It’s no big secret that men and women have different physiologies in some ways, leading to a difference in some nutritional needs. In herbal medicine, there are even herbs that are more suited to women than to men, because their functions are more specific to a woman’s physiology. This guide will give you an idea of some nutrients and herbs which we, as women, may need a bit more of from time to time to help keep us healthy and functioning at our best. I’m sure this list is far from exhaustive, nor am I saying that everyone needs every herb or nutrient on this list all the time. It is a guide, intended to help you get a better understanding of which nutrients might help you if you feel that you need that little bit of extra support at different stages of life.
Dealing with Hormonal Development and PMS
As we develop, we have to deal with changing hormones through our teenage years, hormonal fluctuations and Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS). The good news is that some nutrients and herbs can help make this journey a little smoother.
Evening Primrose Oil
While this oil has been recommended over the years for the management of pre-menstrual symptoms, there is actually very little, if any, research to back this up. However, this doesn’t mean that Evening Primrose Oil has nothing going for it. For those of you suffering with breast pain at that time of the month, Evening Primrose Oil may offer some relief. A study conducted in 2010 to investigate the effects of this oil indicated that it may help, with participants experiencing some improvement in cyclical breast pain, ¹ though it was a pilot study and more research may be needed to confirm this result. Evening Primrose Oil also contains gamma-linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid which may give this oil some anti-inflammatory benefits.²
Vitamin B6 in its pyridoxine form was isolated for the first time in 1938.³ It’s a water soluble vitamin which has shown some benefit in managing the symptoms of PMS.³ Vitamin B6 is a precursor to dopamine and serotonin and as such may be beneficial in managing some of the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. A review conducted in 2016 found that this vitamin is beneficial in helping to reduce emotional symptoms associated with PMS.⁴ In addition to being helpful in PMS management, we also need vitamin B6 for amino acid metabolism and neurotransmitter production³ so it is essential to our overall health. The good news is that deficiency of this vitamin is rare, because it is available in a large variety of foods.³
This mineral is named after the city of Magnesia in Greece where large deposits of it were found.⁵ For those of you who suffer from migraines, magnesium may be helpful. Some research has shown that 600mg magnesium taken daily can reduce the frequency and severity of migraines.⁶ There are also promising results for magnesium in the reduction of PMS symptoms, ⁵ particularly mood changes, ⁷ and it may be beneficial in the management of menstrual cramping and pain.⁸ Further, it can help in the management of chronic muscle cramps and soreness and we also need it for proper nerve conduction and energy production.⁵ Magnesium is a great option if you need some extra support for your nerves or some relief of those pesky cramps.
Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulus)
The spasmolytic activity of cramp bark makes it useful in relieving menstrual cramps as well as other muscle cramps.⁹ It has been used in Western Herbal Medicine as far back as the 1890’s for the management of menstrual pain.¹⁰ An interesting historical fact – In the late 1800’s, more than 60% of opium addicts were women. Why? Because doctors would often prescribe opioid pain killers to relieve menstrual cramps, and soon these women would become addicted from overuse, as opioids were still relatively freely available at this stage.¹¹ These days we have several options available in terms of relief of menstrual cramps, both less potent pain killers and herbal alternatives. Several supplements combine Cramp Bark with magnesium for cramp relief.
Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus)
Also known as Monk’s Pepper, Chaste Tree was used historically in ancient Greece and Rome to help monks stay celibate. For the past 50 years, however, it has been used commonly in Germany to help with menstrual irregularity and this is still its most common use in herbal medicine today.¹² It’s hormone balancing effects make it a helpful and a beneficial herb for the management of Premenstrual Symptoms and menstrual cycle irregularities.¹² Eclectic physicians also used Chaste Tree as a galactagogue to support breast feeding.¹³ When it comes to supplements for Women’s health, this one should always be on the list.
