The hormones produced by our bodies interact with other chemicals we produce in complex, interconnected feedback loops that regulate just about everything about us, from digestion and metabolism, to mood and sexuality, to brain function and the way our skin looks and feels.
During adolescence (the transition from childhood to sexual maturity), our bodies' hormone levels change, often with wild spikes and drops, before settling into a "new normal" in adulthood. Later in life, women experience a second transition in hormone levels, menopause, that's rather like adolescence in reverse. In addition, some of us experience illnesses or medical treatments that affect our hormones.
Spikes and drops in hormone levels can make us uncomfortable, with effects including acne, mood swings or depression, menstrual difficulties, sluggish digestion, weight gain, water retention, and more.
Fortunately, both herbs and lifestyle changes can help us with many of these discomforts. For anyone going through hormone changes, moderate exercise and an appropriate diet can help your body better manage the stress of those changes. You'll likely weather hormonal storms better if you eat less sugar and processed foods, more vegetables, less meat, more omega-3 fatty acids, less omega-6, and plenty of Vitamin D. Magnesium can be helpful, too—if you're not sure you get enough in your food (most of us don't), try a 250mg tablet twice a day.
Which herbs you might want to try will vary depending on your individual circumstances. Here are a few of my favorites:
Black Cohosh The root of this woodland native (Cimicifuga racemosa) is my first go-to herb for menopausal issues, especially hormone-related depression. Take tincture or tablets twice/day for at least a week before deciding whether it's working for you. Black cohosh is also helpful for certain kinds of pain—try it as needed for menstrual cramps, especially when accompanied by gloomy mood. Other herbs with anti-spasmodic action used for cramps include black haw and cramp bark (both in the viburnum family), and the nervine California poppy.
Vitex Extracts from the shiny dark berries of this bushy plant (V. agnus-castus) are used to help restore, establish, or maintain a healthy hormone balance; it acts on the pituitary gland, which controls a variety of chemical feedback loops. Vitex has a long history of use for problems related to the menstrual cycle, including PMS, irregular cycles, cramps, and more. In addition, because it doesn't directly act on the ovaries, it's particularly valuable for post-menopausal women, whose ovaries are inactive or missing; I've found it helpful with post-hysterectomy hot flashes and brain fog. Try vitex tincture once a day for at least 10 days or a complete menstrual cycle. Its full effects may not be felt until after three months of use. Although vitex often works well by itself, many users find it best in combination with other herbs that act in different ways.
Dandelion If you're feeling bloated from water retention, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is your diuretic friend—eat its bitter leaves or take it as a tincture several times a day for 2-3 days. Dandelion also has mild hormone-regulating effects, and can be useful if your body's being sluggish about eliminating waste. (Hormonal spikes result in your body needing to rid itself of excess.) For sluggish digestion, take dandelion or other digestive bitters in a form that can be tasted in the half hour before each meal. Other herbs used to help the body digest and eliminate include burdock, yellow dock, and licorice.
Holy Basil Hormonal changes are stressful, both physically and emotionally—and stress in turn can worsen hormone imbalance. Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is my favorite helper for handling stress and strengthening spirit—try its pleasant-tasting tincture in your favorite tea. Other calming herbal adaptogens you might consider include ashwagandha (first and foremost), rhodiola, and schisandra. All combine well with physical stress-management techniques such as yoga, controlled breathing, nervines (see below), and any sort of moderate exercise.
Skullcap In combination with other herbs listed above (especially holy basil), small doses of American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) make an excellent nervous-system tonic and mild anti-inflammatory agent that's well-suited for hormonal issues—caution: larger doses are apt to make you sleepy. Other herbal nervines to consider include: lemon balm (particularly for anxiety), passionflower (for insomnia), milky oats, and California poppy (anti-spasmodic as well as calming).
This list is not exhaustive, but does cover the herbs many people have found most useful for hormone-related issues, and least likely to cause a bad reaction. PLEASE EXERCISE CAUTION and do careful research when considering whether these or any other herbal remedies are a good match for your own condition.