Reproductive health is a concern for most women. Whether they're seeking alternative solutions for premenstrual syndrome, fertility complications, or menopause symptoms, women often feel frustrated and powerless after consulting a physician. But resources are available at the natural products store. Herbal remedies may ease many of these common conditions.
Herbalist Brigitte Mars teaches herbal medicine at the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies and is the formulator for UniTea Herbs, now all-Goode Organic Teas. The Boulder, Colo.-based Mars counsels hundreds of women on how to treat their PMS, fertility issues and menopause symptoms with herbs. Recently, she shared with NFM some recommendations she makes to clients.
The PMS Puzzle: Preteens-40s
Some 40 million women experience PMS. There are more than 150 symptoms associated with PMS, including emotional and behavioral changes, according to Edward M. Lichten, M.D., consultant for the Medical Treatment of PMS for www.usdoctor.com. The most common symptoms Mars treats are cramps, constipation, tension and cravings.
To alleviate cramps or uterine muscle contractions she recommends cramp bark, a uterine sedative. Other herbs Mars recommends for uncomfortable cramps include dandelion root, burdock root, yellow dock root and chamomile. "Nettles are a great herb for women," Mars says. "It builds the blood and helps to cleanse the kidneys and the liver. Liver health is very important for a healthy reproductive system, since the liver is known to break down excess hormones." Mars also advises women with anemia and irregular menses to take nettles.
Cramps can also be exacerbated by the pressure of constipation, which is common during menses. "Evening primrose oil, essential fatty acids, flax-seed oil and hemp seed oil help keep bowels regular and are soothing to the central nervous system," Mars says. "They are also beneficial for the hair, skin and joints due to their lubricating and anti-inflammatory properties."
Cramps and constipation can cause tension, as can the emotional swings associated with PMS. Mars suggests a calcium/magnesium supplement in a bioavailable form such as magnesium citrate or chelate for tension associated with PMS. "Customers may find they will sleep better, and it calms the nervous system," she says. Tension and nervousness can trigger emotional eating, too.
During their premenstrual days, women may be acutely aware of particular food cravings. For many women, craving sweet or salty foods is common. It can help if they understand that these cravings are the body's way of requesting what it needs. "Cravings for sweets might mean [a woman] needs more protein and minerals," Mars says. For a tasty chocolate substitute, she stuffs dates with raw almond butter for a snack loaded with B vitamins, zinc, protein and amino acids. "It satisfies the sweet and fat cravings without the sugar, caffeine, and hydrogenated oils," she says. Salt cravings, on the other hand, can indicate that a woman may need more minerals, according to Mars. "I really doubt if anyone has a serious potato chip deficiency," she says. Salt contains minerals, so Mars recommends eating sea vegetables as a healthy way to satiate a salt craving.
Mars says retailers should discuss with a customer how her diet could be tailored to help alleviate PMS symptoms. "A good retailer will steer [his or her] customers toward better nutrition to encourage a better relationship of trust so the customer doesn't think they were sold just a bottle of pills," Mars says.
Conception Complications: 20s—40s One in six couples have fertility problems, according to Susun Weed, author of Wise Woman Herbal for the Child Bearing Year (Ash Tree Publishing, 1985). Numerous factors can complicate conception, including low sperm count and irregular ovulation. Mars believes in addressing these underlying issues first.
A sperm count of less than 20 million per ml is considered low. Men can often improve their sperm counts by wearing looser underwear and reducing alcohol consumption and cigarette intake. For low sperm count, Mars recommends vitamins C and E as well as L-arginine, an amino acid that increases sperm count and motility.
Another factor that often foils fertilization attempts is irregular menstrual cycles. For women who are not ovulating regularly, she recommends licorice root, which contains phytosterols that help the body produce natural hormones that trigger the cycle. Mars also suggests chaste tree berry, also known as vitex, which works on the pituitary gland and can help normalize an irregular or nonexistent period. Chaste tree berry is also good for women who have been on birth control pills and have yet to establish a normal cycle, according to Mars. "The herb dong quai removes blockages in the reproductive system and can help a women become pregnant by regulating cycles," Mars says, adding that the herb should not be used during pregnancy.
Menopausal Metamorphosis: 40s-60s
More than 47 million women experience perimenopause and menopause symptoms, according to the American Menopause Foundation in New York. At least 75 percent of them experience at least one menopausal symptom. These symptoms are the result of a natural process, according to Christiane Northrup, M.D., in her book Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom (Bantam Books, 1998), not a hormone deficiency disease. Deciding whether or not to use hormone replacement therapy is a personal decision best made with a compassionate health care provider who can help weigh risks and benefits. Mars says there are many herbs that can be used in conjunction with or in place of estrogen therapy during menopause.
"The idea of just going on hormones to prevent diseases that may never occur is not the only option women have these days," Mars says. "If a woman is on estrogen and wants to use herbs, she should discuss a program with her health care provider. It is not necessary to take full doses of each." Mars recommends encouraging customers to find a health care provider who is open to using herbs in place of estrogen and to helping a woman gradually replace her hormone therapy with herbs.
A common menopause complaint is hot flashes. According to the American Menopause Foundation, 75 percent of women experience them. To ease night sweats and hot flashes as well as quell anxiety, which many menopausal women also experience, Mars suggests motherwort, red clover and black cohosh, which contain phytosterols.
For customers who are new to using herbs, Mars recommends herbal combinations that also contain calcium, EFAs, magnesium and vitamin E. Customers who are comfortable using herbs may find satisfaction blending their own teas from bulk herbs.
Braving The Bulk Section
Mars says all the herbs she recommends can be taken in tea, tincture or capsule form. Just be aware of your customer's comfort level. Many are not familiar with using bulk herbs or don't like the medicinal taste of some teas. "We have to honor where people are," she says. "The job of the retailer is to try to sense whether someone is new to using herbs. Are they going to be comfortable using a tea with a medicinal taste or should they be steered toward capsules? We have to [realize] that not everyone is ready for tea. If they want to use a tincture or capsule that's great."
There are many packaged teas on the market that contain women's formulations, but Mars suggests introducing customers to you bulk herbs. "Get customers comfortable going to the bulk section. Show them the accessories. Teas can be made easily with a French press or tea strainer," Mars says. "As people become more comfortable about herbs, they will find the taste and flavor more beneficial."
Deborah Openlander is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 2/p. 32, 38
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 2/p. 38