Because most women lose blood every month, we are more prone to iron deficiency than men, especially if we are prone to heavy periods. Iron is required for oxygen transport and it is also a co-factor for many enzymes in the body. The required intake for women is about 18mg/day until menopause, when the required daily intake reduces to 8mg per day.¹⁶ Iron deficiency can also affect brain and memory function and we need for healthy immune function as well.¹⁷ Please speak to your doctor about getting your iron levels checked before taking an iron supplement, as iron can accumulate in the body.
Pre-conception and Pregnancy Care
Growing a small human increases your body’s requirement for nutrients, so taking a good pre-conception and pregnancy multi should be standard for all pre-conception and pregnancy care. Then there are also specific nutrients which we should be aware of that can facilitate normal, healthy foetal development.
The name of this nutrient comes from the Latin word “folium”, meaning leaf. This is because it was first isolated from Spinach leaves back in 1941, before it started being synthesised in 1946.¹⁴ Folic acid is essential during preconception and pregnancy as it is involved in the development of the baby’s neural tube, and deficiency can lead to Spina bifida or Neural Tube Defects. This risk also exists if a woman is deficient in folic acid in the month leading up to conception, ¹⁴ hence the recommendation of supplementing with folic acid or a pregnancy multi containing folic acid as soon as you decide to try and conceive.
This nutrient is found in fresh green leafy vegetables, but the cooking process can destroy most of the folic acid, so deficiency is fairly common and can take just four months for to develop.¹⁴
Iodine is an essential nutrient for thyroid hormone production. Thyroid hormones, in turn, are involved in growth and maturation, central nervous system myelination, oxidation and tissue metabolism.¹⁵ In short, we need sufficient thyroid hormones for several areas of our body to function properly. In the first trimester of pregnancy, the foetus relies purely on the mother’s thyroid hormones. If an iodine deficiency is present and not corrected by mid-term, this can sadly have detrimental effects on the baby’s brain development.¹⁵ By about week 11, the baby starts producing its own thyroid hormones, but it still requires iodine from Mum to do this. Healthy iodine levels are also necessary for normal intellectual development.¹⁵ Luckily, supplements are available that combine just folic acid and iodine for those who can’t stomach a full multi-vitamin during the first trimester of pregnancy.
DHA is short for docosahexanoic acid and is an essential fatty acid which is involved in brain development and function.¹⁸ Some interesting discoveries have been made in regards to human evolution and the inclusion of essential fats in the diet. Archaic humans mainly got their protein from red meat, so they consumed very little omega-3 fatty acids. Early modern humans, on the other hand, ate seafood as a regular part of their diet, especially those who lived in coastal regions.¹⁹ There is some speculation as to the association with increased DHA consumption and an increase in culturalism and brain size in developing humans, but the increased consumption of seafood and expansion of grey matter and cerebral cortex in the brain of humans seems to coincide with the increase in intelligence in modern humans.¹⁹
DHA is the essential fatty acid which is most dominant in the brain and it tends to accumulate in those areas which are associated with learning and memory.²⁰ This nutrient is also particularly important during times when the brain goes through its growth phases, which begins in the last trimester of pregnancy, ²⁰ making this a beneficial nutrient to supplement with during pregnancy.
This herb has a long history of use in pregnancy to prepare the uterus for childbirth ²¹ and these days it is still recommended by midwives and herbalists for this purpose. Various studies have shown that women who took a raspberry leaf supplement starting between 30 and 34 weeks gestation had shorter labour and a lower intervention rate at birth.²¹ In traditional western herbal medicine it was used to help relieve the pain associated with periods as well. ²²
For someone who is healthy and whose body is perfectly in balance, menopause should cause minimal discomfort. Unfortunately, for some, this life change can be very uncomfortable and last anywhere from months to years. However, there are herbal options available to make the body’s transition easier and more comfortable.
