Herbs for hormones

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Tame PMS, hot flashes, and even hormone-related depression with herbs and supplements

tIRED OF RIDING the hormone express? From painful periods at puberty through the hot flashes of menopause, our bodies and moods are dragged across peaks and valleys. To level out the ride, more women are turning to natural, drug-free remedies. (A study published last summer in Menopause found that more than half of women ages 45 to 65 use them.)

Whether your next obstacle is premenstrual syndrome, perimenopause, menopause, or the hormone-related blues, there's an herb or supplement that can help.
st. John's wort for mild depression

The bond between hormonal fluctuations and depression is inextricable. Estrogen is a feel-good drug, and when levels lag (either at the end of the cycle or during perimenopause), the dark clouds roll in. Lucky for us, St. John's wort has a long history of combating mild to moderate depression, and the perks likely extend to estrogen-related blues. In one small trial, St. John's wort reduced PMS symptoms by 50 percent.

Look for: Gaia Herbs, New Chapter, Puritan's Pride, or any brand containing 0.3 percent hypericin. A typical dose is three 300 milligram capsules daily. St. John's wort is considered safe to take, but it does collide with several drugs. If you're on prescription medication, get the OK from your doctor first.
black cohosh for hot flashes

Once used by Native American women to smooth hormonal hiccups, black cohosh's roots are renowned for extinguishing hot flashes. A 2002 review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that it eased hot flashes in three out of four trials. In one study, women saw their hot flashes plummet from an average of 4.9 a day to fewer than one. The herb doesn't stimulate growth in estrogen-sensitive tissues where dormant cancer cells may lurk, so it's safe for women who have had breast or ovarian cancer.

Look for: Remifemin, a German brand of black cohosh known for its purity. A typical dose is a 20 mg tablet twice a day. Take it for six months, then taper off to evaluate its effectiveness, says Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University School of Medicine, author of A Woman's Guide to Menopause and Perimenopause (Yale University Press, 2005), and consultant for Remifemin.
chasteberry for heavy flow

More than two dozen studies have shown that the fruit of the chaste tree — which grows in Asia, Europe, and now the southeastern United States — can help regulate blood flow, providing relief for women who suffer from irregular periods. (It works by boosting progesterone during the second half of the cycle.) Chasteberry is not known to cause any serious side effects, but like most herbal remedies, it hasn't been studied at length. So taper off after six months and see how you feel.

Look for: Vitex (the herb's botanical name) by Nature's Way, suggests Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., director of education at the University of Arizona School of Integrative Medicine. For dosages, follow the label's instructions.
magnesium for low moods

A cellular workhorse, magnesium powers everything from moods to blood vessel expansion to cell stabilization — all three of which play a role in PMS. In two of three small studies, the mineral bested a placebo in alleviating the monthly blahs, especially bloating and breast tenderness. (Fittingly, chocolate is high in magnesium, which might explain those monthly cravings.) It's tough to get enough magnesium from diet alone.

Look for: Nature Made, Nature's Bounty, and Doctor's Best. Take 200 mg daily for the first two weeks of your cycle, then 400 mg for the last two.
calcium for cramps

In a 1998 study, women who took 1,200 mg of calcium carbonate daily saw symptoms — bloating, irritability, and cramps — plunge by 48 percent. Researchers suspect there is a link between PMS and a mild calcium deficiency, says Elizabeth Bertone-Johnson, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and lead author of a more recent study that showed calcium-rich foods may also help reduce a woman's likelihood of developing PMS.

Since the average woman gets only 700 mg of calcium a day from food, it pays to use a supplement to reach the 1,200 mg mark.

Look for: Caltrate, Citracal, or Nature Made, three brands that are recommended by Consumerlab, a watchdog group that tests supplements for purity. Aid absorption by taking half the allotted amount at breakfast and the other half at dinner.
double whammy for menopause

In two studies of menopausal women in Germany and South Korea, researchers found that teaming up St. John's wort with black cohosh eased menopausal symptoms. Yale University's Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., suggests trying black cohosh alone first, to see if the relief from hot flashes helps you sleep better, which can improve your mood. "If your negative emotions persist after a month or two, treat the depression," she says, adding that there's no contraindication to taking the two herbs together.
double wham my for PMS

For a two-pronged approach to PMS, look for a supplement touting both calcium and magnesium, made by a variety of companies including New Chapter and Natural Factors. (Find one that also has vitamin D to boost your calcium absorption.)

LEARN MORE: For tips on managing PMS with food, vitamins, and mindfulness, see naturalhealthmag.com/hormonehelp.

PHOTO (COLOR): Get a handle on your hormones with (from top) magnesium and calcium; chasteberry; St. John's wort; and black cohosh.

PHOTO (COLOR): From left; Try St. John's wort for depression, chasteberry for irregular periods, and black cohosh for hot flashes.

PHOTO (COLOR)

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By Catherine Guthrie

Photography by Levi Brown

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