Do you dread the two weeks just before your period? Many women do. Hormonal imbalance is the culprit. There may be an overproduction of estrogen, too little progesterone or too much prolactin (a hormone released by the pituitary gland, responsible for stimulating breast milk production).

Hormones are powerful chemicals needed to sustain life. When in balance they promote energy, good mood, balanced metabolism and weight and general vitality. Unfortunately, many women in North America suffer from imbalanced hormones. This can lead to fatigue, weight gain, arthritis, depression, anxiety, autoimmune diseases and a long list of other maladies.

Nutritional deficiencies and liver dysfunction can intensify symptoms. A shortage of magnesium and B vitamins can sabotage the liver’s ability to clear excess estrogen out of the body. Additional toxins in the diet, such as alcohol, sugar, caffeine, fatty foods as well as external sources of estrogen, can compromise liver function.

Positive Change

Vitex (chasteberry) is the most popular herbal remedy for premenstrual syndrome (PMS). It does not supply hormones but acts directly on the hypothalamus and pituitary glands. Vitex increases luteinizing hormone (LH) and modulates prolactin, resulting in a balance of estrogen and progesterone levels. One study looked at 1,500 women over the course of six months. Supplementation with vitex showed a positive effect in 92 per cent of the women. Another study (controlled, double blind) compared the effectiveness of vitamin B6 and vitex. While both demonstrated statistical improvement, the patients and researchers noted the vitex to be more effective.

The transition to menopause can begin as early as age 35. Women who would normally sail through their monthly cycles get PMS or experience hot flashes or night sweats. As women get closer to menopause, the symptoms become more pronounced. Most women are offered synthetic hormone treatment and the potential risks that come with it. Nature has provided herbal medicines that relieve menopausal symptoms without side effects.

Black cohosh has been shown to reduce hot flashes, anxiety, insomnia, depression and heart palpitations associated with menopause. One large open study followed 629 menopausal women who supplemented 80 milligrams (mg) of black cohosh extract for six to eight weeks. Most women noticed a substantial improvement in their symptoms within four weeks. Other helpful herbs include vitex, licorice root, dong quai, wild yam, ginseng, motherwort and rehmania.

The Value of Soy

Soy deserves special attention because of its well-researched hormone balancing and cancer preventive properties. Most of the positive research has been on fermented soy foods, not soy isoflavone supplements (although research is ongoing on supplements as well).

In addition to reducing symptoms such as hot flashes, soy contains powerful anticancer phytochemicals. Asians, who consume large amounts of soy, have lower rates of breast, colon and prostate cancer. Genistein and daidzein, the two most important soy isoflavones, are converted in the body to phytoestrogens balancing high estrogen levels. These phytoestrogens can also block estrogen receptors in certain hormone-dependent tissues such as the breast and uterus, helping to protect against cancer. Soy as a food and supplement should be consumed on a regular basis for hormone balancing. If you are sensitive to soy products, isolated soy isoflavone supplements are often tolerated.

Very few women need hormone therapy. For example, a woman who has had her ovaries surgically removed will need hormones. Women who are at high risk or already have osteoporosis may benefit from hormones. Also, a small percentage of women who do not have these risk factors but experience severe menopausal symptoms may need hormones. Many, if not most, of these situations can be avoided by providing your body with the right nutrients throughout your life. In these cases seek the help of a knowledgeable doctor on the use of natural hormones–that is to say–hormones that are identical to the ones in your body, not the same as horse urine derived hormones.

A high fibre diet, exercise, avoidance of environmental xenoestrogens such as pesticides and relaxation all contribute to hormonal balance.

Helpful Herbs

Vitex: Take 10 drops of tincture in water each morning or one 400-mg powder capsule.
Licorice root: Good for adrenal gland insufficiency and has anti-inflammatory properties. Drink as a tea or use tincture (10 drops in water) daily.
Dong quai: Balances the estrogen in the body and contains many natural plant estrogens. Also helps to relieve vaginal dryness and depression.Take two capsules two to three times daily with meals or 10 drops of tincture in 1/4 cup (62 mL) of water three times daily.
Wild yam: Acts as a natural progesterone to help balance hormones. Best absorbed in cream form.
Panax ginseng: Has a protective effect on vaginal tissue in most menopausal women. The usual daily dosage of a standardized extract is 100 to 200 mg once daily. Take in cycles; two to three weeks on, one week off.
Motherwort: Helps reduce tension and anxiety. It is also a cardiac tonic; use as a tea.
Rehmania (di huang): Used with shan zhu yu, shan yao and gou qi zi for menopausal problems. Take up to 10 mL of tincture per day.

About the Author

Dr Stengler is a practicing naturopath and the author of The Natural Physician, available at your local health food store or through alive books.