This herb was first used by Native Americans, predominantly for problems of the female reproductive tract ²³ and it is still used for this purpose in herbal medicine today. Though the most common use for Black Cohosh is in the management of menopausal symptoms, it may also be beneficial in managing premenstrual syndrome.²⁴ Various studies have been conducted to study the effectiveness of this herb in the management of menopausal symptoms and it has been found to be helpful in reducing hot flushes, night sweats and sleep disturbances amongst other things. It doesn’t actually contain any oestrogen, but works by modulating the activation of oestrogen receptors amongst other actions.²³ Some studies have also indicated that it may be helpful in protecting against bone loss after menopause.²³
This herb is probably a little less commonly used than Black Cohosh, but products containing Red Clover are also available to help relieve the symptoms of menopause. What’s interesting is that traditionally it was never used for this purpose, but rather as a “blood-cleansing” herb for the treatment of skin conditions like eczema and rashes, as well as wound healing in Western herbal medicine. ²⁵ It is only in modern herbal medicine that we use it for the management of menopausal symptoms. From the research it becomes evident that, while the isoflavones from Red Clover can be helpful in managing menopausal symptoms, a minimum level of these is required for a therapeutic effect.²⁵ When considering Red Clover Supplements, try to pick one which is standardized to contain between 40 and 82 mg²⁵ of red clover isoflavones.
After menopause, our bone mass decreases quite drastically. In the first five years post menopause we can lose as much as 2-3% of bone mass per year and after that we continue to lose 1% every year. During this stage, our calcium absorption decreases and calcium excretion increases.²⁶ This means that in the menopausal and post-menopausal years it is incredibly important for us to be aware of our bone density and to supplement with calcium if needed. Studies have shown that supplementation with calcium together with vitamin D can help to reduce the risk of fractures.²⁶ One thing of note here is that calcium when taken together with Vitamin D provides the best results²⁶ and as such many calcium supplements available on the market already contain vitamin D.
This nutrient is produced in our skin and requires sunshine for activation. We can also get small amounts of vitamin D from foods like salmon, tuna, beef, liver and eggs.²⁷ Vitamin D helps us maintain healthy bone density by regulating serum calcium and phosphorus levels, and studies have shown a reduction in bone loss with vitamin D supplementation.²⁷ This nutrient also plays an important role in regulating our immune system as well as healthy muscle function.²⁷ One limitation we have in Australia in terms of healthy sun exposure is the high risk of sun damage to our skin. Unprotected sun exposure is generally recommended before 10am or after 2pm and only for about 5 – 15 minutes at a time, but these guidelines can vary based on individual needs, location and skin type. ²⁸ It is important, however, to be sun smart when getting out in the sun during the hottest time of the day.
Whichever stage of life we’re at, sometimes we need a little support for things that don’t necessarily fall into one of the above categories. The following herbs have various functions, some are great for general health, some help us achieve healthy hair and skin or more energy, and others help us cope with stress or are helpful for imbalances that can affect a woman at any age and any stage.
In history, Grapeseed Extract was used in ancient Greece to treat various skin and eye conditions, varicose veins and to help stem bleeding. Oligomeric proanthocyanidins, one of the active constituents in grape seed, were first identified by a researcher investigating pine bark in the 20th century. Several years after this they were first extracted from Grape Seeds, and these have since become the favoured source for oligomeric proanthocyanidin complexes. ²⁹
Grape seed extract is known for its excellent antioxidant and free-radical scavenging benefits. It also helps to support the health of our capillaries and supports wound healing. There have also been some positive results in regards to Grape seed extract being helpful in the management of fluid retention and healthy circulation.²⁹ All these benefits make it an excellent supplement to keep in mind for anyone suffering from heavy or swollen legs or if an extra antioxidant boost it needed.
