HERBS FOR WOMEN : Relieving menstrual problems - general overview and useful herbs

 What comes to mind when you hear the word menstruation, or period? For most women it is a sign of inconvenience and an overall unpleasant experience.It is something we have to hide and something we've been trying to avoid . There are multiple pills and products that promise to stop this process or make it almost invisible. And still, many women are reminded monthly about their period and experience discomfort, pain, bloating, anxiety and multitude of other symptoms , before and during their menstruation. Research shows that fifty percent of women in the US experience some form of PMS symptoms every month.
 There are no two women alike and what is normal for some is not for others. Some women normally have heavier or lighter periods. If heavier periods are not accompanied by other symptoms like exhaustion, extreme pain, or dark clotted blood, it can be considered normal. The same goes for light periods. If a woman has always had light periods, and has no other symptoms, or fertility problems, then those light periods are considered absolutely normal.
 In my own research on this topic, I found that there are three definite factors which affect our monthly cycles - food, stress, and our perception of what menstruation is.

  FOOD is the number one way in which we can correct any problems in our physical bodies. I am a strong believer in the "food is medicine" philosophy . Our modern Standard American Diet (SAD) is the culprit of many of the ailments that plague us today. Here is a few way that the modern diet can affect how you feel during your period:
   The modern American diet relies heavily on refined sugars and grains. Food is processed and stripped of nutrients. It often lacks enough fiber, phyto chemicals and important micro nutrients. This form of diet is not suitable for our organisms but is the perfect food for some type of bacteria in our bodies, like candida and H.Pylori, that thrive on sugar. Women who have problem menstruation often have gut imbalances and gut problems. How are the two connected you might wonder? Balanced gut flora plays an important role in processing excess estrogen in the body. Excess estrogen is often responsible for symptoms like cramps, pain during menstruation, heavy flow, and even conditions like endometriosis, which causes the tissue that normally lines that uterus to grow in other parts of the body. So, with unbalanced gut flora, our bodies are unable to process this excess estrogen, our liver and our endocrine organs are being overloaded with toxins and unable to do their job right.

(This is the food consumption in 2009 in the US according to the USDA Economic Research Service)

   Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet also plays part in bringing some of this extra estrogen and other hormone disruptors into our bodies. Plastics, over-processed soy, pesticide residue in our produce, growth hormones and antibiotics in our meats - all this can play a significant role in the proper function of our organs. Don't forget that our bodies are an interconnected whole systems. No organ runs on its own and everything that we put in our bodies affects all of our systems.
  So how can we correct some of the problems, or maybe all of them, by eating the appropriate foods? I recently listened to a lecture by Dr David Katz , who did some research on the optimal diet for humans, and after looking into all of today's trends and their claims ( like vegan, paleo, Atkins, raw, vegetarian, etc), he got to the conclusion that the optimal diet for us can be defined like this: " Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants." . I love this! It is so straight forward and really can not be simpler than that. So make your sides a main meal, and your meat a side dish, if you want to consume any at all. Eat lots of colorful vegetables, dark leafy greens , vibrant with life, and add some responsibly raised meats, ideally grass fed and pasture raised. Use healthy fats like coconut oil, and foods rich in those precious fats , like avocados, raw walnuts, and seeds.
 Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, in her fabulous book "Herbal Healing for Women", recommends incorporating seaweed in the diet of any women that experiences problem menstruation. Seaweed can be incorporated in your food or taken as a supplement, and it plays an important role in balancing those tricky hormones.

 STRESS is another factor  which causes imbalance in our bodies. Even though we have more conveniences than our ancestors, the stress in our everyday life has increased dramatically. The self imposed stress to be and look a certain way, to accomplish everything in as little time as possible, the lack of sleep. It all piles up and affects are bodies. Sleep deprivation causes hormonal imbalance and catching up on sleep on the weekend will not make up for stressing our systems the rest of the time. So the best thing you can do is to find your natural rhythm. Get between 7 - 9 hours of sleep each night. Go to bed early and sleep in complete darkness, so your body can have the time to repair and restore itself.
Practice relaxation techniques like meditation and gentle yoga. Journal or use your creative force and do crafts. This is not part of herbalism, but managing our emotional stress is a wonderful medicine that helps us bring our physical bodies back in balance.

