by Patricia Rackowski
When I was 46 and getting closer to menopause, I began to have irregular menstrual cycles. Instead of my usual 26 day cycle, I was getting my period early, at 19 days or 21 days. I was spotting between periods, and I had terrible PMS for several days a month.
I began to read about herbal remedies for menopause, I went to workshops and talked with my acupuncturist. I learned how to keep my menstrual cycle regular with herbs and natural remedies. After awhile, I had a better menstrual cycle than ever, and I wished I knew about these things years earlier. I began to share what I had learned in a workshop called “A Natural Approach to Menopause”.
A normal menstrual cycle is 26-32 days, with the most fertile cycles averaging 29 days. A fertile and symptom-free cycle is a reflection of perfect health in a woman. If her body cannot support a pregnancy because of starvation, serious illness or stress, even a young woman may stop ovulating altogether.
But in between a perfect menstrual cycle and no menstrual cycle are many variations: short cycles, long cycles, heavy bleeding, fibroids growing, mood swings, irritability, and painful menses. Many women suffer one to several days of these symptoms every month, to the detriment of their relationships, jobs and emotional balance. I did. But between 46 and 47, even so late in my ovaries’ career, I was able to establish a perfect menstrual cycle such as I had never had. Thus proving, by the way, that PMS was not “all in my head”.
Before I describe the herbal regulators of the menstrual cyde, let me mention two common treatments for PMS and irregular cycles. If you complain to your doctor about your mood swings, you will be given an anti-depressant. It may or may not help, but it will probably have the side effect of decreased sexual desire. If you complain about your irregular cycles, spotting and heavy bleeding, you will be given a “low dose” birth control pill. It will control your bleeding, but probably make your moods worse, due to the synthetic progestin in the pill. Perhaps some of you have already tried these
Herbs are the best remedy for the menstrual irregularities of PMS and premenopause. Herbs can regulate the menstrual cycle, working with your body and its hormonal signals, without side effects. At the same time, working wholistically, herbs can help to re-establish emotional balance.
Vitex: the Women's HerbVitex (also called ChasteTree Berry) is an herb that has been used for over a thousand years in Europe to help regulate women’s hormones. In modern times, vitex is widely recommended by herbalists in England and Germany for PMS, irregular periods, heavy bleeding, infertility, hyperprolactinemia, poor milk production in lactating women, premenopause, and perimenopause.
Studies in Germany have shown that vitex increases LH and supports progesterone production by the corpus luteum. Progesterone deficiency can be the cause of many problems, including mood swings, food cravings, irritability, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, cyclical migraine headaches, dizziness, decreased libido, bloating and breast tenderness.
In Germany, vitex is generally prescribed in the liquid extract form. 25-40 drops in a little water are taken once a day, first thing in the morning. Don’t eat or drink anything else, except water, for 1/2 hour afterwards. Vitex can be taken as early as 3 AM, if you are up. Vitex is much more effective when taken this way, as opposed to later in the day or after meals.
Young women can take Vitex for the last one or two weeks of their cycle, depending on when their symptoms usually begin. After six months to a year of using Vitex, if the cycle is regular again, Vitex can be discontinued. Women near menopause should take Vitex every day. Often the period will come early during the first month of using Vitex.
Women usually feel a better emotional balance within the first week of taking Vitex, but it takes at least six months for the full benefit of Vitex to take effect, as far as regulating the cycle. During this time, symptoms such as headaches and bloating should continually improve. You cannot improve faster by taking twice as much vitex. Herbs don’t work that way. Once you have taken enough, they either work or they don’t work, but more won’t help. If you have experienced no improvement after three months of taking Vitex, then it is not for you.
Some women whose mood changes in PMS are characterized more by anxiety than irritability can also benefit from St. John’s Wort in addition to Vitex. PMS that is characterized by depression may be more related to low estrogen levels, and can benefit from Dong Quai.
Dong Quai is the traditional Chinese herb for women. It’s name has been translated as “compelled to return”, indicating that it makes the Menstrual Cycle regular. It has been used to help teenage girls establish a regular cycle, to help women after pregnancy re-establish a regular cycle (indicating it could do the same for women coming off of birth control pills), and to help premenopausal women maintain a regular cycle as long as possible.
Dong Quai is usually taken with other herbs that work synergistically with it, such as Rehmannia, Ligusticum and White Peony. Women’s Treasure tablets, by Planetary Formulas, is a good example of such a formula. Women’s Liberty Tea, by Traditional Medicinals, is another good way to use Dong Quai. Drink one cup a day, in mid-morning or mid-afternoon. (This tea, which also contains licorice, is not for women
with high blood pressure. Regular use of licorice can slightly increase blood pressure. Use Women’s Treasure tablets instead.)
Dong Quai tends to support the estrogen side of the equation in hormonal balance. It works to help the ovaries produce estrogen. This is demonstrated by its great effectiveness in relieving hot flashes in premenopausal and early perimenopausal women, when the ovaries are still working, and its complete lack of effectiveness in relieving hot flashes in postmenopausal women and women with ovaries removed.
By using Vitex and Dong Quai together, the menstrual cycle can be completely harmonized. If your cycle does not respond to these herbs, then you may need to consult with an acupuncturist or naturopathic doctor for additional herbal support, or with a medical doctor for hormone testing. There may be an underlying medical condition such as hypothyroidism or a pituitary gland disorder causing the menstrual cycle irregularities. Or, in the case of menopause, you might be too far along in perimenopause for these remedies to help.
As perimenopause progresses, and ovulation ceases, Vitex and Dong Quai become less the herbs of choice. Black cohosh and other herbs are better at relieving hot flashes, and natural progesterone cream will have to be used to support progesterone levels that the body can no longer maintain on its own.
Some Products with Vitex and Dong QuaiWOMEN’S LIBERTY TEA by Traditional Medicinals (irregular periods) Licorice Root, Orange Peel, Wild Yam Root, Ginger Root, Cinnamon Bark, Dong Quai Root, Clove Stem, Fo Ti, Angelica Root
VITEX AGNUS CASTUS or CHASTE TREE BERRY extract (irregular periods, mood swings, cyclical headaches, infertility)
PMS FORMULA tablets by Pioneer (irregular periods & PMS) Chaste Tree, Dong Quai, Black Haw, Alfalfa, Licorice, Magnesium, Vitamin B6
WOMEN’S TREASURE tablets by Planetary Formulas (irregular & painful periods) Dong Quai, Rehmannia, Peony, Ligusticum, False Unicorn Root, Blue Cohosh, Cramp Bark Atractylodes, Black Cohosh, Ginger Root, Poria Cocos
VITEX/ALFALFA SUPREME extract by Gaia Herbs (hot flashes & mood swings) Chaste Tree, Alfalfa, Night-blooming Cerus, St. John’s Wort, Sage, Wild Oats, Motherwort
WOMEN’S TRANSITION tablets by Pioneer (hot flashes & mood swings) Chaste Tree, Dong Quai, Black Cohosh, Alfalfa, Licorice Root, Motherwort, Rice Bran Oil