I trained as a nurse in the early 1990s but by the time I completed my training had become very disillusioned.At 20 years old, it was already clear to me that medication and surgery alone seldom addressed the root causes of dis-ease. I also felt that despite good NHS intentions and ideals, the public had come to rely on it for magic bullets. As soon as I qualified, I trained as a medical herbalist, though I continued to nurse in different specialties, and as an infirmary nurse in a monastery boarding school. I started my private practice in Somerset in 2000 and only finally left nursing when I adopted two children in 2011. I host walks and talks on medicinal plants while growing and gathering most of the plants I use in my dispensary.
Women have long been associated with plant lore and the herbal wisdom for dealing with women’s and family health issues. Whether a wise crone or a good housewife, a midwife, healer or mother, these women knew what plants were growing in their environment and could use them to treat common and minor ailments. Yet over the centuries this knowledge and power has been eroded by the ascent of orthodox medicine, a realm where male medics predominate except in a few specialties like general practice, paediatrics and psychiatry.
Educating for self-care
In future, where free healthcare may increasingly be less available, we must start educating children about how their bodies work and what a body needs to function in a healthy way. And if we were to empower women to take back some of the healing skills they held traditionally, they would surely hand this knowledge on to their children. As pressures on the NHS increase, women should equip themselves with simple strategies for maintaining their own and their family’s health.
Medical herbalists are the only non-medical practitioners legally allowed to diagnose. A consultation is usually an hour long and involves taking a full medical history, including diet and lifestyle. This enables the practitioner to identify issues that contribute to the illness and to prescribe a combination of herbs, usually in the form of alcohol extracts or teas specifically made up for that person. Advice on diet and lifestyle factors would be offered too, so the person understands what they can do to support the body to function better.
In my practice I see a wide range of conditions, but significantly more women than men, and many have health problems specific to women. My consultations, rather than focusing on a herbal prescription in the short term, are always geared towards helping people understand how to incorporate into their daily lives what their body needs in the long term. You can find your local qualified herbalist through the National Institute of Medical Herbalists or the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy. Many herbalists run short courses, walks and workshops for people who want to know more.
A system of medicine
Mainstream information about herbs tends to focus on specific herbs for particular ailments. However, I learned from a system of medicine called endobiogenics that when a disease arises, it does so because the body lacks what it needs to function in a balanced way. It could be something environmental, emotional, nutritional or something that was missing during a normal developmental phase. Though the body may be able to adapt in the short term, subsequently as tissues become over-stimulated or congested, and excess hormones or wastes accumulate or nutrients essential for normal functioning and repair are depleted, a disease state may develop. As endobiogenics sees it, allopathic medication interrupts this functional adaptation, and unless the original problem is addressed the body will find another adaptive route. This may manifest as a side-effect of the drug prescribed. Although everyone is unique in the way their body adapts, certain patterns can be grouped together. These are largely the kinds of pattern described in traditional systems of healing, for instance Chinese and humoral (galenic) medicine, and ayurveda.
Medicinal plants work in three main ways to restore balance to a system that is going through this process of functionally adapting:
- by providing phytotherapuetic agents to correct a biological function (research science is revealing many of these actions)
- by providing essential nutrients required for repair and function of a particular system or organ
- by supporting systems of catabolism and elimination of hormones, toxins and waste products of metabolism.
Medicinal herbs are generally very safe and well tolerated. There are some exceptions where interactions are an issue. For instance, some herbs heighten the effect of an biochemical pathway involving cytochrome P450, an enzyme that accelerates the breakdown and elimination of some medications. St John’s Wort is the best-known herb with the potential to do this. Herbs with this action can theoretically reduce the effectiveness of prescription medications, such as the contraceptive pill or anti-coagulants. But on the whole herbs are safe, affordable and easy enough to wildcraft and grow. It is important to be sure of correct identification of course; a good medicinal or botanical plant guide is essential and any herb you buy should come from a reputable supplier.