THE IMAGE OF MENSTRUATION is the third important factor I think plays a role in how we feel during this time of the month, I really love to use the term "moon time" instead of menstruation or cycle. It brings me back to a more ancient time when women were powerful and revered as mysterious in their ability to create life . We are part of nature and its cycles. Our bodies have the unique ability to cleanse and renew themselves. Moon time is time of renewal and rebirth. It should not be viewed as a burden or as unclean. Nature gives us this chance to rest and recharge. In ancient times, menstruating women will often go to a place outside of their normal lives and homes, during their time of the month. Other women will bring them food and cater to their needs, since this was a time of rest and renewal. We are so busy in our modern lives, trying to be mothers and exceptional professionals, that we often forget we are women above all. We forget about our needs and our strengths, which can also be our biggest weaknesses.

Making lifestyle changes will not remove pain and bloating overnight. It will take at least a couple of months for your body to adjust, detox and re-balance. Fortunately, this is where some useful herbs come in handy. They will support this process of re-calibration of the body and will help ease up the symptoms of PMS , or regulate menstrual flow.
 If you are like me , and have a regular period with moderate flow, and occasionally experience bloating or breast tenderness, or maybe you experience milder PMS symptoms every month, there are a few common herbs that can help you when this time of the month comes around. I like to make a mix of nettles, red raspberry leaf and peppermint. It is a wonderful tonic tea. It supplies the body with easily absorbed calcium, which is important for a regular menstrual flow, and it strengthens the uterus. Peppermint helps relieve any mild cramping or pain. I like to take this tea about a week before my period starts, but if you have consistent symptoms every month, you can consume it on a daily basis as a nourishing infusion. I also like to put some maca  powder in my smoothies anytime I make one. It adds a wonderful caramel flavor and it is very nourishing to a woman's reproductive system.
 There are a couple of wonderful herbs you can add to the mix, if you experience more severe symptoms, or have irregular periods and irregular menstrual flow:

Vitex agnus ( or chaste berry) is becoming more and more popular in American herbalism. It has a stimulating effect on the pituitary gland, which helps to regulate hormone function. It helps produce hormones that enhance the progesterone cycle and thus balance out the estrogen cycle. It is a good herb for acute conditions, which means it will quickly act and help with pain and menstrual irregularities. It is also safe to take for long period of time , and herbalist Rosemary Gladstar suggests that women with endometriosis take this herb for up to a year to relieve their symptoms.

Another wonderful herb ,which is specifically used for the reproductive system, is Viburnum Opulus. Commonly known as Cramp bark, it is a very effective uterine nervine. It is the best herb to take for cramps, as it relaxes the uterine muscle and relieves the pain. It has a high tannin content , which helps with excessive bleeding.
Cramp bark is a good acute herb, but it can be taken for longer periods of time , with no known side effects. It is a good herb for women , who are just starting menopause and have excessive bleeding due to unbalanced hormones.

Have you used any of the herbs mentioned above? How do you deal with any discomforts of your moon time? Share with us! And during your next moon time, if possible, take at least one day of rest, and rejoice in the wonders of being a woman!

Herbs for Kids: FEVERS

 I am a mom of a 3 year old boy. I am part of a community of moms ,as well, whose children range from newborn to 10 years old. This brought me to the realization, that no matter what the diagnosis or the illness, a child having a fever is the one thing that always calls for " the big guns". I mean emergency room, over the counter medication, doctor's visits, and often enough, antibiotics. So. I thought it was appropriate, to start this new series of blogs with the topic of fevers.
 I have expressed my opinion about treating fevers in other posts, but I wanted to go in detail about why we do not treat fevers most of the time, and how I approach fevers as an herbalist.
 The first thing I want to really emphasize and get out there is this: FEVERS CAN BE A GOOD THING!!!! A fever is the body's immune response to viruses, bacteria, or fungi, and, like coughs or runny noses, it is just a symptom. The fever is not a sickness on its own , but most of the parents treat it like one, and focus primarily on treating the fever , without realizing that it is not the actual cause of sickness.
  In our herbal household , we do not treat fevers. We use herbs and homeopathic remedies to help the body during the healing process, which naturally lowers the fever.
 Here are a few simple reasons why I don't give my son an over-the-counter medication when he has a fever:

