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An Insight Into 21st Century Herbal Medicine – What Herbs Are Used to Treat Menopause Symptoms?

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The treatment of unpleasant and debilitating menopausal symptoms with medicinal plants has a long tradition. This knowledge has been passed down through the centuries and now for the first time through scientific research we are beginning to understand how the plants work on the body at the cellular level.

Menopause affects every woman in a unique way. An over-the-counter herbal remedy aimed at the “average menopausal woman” may relieve some of the symptoms, but may not relieve others. Menopause symptoms can include depression, anxiety, insomnia, hot flashes, night sweats, fatigue, loss of libido, memory loss to name a few. So you can see that menopause can be a complex picture, with all of the symptoms needing to be addressed before the woman can regain a sense of well-being. Medicinal plants that contain phytochemicals called steroid saponins are very effective in treating menopausal symptoms. An example of such a plant is Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa) (see below). The compounds in these medicinal plants can exert an estrogenic effect by binding to estrogen receptors in the brain. This can relieve the symptoms of falling estrogen levels. Although plant-derived phytoestrogen is not as potent as estrogen produced by the ovaries, it can still have a mild estrogenic effect, convincing the body that more estrogen is present, thereby reducing withdrawal symptoms. The hot flashes are usually correlated with a surge in luteinizing hormone (LH), which is triggered when the body senses that estrogen levels are low. When phytoestrogens are present, LH surges and hot flashes decrease.

There are many medicinal plants that are effective in assisting a woman in the transition to lower estrogen levels. Some of the most commonly used medicinal plants are listed below:

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black cohosh(Cimicifuga racemosa).

Native to North America and now cultivated in Europe, black cohosh root has long been used to treat gynecological problems, including menopausal and menstrual cramps. Research has confirmed the validity of traditional knowledge. Two reviews published in the Journal of the North American Menopause Society in 2003 concluded that black cohosh is a safe natural remedy. The German Commission E also supports its use in the treatment of menopause symptoms and menstrual cramps.

How it works

The effects of black cohosh are believed to be the result of complex synergistic actions of triterpene glycosides, and its effectiveness has been confirmed by clinical studies in Germany and Italy. Black cohosh has been suggested to have a mild esogenic effect on the body without causing unwanted thickening of the uterine lining. A clinical study conducted over 12 months found that black cohosh reduced the number and severity of hot flashes.

sage (Salvia officinalis)

The aerial parts of sage, native to the Mediterranean region and now cultivated worldwide, have traditionally been prescribed for hot flashes associated with menopause. In an open-label study lasting 3 months, a product containing sage and alfalfa extracts improved menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats. In several open studies, sage has reduced sweat production in patients with excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis). In fact, it is recommended for excessive sweating by the Scientific Committee of the European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy (ESCOP).

How it works

Research shows that the phytochemical thujone, found in the plant’s essential oil, has a mild esogenic effect. The mechanism by which sage reduces sweating is the subject of further scientific research.

Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa)

Wild yam is native to North and Central America. Both the Mayans and Aztecs used this plant medicinally to relieve menstrual, ovarian and labor pains. A more recent western traditional use of wild yam is for hormonal imbalance during menopause.

How it works

The phytochemicals, steroid saponins, can exert estrogenic effects by binding to estrogen receptors in the brain (part of the negative feedback mechanism of estrogen control). So, if a woman is going through menopause has low estrogen levels, wild yam can help alleviate the symptoms of estrogen deprivation.

Saint John Spice (Hypericum perforatum)

St. John’s wort, native to Europe, is one of the most valuable European medicinal plants for treating depression, especially menopausal symptoms. This medicinal plant has been very well researched in many clinical studies, one of which found St. John’s Wort to be as effective as imipramine (a tricyclic antidepressant) in treating mild to moderate depression. In another study, St. John’s wort compared favorably with fluoxetine (Prozac), particularly for treating depressed patients with anxiety symptoms.

How it works The key phytochemical in St. John’s Wort, hypericin, helps increase the brain biochemicals that affect mood, namely dopamine and serotonin. If you buy this remedy over the counter, you should be aware that some St. John’s wort products contain too little hypericin to have a positive therapeutic effect. Also, this medicinal plant can interact with some pharmaceutical drugs. So if you are taking prescription medication, this herb is best prescribed by a qualified naturopathic consultant.

Many women are now discovering that naturopathy can provide a natural alternative to hormone replacement therapy.

Thanks to Deborah Grant

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