Restoring Hormonal Harmony with Fertility-Friendly Herbs and LifestylesMichael Vertolli, RH February 1, 2009
It always shocks me how many people hate winter. As a Canadian, to hate winter is to condemn ourselves to feeling miserable a good portion of the time for four to five months of the year. Personally, I love all of the seasons. Every season has its beauty and its lessons to teach us. I love the crisp clear air, the brilliant white snow and the silence of winter. It is a time of greater clarity; a time for reflection. One of my favorite things to do in the whole year is to take a walk in the woods on a clear, still winter night when the moon is full or close to it. The peace and beauty of that experience is overwhelming.
It isn’t surprising that so many people don’t like winter. In our society we are too busy living in our artificial environments according to the artificial schedule that we have projected onto the world. The cold and snow just seem to get in the way. As a result, we have become increasingly more cut off from the real world and the natural rhythms of nature, including those of our own body. This disconnect from the Earth and her natural cycles and rhythms is one of the main reasons that we have become increasingly more unhealthy and the ecosystem that nurtures and sustains us is now teetering on the edge of collapse.
Living the way we do, the natural cycles and rhythms of our body have a tendency to become imbalanced. These cycles are controlled by our nervous and endocrine systems. Since these systems control and coordinate every process in our body, when their natural rhythms are out of sync it has negative consequences for the functioning of every organ, tissue and cell in our body.
One of the natural rhythms most easily disturbed in a woman when her life and body is out of balance is the reproductive cycle. Because the levels of different sex hormones are constantly changing relative to each other throughout this cycle, anything that produces minor changes to any of them has the potential to throw the entire cycle out of balance. In addition, because all of the hormones in our body interact with each other directly or indirectly, disturbances of hormones not directly involved in the reproductive cycle can still have an influence.
There are a number of general patterns of diet and lifestyle prevalent in our society that affect everyone to varying degrees. Many of these have a significant potential to disturb the reproductive cycle. As a result, for most women in our society this cycle tends to be out of balance to some degree. This is why many women suffer from symptoms such as increased incidence and severity of menstrual cramps, PMS, fibrocystic breasts, uterine fibroids, irregular or lack of periods, and menopausal symptoms. In addition, many women are going through menopause far too early and many girls are beginning to menstruate too young. Cancer of the reproductive organs is also on the increase.
Any woman who suffers from one or more of these symptoms is not likely to get much help from their doctor. More often than not they will be told that what they are experiencing is “normal” and they just have to learn to live with it. What we seem to have forgotten is that what is “normal” is not necessarily what is natural. What has become normal as a result of our disconnected, unnatural way of life is often quite divergent from what was or is meant to be. In societies that live in greater harmony with nature, we find that all of these symptoms are significantly less common and some of them may completely unknown.
One related trend also on the increase is the number of women having difficulty conceiving. A reduction in fertility is a natural consequence of the disturbances of the balance of reproductive hormones that are so prevalent in our society. When this occurs, rather than help to restore balance and harmony so that natural fertility is replenished, modern medical interventions force a woman’s body into an artificial state of fertility. The process is both invasive and expensive, costing thousands of dollars. What is not well known is that natural fertility can be restored with a more natural diet and lifestyle, combined with supporting the reproductive system and the body as a whole by the use of the appropriate herbs.
From an holistic perspective, there are many factors that can reduce fertility. To address this it is necessary to change as many of these factors as possible. Which of them is the most significant will vary from person to person.
FACTORS THAT INFLUENCE FERTILITY
Psychological stress has a profound effect on the functioning of the reproductive system. Excessive levels of stress will inevitably lead to imbalances of the female reproductive hormones. In addition, when under stress many people experience increased tension in their abdominal region. This reduces blood flow to the abdominal organs including the ovaries and uterus, putting further stress on these organs.
Identifying and reducing exposure to stressful situations whenever possible is important, but it is also essential that we learn how to deal with potentially stressful situations more effectively, as stress is primarily the result of how we respond to situations rather than inherent in the situations themselves. This is why different people will experience different degrees of stress in the same situations.
Exercise helps to reduce stress and improve blood flow to the uterus, ovaries and other endocrine glands. It also helps our body to eliminate toxicity, which I will address below. Disciplines such as meditation, yoga, tai chi and various stress management techniques can also be helpful because they both reduce stress directly, and they provide a means that can help us learn to respond differently in stressful situations.
Consumption of stimulants has basically the same effect on our body as stress. It is therefore important to reduce consumption of coffee, tea, cola, chocolate, and sugary “energy drinks.”
Other foods that, when eaten in excess, have a negative effect on the female reproductive cycle include sweets, red meats, dairy products, processed foods and bad fats such as those in processed or deep fried foods and any other sources of rancid and hydrogenated fats and oils. The issue of rancid fats in particular has been ignored. No doubt this is because food production companies, both natural and mainstream, don’t want the public to know that the oils that they are using to replace hydrogenated oils and thereby reduce those dreaded trans fats are all rancid due to cooking and other food processing methods. These rancid oils are almost as bad for our health as trans fats.