Simple solutions for common female health problems
Many of the best-known and well-researched plants known to be beneficial to women’s health are not indigenous to the UK. But many common medicinal plants do grow in the British countryside or can be easily cultivated even in a small garden or outside area. They can be used fresh or collected and preserved by juicing and freezing, drying for infusions, in alcohol for tinctures, with sugar or honey for syrups, and macerated in vinegars or in oil.
I have found that many common female health problems can be helped with a few herbs and some dietary changes. In my experience, with a little knowledge medication may be avoided, reduced or withdrawn by using simple herbs for self-treatment at home.
I explain to my patients that the most powerful agent of self-care is a nourishing diet. If the body has all the building blocks it requires it will be better able to adapt to whatever life throws at it. The level of wheat consumption is very high in modern western diets. I believe this impacts on gut health and hormone levels and that the effect accumulates. So I encourage my patients not to rely on wheat as a staple part of their diet, and over time I guide them toward making sourdough breads and pre-soaking organic grains and legumes so the nutrients become more bio-available.
- I often advise a grain-free diet mainly because gluten seems so allergenic. And though I am sceptical about the gluten-free craze, in my experience gluten is commonly linked with auto-immune disorders. It is rare for me to get negative feedback from patients who have managed to eliminate gluten from their diet for a month or more. Perhaps this is because modern wheat produces larger gluten particles than traditional wild wheat and shop-bought bread is fast-risen with commercial yeasts, which means the gluten content is much higher. Traditionally slow-risen sour dough methods using natural yeasts from the environment have a lower gluten content.
- Phytic acid in the bran of most grains (and legumes), binds to minerals in the gut, particularly iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc, potentially reducing their absorption. Phytic acid can be broken down by fermentation and long soaking but this rarely happens in modern cooking.
- I take seriously a mounting body of evidence suggesting that the weedkiller glysophate can disturb the endocrine system. Its widespread use means there are residues of it in all non-organic foods, particularly grains.
A diet rich in phyto-oestrogens can positively affect women’s hormonal health. These selective estrogen receptor modulators or SERMS are very similar in chemical structure to endogenous oestrogens but much weaker in action. So in conditions where there is oestrogen dominance (usually because of poor elimination), eg premenstrual syndrome, they compete for receptor sites and exert a weak effect. In conditions with low oestrogen levels, eg menopause, they provide some oestrogenic effect when there would otherwise be none.
Many studies have tried to clarify whether SERMs increase the risk of developing oestrogen-sensitive breast cancers. Typically their conclusions are mixed, because cancers are still poorly understood and their aetiology is so multifactorial. Yet many phyto-oestrogen-rich foods are a frequently consumed staple in many indigenous diets where (as far as I have been able to discover) rates of breast or other oestrogen-dominant cancers are not unexpectedly high. This suggests to me that a plant-based diet high in nuts, seeds and appropriately prepared legumes is more supportive to health than one relying heavily on pre-prepared and refined foods contaminated with chemicals.
Excess oestrogen is known to play a part in the development of breast cancers and fibroids. There is increasing concern about the effects of exogenous environment oestrogens such as bisphenols from plastics. Brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, kale, cauliflower etc) are known to promote the conjugation of oestrogen, thereby enabling elimination of any excess (Zeligs, 2009). Their inclusion in the daily diet may help sustain health.
Menopause is the most common complaint I see in my clinic, particularly since the media coverage that HRT may increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Some women suffer debilitating symptoms that may significantly effect daily life. Hot sweats and flushes are a frequent cause of distress, disturbed sleep and poor concentration. Sage can be very effective for reducing sweats because of its drying action. It was traditionally considered to be oestrogenic. It has also been shown to improve memory. It can be used fresh or dried or as a tincture up to three times a day. If used as an infusion it is best taken cold.
