What is herbal medication? Is it used today?
Herbal medicine is typically only thought of as an alternative to western medicine but their roots are inter-connected. These herbal remedies form the foundation for most medications that are available in the market today. Natural occurring chemicals found in herbs are extracted and processed to create some of the prescription medication sold in chemists today.
Herbal medicine uses the herbs or plants in their most organic form to help treat a variety of illnesses essentially cutting out the extraction process done by pharmaceutical companies. These natural herbs can be quite beneficial in promoting women’s health and in managing a variety of conditions.
There are unique physiological, anatomical and social characteristics that differ between genders that make it necessary to deal with women’s health issues as separate from men’s. The use of natural herbs to treat these issues has risen in popularity recently as more women are choosing holistic treatments with fewer presumed side effects compared to prescription medication. The efficacy of these herbal remedies are often poorly researched but with the growing interest on the subject more funding will most likely go into studying them.
What are women’s health issues?
Women all over the globe are affected by a variety of common illnesses that are gender specific. With compounding social issues like poor nutrition, stress, anxiety and poverty making the problem worse. Some hormone related conditions that require long term management are menopause, polycystic ovarian syndrome and endometriosis. Infections of the genital and the urinary tract are also more prevalent in women. Women are 14 times more likely to suffer from a urinary tract infection compared to men. This is because the length of their urethras (where urine passes through) are usually shorter and are in closer proximity to the rectum.
Childbirth and its related complications have also been a major source of morbidity and mortality. On the other end of the stick, women who struggle to have children have to endure years of invasive and expensive treatments in order to conceive. Leaving those who cannot afford to suffer in silence.
Psychologically it has also been shown that women are more likely to suffer from anxiety than men, probably due to a difference in coping mechanisms.
Certain cancers are also specific to women such as cervical cancer which is HPV related and would require frequent monitoring in older age to catch early.
Menstruation can also be a major source of frustration for women who have to deal with severe cramps every month having to take a plethora of medications to treat their symptoms. Also due to the bleeding women are more likely to suffer from anemia when they are menstruating especially if their diet is not adequate.
If you’re interested in how herbal medication can help treat some of these conditions read on
What is the role of herbal medication in women’s health?
Most of the herbs are Ayurvedic which is a spiritual traditional Indian system that focuses on the holistic prevention of diseases. Chinese and Japanese medicine also heavily incorporate herbs in treating a variety of ailments for both genders. In cultures where accessing medication may be difficult due to poor roads or inadequate finances, the herbs are a welcomed benefit. Now that you know the issues specifically facing women, let’s go deeper into how herbal medication can be useful.
Menopause is when a woman stops having her monthly period for at least one year. It normally occurs around the age of 40 or 50. Why does menopause occur? Menstruation stops when the estrogen levels in the body reduce significantly to the point that they cannot trigger ovulation. Estrogen levels naturally decline as the ovarian function decreases. An unwanted effect of low estrogen is hot flushes and brittle bones also known as osteoporosis. Certain herbs are phyto-estrogenic which means when ingested mimic the effects of estrogen and help reduce these symptoms of menopause. Let’s take a look at a few herbs that have these effects.
Black cohosh also known as Cimicifuga racemosa or Actea racemosa is a plant found in North America that can reduce hot flushes and help in managing menopause related osteoporosis. Although it’s not clear how black cohosh affects estrogen levels, most researchers believe that it exerts its effects through its anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant properties and as an estrogen receptor modulator. It is a frequently sold dietary supplement available in different forms such as pills, herbs or liquid tinctures.
The wild yam in the Dioscoreaceae family has also shown great benefit in improving bone strength with an added advantage of boosting kidney and liver function. The plant has shown similar estrogenic effects to soy. Soy products such as soy milk or tofu are also an easily attainable and cost effective method to reduce hot flushes that can be a natural alternative to harsher medication.