Zinc has a variety of important functions in the body. We need it for the formation of immune cells, and hence for healthy immune function, and while it is not included in our ‘pregnancy’ section above, it is a significant nutrient in pregnancy. It’s required to keep both Mum and baby healthy and facilitate normal, healthy development.³⁰
Further, there is also promising literature indicating that zinc may be helpful in improving the condition of our skin, especially in those suffering with acne. It is a co-factor in tissue regeneration, ³⁰ making it an important nutrient to help maintain healthy, radiant skin.
Vitamin C was first isolated in the 1920’s, ³¹ and today it is a supplement used by many for its benefit on the immune system and to help reduce the incidence of colds.³¹ This vitamin is also an important antioxidant and it supports iron absorption.³² Further, it is an important building block of collagen, which is a component of connective tissue. This makes vitamin C essential to healthy skin and wound healing.³² This is one vitamin which should be on the list if you’re looking for anti-aging support.
As children, most dietary silica is obtained from cereals, but many adults, interestingly, get most of their dietary silica from beer. Even though this is interesting, we don’t recommend you get your primary dietary source of silica from beer. Remember always drink in moderation. There is also some in drinking water, though the amount depends on where the water comes from and the surrounding rocks and minerals.⁴⁶ Levels of silica in food sources are soil dependant, with vegetables being the best source.⁴⁶ Some early research suggested that Silica may be involved in bone and connective tissue formation, ⁴⁶ hence its popular modern day use for hair, skin and nail support. It does, however, also support bone formation and some research suggests that supplementation of this mineral may have beneficial effects on bone health as well.⁴⁶
This herb is also referred to as Ashwagandha, which is the Sanskrit word for “horse-like smell”. In traditional Chinese Medicine this herb is thought of much like Korean or Panax ginseng, though it’s less stimulating and in Ayurvedic medicine it is often called Indian ginseng and used to promote health and vitality.³³
In Western Herbal Medicine we use it as an adaptogen, to help support the body’s stress response. Withania can help to protect the body against the effects of long term stress exposure, ³³ as well as being helpful in supporting the nervous system.³³ Traditionally in Western herbal medicine this herb is often used to re-establish vitality in people who are chronically stressed and exhausted, ³³ making it a beneficial supplement for busy women who need a little bit of extra support.
This herb has had an interesting use in history - It is thought that Roman troops used to flail themselves with Stinging Nettle to keep warm.³⁴ This isn’t medicinal and sounds far from pleasant, but Nettle leaf does have some valuable medicinal uses. It has been traditionally used in Western herbal medicine to help with joint pain, eczema, dandruff and, when it was still more common, scurvy. ³⁵ North American Indians and Ayurvedic Medicine Practitioners use it for women’s health,³⁴ and in modern herbal medicine it is often thought of when considering women’s health, since Stinging Nettle leaves are considered very nutritive, containing a variety of vitamins and minerals, including iron. ³⁴ Additionally, it has also shown some antioxidant benefit.³⁴
Cranberry has been used as far back as the 1800’s as a juice to help support cystitis³⁶ and it is still often recommended as such. Unfortunately, these juices also contain added sugars, since cranberries are naturally tart³⁷, so medicinally a cranberry supplement would be more appropriate. Cranberry can help to prevent/reduce the adhesion of bacteria to the membranes of the urinary tract, hence exerting its beneficial effect on the urinary tract.³⁶ Clinical trials support this, with several showing that supplementation with Cranberry can reduce the recurrence of cystitis.³⁸ This makes Cranberry a great supplement to have on hand for women of any age who are prone to contracting cystitis.