Heavy menstruation is frequently medicated with the contraceptive pill. Causes include anaemia (which causes heavy periods and is a complication of them), thyroid problems, fibroids, peri-menopause and endometriosis. Contraceptive IUD’s may also cause it. Less commonly it may be caused by cancers or as a side-effect from anticoagulant medications.
In herbal medicine oestrogen dominance is thought to cause a thicker endometrial layer to form during the cycle possibly because the liver is not breaking down and eliminating oestrogen efficiently from the body. I recommend daily brassicas in the diet to boost elimination. The herb ladies mantle is an astringent herb traditionally thought to be progestrogenic. Its toning action is used to reduce heavy menstrual bleeding. Nettles are styptic and rich in many vitamins and minerals including vitamin C and iron. Roses are cooling, astringent and mildly bitter so may reduce bleeding and pelvic congestion, and promote liver function. I use them to help women create healthy boundaries and better self-care when they are overstretched emotionally. These three herbs make a pleasant-tasting herbal infusion. They grow prolifically and can be easily harvested in large amounts, for drying and storing for daily use throughout the year.
Premenstrual syndrome is an umbrella term used to cover many symptoms including breast tenderness, bloating, mood swings and food cravings. From a herbalist perspective it too is usually due to poor elimination of oestrogens and exposure to exogenous environmental oestrogens. Again a diet rich in phyto-oestrogens and brassicas is beneficial. Including bitter herbs in the diet will also promote liver function and help offload oestrogen. If breast tenderness is an issue, dandelion root can be gently roasted and drunk as a pleasant tasting coffee substitute that supports the liver and kidneys and has diuretic effects that reduce bloating. Caffeine aggravates breast tenderness. All the bitter salad leaves and citrus fruits like lemon (zest) and grapefruit can have a positive effect on liver function.
Period pain/dysmenorrhea may be of two types. Congestive dysmenorrhea occurs in the days leading up to menstruation and stops when bleeding commences. Congestive pain is due to poor pelvic blood flow which may have its roots in other system imbalances. A simple approach is to treat the liver using bitter foods, as above, and to promote the flow of blood through the pelvis using warming aromatic spices like cinnamon and ginger. A common meadow herb called yarrow contains antiinflammatory compounds and is used to open up the circulation and regulate blood flow.
Spasmodic dysmenorrhea is felt when bleeding starts. It involves an imbalance in prostaglandins and can often be rectified within one cycle simply by the addition of good quality omega 3 fats to the diet. Tinned sardines and mackerel are a cheap and sustainable source of these fats and can be added to the diet three times a week. Cramps can occur when the body needs more magnesium. Magnesium is required in large amounts to metabolise a high carbohydrate diet, but phytates in grains bind to magnesium and impair its absorption (www.ncbi.nlm.nih. gov/pmc/articles/PMC1855626), yet another reason to cut out grains. Magnesium is present in high levels in cocoa: a good excuse to indulge in some pre-menstrual, highquality, dark chocolate! Raspberry leaf is a gentle uterine tonic that can be drunk as a pleasant-tasting tea three times a day in the two weeks leading up to menstruation to ease cramps. Add a little fresh grated ginger or a pinch of cayenne powder for its warming anti-spasmodic effects. Feverfew is another herb containing compounds that regulate inflammatory prostaglandins. It is an easy plant to grow in the garden or a pot and best taken as a fresh leaf each day, rolled up and swallowed down with plenty of water like a little pill. Some people are sensitive to it and get little blisters in their mouth if they chew it so swallowing whole is best, or make a tincture of the whole flowering herb: macerate in vodka, chop the herb finely, press into a jar and cover with the alcohol. Leave to soak for two weeks then press and bottle. Take a teaspoon in a little water, twice a day. This herb is also excellent for preventing hormonal headaches and migraines.
