do. Most experts advise patients to allow several weeks before deciding if a remedy is working or not, and note that some herbs may take up to eight weeks to deliver any benefits.

  • Gamma-linolenic acid, or GLA, supports immune, endocrine (hormonal), and cardiovascular functioning and is used to treat several women's health issues, including menstrual and menopausal symptoms. The best-known herbal source is evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) oil, which can be expensive. Other good sources of GLAs are borage (Borago officinalis) and black currant (Ribes nigrum) oils.

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