The use of birth control pills and other hormone replacement therapies have a significant negative influence on the female reproductive cycle. Unfortunately, these kinds of therapies are often used to treat reproductive symptoms. Forcing an artificial reproductive rhythm on the body may help control some of these symptoms, but in the long run it puts the body more out of balance. The issue of birth control is very complex and sometimes it may seem that using birth control pills is the best option available for a period of time. Nevertheless, it is important to explore all available options before making a decision and use hormone therapy only if necessary. It is also preferable not to be on birth control pills for more than six to nine months at a time followed by a three to six month break during which a reproductive tonic like the one described below is used.
Toxicity is another major contributing factor to most of what ails us including reproductive issues. Of particular concern is that many environmental toxins are hormone disruptors, including most pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, as well as foods or liquids that are stored in plastic. This includes canned products and juice box type containers as they all have a plastic coating on the inside to prevent the contents from coming in contact with the aluminum or other metals that are part of the packaging. Glass is still the best option with ceramic a close second (as long as it doesn’t contain lead).
In addition to hormone disrupting toxins, our environment is becoming increasingly polluted with free hormones due to the large number of women who are taking birth control pills or on hormone replacement therapies. These therapies provide much larger amounts of hormones than our body would normally produce, causing much of it to be excreted in urine which then enters our water supply. The levels of free hormones in our environment are sufficient to cause reproductive imbalances in both women and men, as well as in fish and many other animal species.
Maintaining a healthy body weight is also very important. For every woman there is an ideal weight range that is unique for her body. If her weight strays out of that range in either direction (underweight or overweight) it has a significant impact on her reproductive functioning as well as her health in general. This is too complex an issue to cover here, but I will make a few general points: (1) There are no magic bullets. Any supplement or drug that is supposed to make people lose weight easily probably doesn’t work or is unhealthy. (2) The bottom line concerning losing weight is that it is necessary to reduce calorie intake and increase activity. (3) It is preferable to lose weight slowly. (4) Any diet that we follow in order to lose weight has to be a diet that we can live with for the rest of our life. Whatever we do to lose weight will have to be continued to keep it off. (5) Weight issues can be related to disturbances of function of our thyroid, pancreas, adrenals, liver or other organs. In such cases these organs will also need to be treated.
FERTILITY-FRIENDLY DIET AND HERBS
To support the health of the reproductive system it is necessary to increase consumption of whole foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. Eat certified organic foods as much as possible. Contrary to popular belief, this is even more important with animal products than with produce, but it’s best to eat everything organic if it is available. Essential fatty acids are also very important, especially omega 3. The best source of omega 3 fatty acids is flax seed oil that has been processed from organically grown flax seeds by methods that protect the oil from light and heat, and has been kept refrigerated.
Beware of any natural or commercial food products that claim to be an excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids. Supplementing these nutrients has become a fad these days as we are becoming more aware of their importance. However, cooking and other food processing methods will render them rancid long before they make it to retail shelves. As such, they probably do more harm than good.
The herbal treatment of infertility includes two universal components. It is also possible that a woman’s reproductive function is indirectly being impacted by disturbances of the functioning of other non-reproductive organs. If that is the case, it/they will also need to be supported as well.
In the first stage of the treatment of infertility, the focus is on improving digestion and liver function, and detoxification. At all stages of treatment we must also address the effects of stress. Of particular importance is ensuring proper liver function. Our liver is our major organ of detoxification and fat metabolism. It is also the organ responsible for breaking down excessive levels of hormones in our body. Factors that impede liver function include overeating, overconsumption of fatty and heavily processed foods, and all sources of toxicity. Liver function can be aided by increasing consumption of fresh fruits, especially lemons, and vegetables, especially bitter green vegetables such as rapini, escarole, mustard, endive, dandelion and chicory
In putting together a detox formulation for infertility, there are four groups of herbs that are particularly important. The first group are calming aromatic herbs that help reduce stress, improve digestion and have a mild tonic influence on the female reproductive system. It is a good idea to include two to three herbs from this group. They include lavender flower (Lavandula angustifolia), lemon balm herb (Melissa officinalis), passionflower herb (Passiflora spp.), peppermint herb (Mentha x piperita), spearmint herb (Mentha spicata), thyme herb (Thymus vulgaris) and wild bergamot herb (Monarda fistulosa).
The second group of herbs are bitter herbs that improve digestion, liver function, and aid detoxification. It is good to include one milder bitter such as burdock root (Arctium spp.), chicory root (Cichorium intybus), dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) or milk thistle seed (Silybum marianum), and one stronger bitter such as boneset herb (Eupatorium perfoliatum), centaury herb (Centaurium erythraea), gentian root (Gentiana lutea) or white horehound herb (Marrubium vulgare).
The third group of herbs support detoxification by improving lymphatic drainage. Include one of heal-all herb (Prunella vulgaris), nettle herb (Urtica dioica), plantain herb (Plantago spp.), purple loosestrife herb (Lythrum salicaria), sweet clover herb (Melilotus spp.) or yellow bedstraw herb (Galium verum).