Cystitis causes misery for many women. It is usually caused by bacteria from the anus contaminating the urethra, or when vigorous sexual intercourse bruises the urethra (‘honeymooners disease’). It can be simply treated at home. It is essential to cut out drinks like fruit juices. Even the standard cranberry juice is full of sugar that feed the bacteria. A cranberry extract supplement can be useful however, as it prevents the bacteria adhering to the bladder wall. Cut out carbonated drinks, tea and coffee and drink plenty of fresh water. Barley water made with pearl/pot barley is a soothing demulcent (a substance that relieves irritation of the mucous membranes) for the bladder. Make a large pot of herbal tea blending together thyme (either fresh or dried) for its anti-bacterial properties, couch grass roots for their soothing, anti-inflammatory qualities and goldenrod herb for its bitter tonic and diuretic effects. Drink this freely throughout the day. A litre would be a good therapeutic quantity, made with 10g of herbs.
- ½ cup of whole pot barley
- 5 cups of water
- ¼ of a cinnamon stick
- Grated ginger to your taste
- Freshly squeezed juice of 1–2 lemons
Place the barley, water, cinnamon stick and some grated ginger into a pan and simmer for 20 minutes. If you have organic unwaxed lemons you can simmer the peel for the final five minutes which intensifies the taste.After cooling, strain the mixture and finally add fresh lemon juice for extra flavour. Store in a cool place and drink between one and three cups daily, diluted to your taste if necessary.
Stress, anxiety and mental load. If I had a female patient in my consulting room that didn’t say that this was an issue for them then I would want to swap with their life immediately, or know what their magic bullet was! The modern world puts an enormous expectation on women to work and manage home and family life, often with little support. The pressures of family life are greater than ever and women usually bear the emotional load for everyone.
Since busyness is a modern disease, it is essential to put aside personal time to rest and recharge. This can be in any way that an individual finds most beneficial. A walk in nature, yoga, Tai Chi, exercise, meditation, massage, bodywork treatments, art, reading. And there is nothing wrong with a gentle nap in a quiet room. Avoid relying on caffeine as it only depletes energy in the long term. It is easy to succumb to sugar as a quick energy boost, but the blood sugar yo-yos up and down and causes energy to peak and trough. Instead, keep energy levels steady with good fats and protein from eggs, oily fish, nuts and seeds. To support the adrenal glands sprinkle a teaspoon of nettle seeds everyday on food or stir them into some yoghurt.
Lemon balm is a wonderful herb for uplifting the spirits while calming the nerves. It is best taken as a fresh tea but can be harvested and made into a tincture or dried for use during the winter months. It has anti-viral properties against the herpes virus, and research shows the oil to be especially useful for the herpes virus that causes cold sores, shingles and chicken pox (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ pubmed/18693101). Chamomile is a relaxing herb. I think of it as the mother herb, like the reassuring hug we want when things feel too much to cope with and we need to reduce our fight or flight response. I use this herb to help stress-related symptoms: an uptight nervous tummy or irritable bowel, or to calm histamine reactions in allergies, promote sleep, and ease pain by relaxing tense muscles. Chamomile enjoys growing in rough ground and selfseeds if the area is left undisturbed. Picking the flowers singly is very time consuming, although 10 or so fresh flowers make a pretty and effective tea. For storage, harvest the whole flowering tops, as the green bits are mildly active too, and can be made into a tincture fresh or, if dried, in infusions.
I have been able to only scratch the surface of an enormous subject. There are many excellent books and resources and it is also worth knowing who and where your local medical herbalists are.
Wild drugs, Zoe Hawes
Practical herbs I & II, Henriette Kress
The complete woman’s herbal, Anne McIntyre
Women, hormones and the menstrual cycle, Ruth Trickey
www.google.co.uk/search?q=elanas+pantry&oq=elanas& aqs=chrome.1.69i57j0l5.4568j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie= UTF-8
Zeligs MA (2009) Diet and estrogen status: the cruciferous connection. Journal of Medicinal Food. 1(2): 67-82. doi:10.1089/jmf.1998.1.67.