The Korean red Ginseng is a plant found mostly in Asia believed to strengthen immunity. Ginseng is a multipurpose plant often used in men’s health for managing impotence. Recent studies have shown that it can increase estrogen levels through its active metabolite called ginesonides. This is probably why it is also popular in managing post-menopausal hot flushes and vaginal dryness. However, the studies done on this plant are limited and more research needs to be done to evaluate its efficacy.
Dealing with infertility can be extremely distressing and frustrating as it requires emotional strength to go through multiple years of expensive fertility treatments. First let us understand what infertility is. It can be defined as the inability to conceive for at least one year of actively trying to get pregnant.
There are many causes of infertility but in general they can be grouped into 4 groups;
- Issues with the woman. The egg must be released regularly at the optimal time and be able to pass through patent and unharmed fallopian tubes to reach the uterus
- Issues with the man. The sperm must be adequate in terms of amount and quality in order to fertilize the egg
- A mixture of both men and women fertility issues
- Unknown causes of fertility issues
Herbal medication for women’s health issues such as fertility targets mostly hormones that trigger ovulation as well as increasing the blood supply to the reproductive organs.
Dong quai is a Chinese herbal remedy also known as angelica sinesis that grows in the mountains of Korea and China. The simple herb has been known to improve ovarian function by promoting blood flow to the uterus. Research on herbal medication has been limited and dong quai is no exception. However it is still widely used by women to aid in fertility treatment.
The chaste berry tree is another herb that is relevant and is endogenous to the Mediterranean. It works by causing the pituitary gland to produce more luteinizing hormone which triggers the release of an egg during ovulation. These herbs typically can be found in pill form in dietary supplements or consumed in a meal.
Black cohosh serves many purposes and works in a similar way to the Chaste berry tree in triggering the release of an egg and it also increases the levels of progesterone which are helpful in implantation. It comes in tablet form or as a tincture. For the tincture a few drops about 5 -15 can be added to a smoothie or shake to mask the taste.
Did you know in America alone women are two times more likely to suffer from anxiety than men? This is because women and men have been known to react differently to stressful events where women ruminate and worry more about unpleasant situations. Anxiety can be a normal response to stress but when its frequency and magnitude become so overwhelming that it begins to affect your everyday life, it can be quite debilitating. It’s no secret how herbs can be beneficial in reducing stress. Natural remedies for anxiety are especially appealing because they are quite effective and pocket friendly.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is a plant that typically grows in tropical regions such as the borders of the Mediterranean and in Africa. It has been used for multiple years for its calming effect even in ancient Egypt. Today it is packaged in new and exciting ways to promote stress relief. A recent trend that is taking the beauty world by storm is the use of herbs for yoni steaming as part of a self-care method to relieve anxiety and stress. Fivona introduced a yoni herb steaming product that contains lavender that is the perfect natural remedy for relieving anxiety.
Chamomile tea comes from the chamomile flower in the Asteraceae family and is also known as matricaria chamomilla. The flower blooms in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. It contains terpene which has anti-anxiolytics properties that are soothing to the body. The flower also has anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties which makes it perfect for stomach upsets and menstrual cramps.
Galphimia Glauca is a plant mostly found in Mexico sometimes used as a tranquilizer to alleviate the more severe symptoms of anxiety. The plant has an active ingredient called galphimine which studies show has great promise as an antidepressant and anxiolytic agent. The galphimine is thought to cause this effect through the inhibition of dopaminergic activity in the brain. High levels of dopamine have been shown to cause increased levels of anxiety.
Menstrual cramps occur when the muscular wall of the uterus contracts to shed the inner lining of tissue. Periods typically shouldn’t be that painful and when they are it is normally called dysmenorrhea. There are a few conditions that can lead to extremely painful cramps such as endometriosis, fibroids and pelvic inflammatory disease.
Most of the time along with the cramps, women experience;
The white peony root also known as Bai is a Chinese herb with anti-inflammatory properties. It contains paeoniflorin that helps reduce pain in a variety of conditions. The anti –spasmodic (muscle relaxant) properties also makes it a great remedy for treating menstrual cramps. Some studies have shown that women with painful cramps or dysmenorrhea are more likely to have increased levels of prostaglandins. Paeoniflorin has been shown to decrease prostaglandin production which causes an overall reduction of pain.