Finally, we want to include a warming herb that supports circulation and helps the other herbs to get where they need to go. It is only necessary to include one of these herbs, but they vary in their pungency and therefore the proportion that we need to use. They include cayenne fruit (Capsicum anuum) which should be used at a proportion of 1-2% of your formulation, ginger rhizome (Zingiber officinale) at 5-10%, or turmeric rhizome (Curcuma longa) at 10-15%.
This formulation should be taken three times per day on an empty stomach about 10-15 minutes before each meal or 30-45 minutes before bed. The best way to use these herbs is as tinctures made from the fresh herbs. However, dry herb tinctures or teas will also work if that is what’s available. It may also be possible to find similar formulations to what I have described above in retail stores. If you purchase a ready made formulation, only use tinctures or teas as it is necessary to taste the herbs when you take them in order for them to be fully effective. Also, if a formulation contains more than six or seven herbs, it’s usually a sign that the product is poorly formulated.
The dosage of tinctures depends on their strength. Follow the directions of whatever products you are using. If you are combining single tinctures, the dosage of your whole formulation will be similar to the recommended dosage of your individual herb tinctures (i.e. if the recommended dosage for the individual tinctures is 25 drops, this will be the dosage of your entire formulation, not 25 drops of each tincture). If you are making a tea, use 2-3 teaspoons of your combination of herbs (not each individual herb) for each cup of tea and steep it in a covered container for 10-15 minutes.
Your detox formulation should be taken for 3-6 months. It might be necessary to take it longer for anyone who suffers from significant levels of toxicity, particularly if they suffer from any chronic inflammatory conditions. When using any formulation over a period of months it is preferable to change one or two of the herbs in your formulation periodically rather than taking the same formulation over a long period of time.
In addition to using detoxifying herbs, it is also important to reduce exposure to additional sources of toxicity. Be sure to eat foods that are certified organic and reduce your use of toxic household cleaning products, commercial cosmetics, and other toxic chemicals in the home and workplace as much as possible.
FEMALE REPRODUCTIVE TONIC
In the second stage of herbal treatment we continue to use some version of first of the detox formulation, but we alternate it with a second formulation that supports the reproductive system. The second formulation should also include two to three herbs from the first group mentioned above, preferably the same herbs that are in your detox formula. In addition, it should include two gentle female reproductive tonic herbs. The best choices are cramp bark (Viburnum opulus), motherwort herb (Leonurus cardiaca), partridgeberry herb (Mitchella repens) and raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus). Angelica root (Angelica spp.) is also a good choice, but it can cause light sensitivity, especially when used during the warmer months by fair skinned individuals.
In the reproductive formulation you also want to include a warming circulatory herb as indicated for the detox formulation, however, in this case don’t use cayenne. Use ginger or turmeric according to the proportions given above, or chaste tree fruit (Vitex agnus-castus) at 10-15%. It’s OK if you use ginger or turmeric in both formulations.
Once more, it may be possible to find a suitable reproductive tonic that contains some of these herbs in retail stores, but only use a tincture or tea.
The female reproductive tonic is taken similar to the detox formulation: three times per day on an empty stomach before meals or bed. However, it is taken according to a very specific schedule. Begin taking the reproductive tonic one week before you expect to get your period, and continued taking it until one or two days after your period is over. Then switch back to the detox formulation and take it until one week before your next period. Do not take the two formulations at the same time. Continue alternating these formulations in this way for three to six cycles. When you decide to stop using the herbs, wait at least one complete cycle before you start trying to get pregnant.
As always, if you have any unusual reactions to these herbs, stop taking them immediately and consult with a herbalist or other natural health practitioner who is experienced with the use of Western herbs. Similarly, if you are taking any medications you should not follow this or any other herbal protocol without the supervision of a qualified practitioner.
There are no absolute guarantees with any treatment, but in my experience, probably 90% or more of the women who are having difficulty conceiving can experience a natural, healthy pregnancy if they improve their diet and lifestyle, and follow an herbal protocol similar to the one outlined above. It is not necessary to resort to the unnatural and expensive treatments that are offered by medical fertility clinics. The biggest obstacle most women will face is wanting to rush things. When women come to me with fertility issues, I strongly recommend that they be willing to allow one year for this process: six months of detox followed by six cycles alternating between the detox and reproductive formulations. Unfortunately, many of the women who are dealing with fertility issues are in their mid to late thirties or early forties and are in a hurry to have a child. Pregnancy is never something that should be rushed. It is a major life changing experience and it is important for prospective parents to be well prepared both for their own benefit, and for the health of their future child. Even for couples who are not dealing with fertility issues I recommend six to twelve months of detoxing along with supportive dietary and lifestyle changes for both parents. We’ve known for a long time that many toxins can alter the DNA of a developing child. There is now a growing body of evidence that toxins don’t have to alter DNA directly to be harmful. Even mild toxicity can alter the chemicals that control the expression of genes in ways that can have significant negative health consequences for our children. These affects can last for many generations.
On the positive side, with patience and a commitment to healthier living, it is possible for most women to experience a safe, natural pregnancy and childbirth, and in the process, get back in touch with those natural cycles and rhythms.
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. For more information: 905-303-8723, ext. 1. Visit his website: www.livingearthschool.ca Blog: michaelvertolli.blogspot.com