  1. Most viruses, like the flu, can not survive in the body, if the internal temperature is over 100 F. This means that, if I give my son medication to lower his fever, I will actually be prolonging his sickness, and I will be helping the virus survive longer in his body. 
  2. My son deals well with having a fever. What I mean by this is that he stays alert and playful, even with 104 F. You always have to judge the seriousness of the situation by appearance, more than by the number on the thermometer. No one knows your child better than you do. If your child looks lethargic and weak, even with a low grade fever, it can be a sign of something serious going on in the body. This is the moment, when you should be hurrying to the doctor's office or emergency room. If your child is like mine, and keeps jumping all over the house, even with "high" fever, then just let the body do what it does best, and heal itself. No medications needed in this case. 
  3. Over-the-counter medication can be harmful. I am not talking about the artificial dyes and sweeteners that plague all kids medications, even though more and more studies link allergies and behavioral problems to those ingredients in our food. I am talking about the fact that, by lowering a fever, we are stopping the body's way of fighting viruses, and thus giving them a chance to thrive again. Consistent use of OTC medication can teach the body that certain immune responses are unnecessary, since they are always interrupted. This can lead to more frequents sickness in children, due to the lowered immune response. Our bodies learn and adapt with the environment we provide for them, so let's teach them something good!
  4. There are many myths about the danger of fevers, and most of them are just that, myths. There are some good articles out there, written by doctors, that teach parents about the myths and facts about fevers. The myths I find most parents fear are that high fevers can cause brain damage and seizures. But know this, only fevers of 108 F and above can cause brain damage, and only 4% of children get seizures, when they have high fever. If fevers still seem scary to you, know that, there are multiple homeopathic and herbal remedies you can use to help the body through the healing process , which will also lower the fever response.  ( Read more about the Myths and Facts about Fevers here.)

 Now let's talk about some natural ways you can treat a fever.  I don't know , if "treat" is the best way to describe what herbs do, because these are actually ways to help the body through the healing process, which results in lowering the fever. So, here are a few ways we do this in our house:
  • The most important thing to remember when your child has a fever is to keep them hydrated. Dehydration is far more dangerous than a number on the thermometer, especially with younger children. Make sure your child drinks plenty of fluids- water, teas, diluted juices. I do not recommend milk here, as I consider milk a food, not a beverage. If you notice any signs of dehydration ( parched lips, dark urine,etc) or you child refuses to drink liquids , while sweating profusely for hours, you definitely need to see a doctor. Dehydration is something that I take very seriously and it is my number one priority to keep myself , and my son, hydrated all the time. Dehydration can prevent our internal organs from functioning properly and keep toxins in our bodies. Just remember this, an average adult's body is made of about 60% water. Infants' bodies are made of about 75-78% water. Water really is life!
  • Do not worry if your child is not eating! It is a natural reaction of the body. When we are sick, our bodies are trying to focus all the energy we have into the healing process. Food often takes away that focus and forces the body to use energy for other processes, like digestion. So when your child is sick ,and refuses food, do not worry. This will not make them weaker, since you can use little tricks to keep the body nourished , without overwhelming the system. Use things like nourishing infusions, homemade broths, or freshly squeezed juices to provide the body with instant nourishment and hydration at the same time. I still do not recommend milk, because most children have a cough or runny/stuffed nose , which accompany the fever. Milk can be mucus forming and can add to the problem when the body is trying to get rid of the phlegm.
  • Use herbs to support the bodies natural processes. We always give our son Echinacea Glycerite to support his immune system and increase the immune response. Often times, this is enough to prevent a more serious illness and fever from appearing, if you catch that runny nose early enough, of course. We also use a lot of herbal infusions. I give my son a variety of herbs, since he is almost four now. If you have to treat an infant with a fever , the best herb is elderberry flower. It is very gentle and will quickly lower a fever. An infusion mixed into breast milk or formula will quickly get in the baby's system. I really like to give nursing mothers the same teas, their children are supposed to be drinking , since their healing power is transferred through the breast milk. Moms and older kids can also add some peppermint and yarrow to the mix.
  • Give your kid a hot bath! It is a wonderful way to lower the body's temperature. I let my little boy play in the tub , filled with hot water. I like to add some Epson salts mixed with a few drops of lavender or peppermint essential oil. Older kids can benefit from just soaking their feet in a hot water bath with sea salt, or again, Epson salts and essential oils. After they are done with the bath, it is best if the kids stay in bed, well covered and don't forget a warm pair of socks on their feet. Let them sleep if they want, and make sure to have a spare set of clothing nearby, as they will start sweating profusely. 
  • Make Apple Cider Vinegar your friend! I use diluted apple cider vinegar for compresses when there is a stubborn fever, when the body has a dry heat, there is no sweating and I need a little something to help jump start the healing process. I soak wash cloths in a mixture of vinegar and water, and put them on my son's ( works on husbands too ) forehead and wrists. I wipe his neck with the cool cloth as well. I usually do this throughout the day and then try the hot bath method at night, if the fever is still going. 

 What home remedies do you have for fevers? Do you treat fevers in your house? Share with us, as I am always curious to learn from others' experience!