Angelica Sinesis or Dong quai contains antioxidants, antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties that can help relieve the unwanted effects of menstruation such as severe uterine cramps. For women who don’t get periods for a long period of time also known as amenorrhea, it has been shown to be beneficial in regulating the menstrual cycle through its active component called coumarin. Coumarin increases blood flow to the reproductive organs by causing dilatation of the vessels. Studies have shown that it increases blood pressure as well so it should be used in caution by those with high blood pressure.
Bupleurum is a Chinese and Japanese medication that is predominantly found in East Asia. It is a well-known plant used by many herbalists. Chinese medicine proposes that when estrogen levels are increased in the body it leads to painful menstrual cramps. The liver plays an important role in estrogen metabolism. They believe that bupleurum helps the liver work more efficiently by reducing its congestion.
As discussed in the introduction, women are more likely to suffer from urinary tract infections due to their anatomy since females have shorter urethras than males. Urinary tract infections can be quite uncomfortable with the symptoms typically reported being painful urination, abdominal pain, fevers and purulent urine.
Health has generally moved into preventative medicine where instead of directing all efforts into treating diseases, the focus has shifted into preventing the diseases in the first place. In order to reduce the risk of getting infections good hygiene practices are typically encouraged. A few of the practices being to wipe from front to back, to avoid holding in urine and to urinate after intercourse.
in western medicine, herbs for treating urinary infections in women are gaining more acceptance especially for infections that are chronic or recurrent. Let’s look at some common natural remedies or natural antibiotics used to treat UTIs.
Cranberry also known as Vaccinium Macrocarpon. Although this is technically not a herb, It is still used by many herbalists and in western medicine in the management of UTIs. Cranberry has been shown to reduce the attachment of bacteria, which is typically E. coli, to the wall of the bladder. This allows the bacteria to get washed out in the urine. Cranberries have biologically active components such as proanthocyanidins, anthocyanidin, catechin and flavanols that cause these effects. It is normally available as supplements that have the cranberry extracts in pill form. Cranberry juice can also be taken to both treat and prevent UTI’s.
Agathosma Betulina is from the western part of southern Africa and it is also known as Buchu from the family Rutaceae. It is well-known and one of the oldest herbal remedies used for the treatment of uncomplicated UTI. This is probably because it has antimicrobial properties that are effective against most bacteria that cause UTI’s.Therefore it acts like a natural antibiotic. It also acts as a diuretic which means it causes you to urinate more and makes it less likely for the bacteria to attach and cause an infection. In the past, the leaves would be boiled and strained to drink. A process which was typically reserved for the wealthy as the leaves were hard to find. Currently there are commercially available tea bags that make the process easier and more accessible.
Armorascia Rusticana or also known by the more common name Horseradish. It is believed to originate from Eastern Europe of the family Brassicaceae. The rhizome and roots of this plant contain alkaloids and isoquinoline alkaloids that are bioactive and are presumed to reduce the attachment of the bacteria to the bladder wall just like the active component of cranberry. The root can be consumed in a meal or it is also available in tincture form.
Equisetum arvense or Horsetail, is also quite a famous herb used for multiple years growing mostly in the Northern hemisphere and native to Eastern Europe. It also has diuretic properties that make it an excellent candidate for combating urinary tract infections. It contains alkaloids, phytosterols, tannin and phenolics. Phenolic compounds are antimicrobial which will also aid in fighting against infections. It comes in the form of capsules, herbal infusions and as a tincture.
Herbal medication does play a role in promoting women’s health as well as aiding in management of female-specific diseases. It can be an alternative or used in combination with western medication. As more women take control of their health, it can be empowering to do research on which treatments are best suited for you.
It may not be for everyone but for those who opt for it, there are herbal remedies available in the market. More so herbal medication has provided treatment options to populations that wouldn’t otherwise afford expensive medical care. However it is advised that one should see a medical professional before starting any herbal medication as you may have an underlying condition that may be exacerbated by the herbs.