Siberian ginseng is the gentler of the Ginseng species, making it suited to women’s health. Another name for this herb is Eleutherococcus, and according to Chinese medicine, it has been used for over 2000 years.³⁹ Siberian ginseng is a wonderful adaptogen and tonic ⁴⁰ and we often use it to help the body adapt to stress and to improve energy and support wellbeing. One study indicated that treatment with Siberian ginseng improved stress parameters over time and also significantly improved mental fatigue.⁴¹ There is some evidence to support the benefits of this herb for immune regulation as well, ⁴² making it a wonderful supplement for busy ladies. It is good to note that, as with many supplements, taking a break every so often is a good idea. With Siberian ginseng, this time frame is generally 6 to 8 weeks, with a two week break in between. ³⁹ ‘⁴²
This herb could well have been included in our PMS section, but then it could also have had a place in the menopause section. As such, it has been included in the general health section as it is a fabulous “women’s herb”, which should not be put into just one box. In traditional Chinese medicine, this herb is often used to treat imbalances related to both menstruation and menopause, and it is also helpful in supporting healthy circulation. ⁴³ Some early studies support the use of Dong Quai in the treatment of a variety of menstrual disorders. ⁴⁴ These days it can predominantly be found commercially in combination supplements aimed at supporting the management of menstrual irregularity and/or menopause.
When it comes to libido support, there seems to be no shortage of supplement options available for men. But what about women? Since women mostly don’t require a testosterone boost to support their libido, the same supplements which are available for men, are not suitable for women. So what can we use instead? Shatavari! Shatavari means “she who possesses a hundred husbands” and its traditional Ayurvedic use is as an aphrodisiac and a “female tonic”.⁴⁵ This herb is sometimes included in combination formulations with other herbs, especially in Ayurvedic medicine, to help support the body through stress, and it has some hormone balancing benefits as well, making it a useful aphrodisiac and tonic for women.⁴⁵
1. Pruthi, S.; Wahner-Roedler, DL.; Torkelson, CJ.; Cha, SS. et al 2010, “Vitamin E and Evening Primrose Oil for management of cyclical mastalgia: A randomized pilot study”, Alt Med Rev, Vol. 15(1), pp. 59-67.
4. Soheila, S.; Faezeh, K.; Kourosh, S.; Fatemeh, S. et al 2016, “Effects of vitamin B6 on premenstrual syndrome: A systemic review and meta-analysis”, Journal of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science, Vol. 9(3), pp. 1346-1353
6. Köseoglu, E.; Talaslioglu, A.; Gönül, AS & Kula, M. 2008, “The effect of magnesium prophylaxis in migraine without aura”, John Libbey Eurotext, Vol. 21(2), pp. 101-108. [Abstract].
21. Braun, L. & Cohen, M. 2015, “Herbs and Natural Supplements – 4th Edition, Chapter: Raspberry Leaf”, pp. 816 – 819, Churchill Livingstone, Chatswood NSW, Australia.
23. Braun, L. & Cohen, M. 2015, “Herbs and Natural Supplements – 4th edition, chapter: Black Cohosh”, pp. 103 – 113, Churchill Livingstone, Chatswood, NSW, Australia.
25. Braun, L & Cohen, M. 2015, “Herbs and Natural Supplements – 4th Edition, Chapter: Red Clover”, pp. 819 – 828, Churchill Livingstone, Chatswood NSW, Australia.
26. Braun, L & Cohen, M. 2015, “Herbs and Natural Supplements – 4th Edition, Chapter: Calcium”, pp. 120 – 136, Churchill Livingstone, Chatswood NSW, Australia.
27. Braun, L & Cohen, M. 2015, “Herbs and Natural Supplements – 4th Edition, Chapter: Vitamin D”, pp. 1125 - 1149, Churchill Livingstone, Chatswood NSW, Australia.
28. Joshi, D.; Center, JR & Eisman, JA, 2010, “Vitamin D deficiency in adults”, Australian Prescriber, Vol 33(4), cited on 11/9/18, https://www.nps.org.au/australian-prescriber/articles/vitamin-d-deficiency-in-adults
38. Neto, CC & Vinson, JA 2011, “Chapter 6: Cranberry”, Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects, 2nd Edition, no page numbers indicated.
42. Natural Standard, 2012, “Siberian Ginseng: A Review of the Literature”, Natural Medicine Journal, Vol 4(3), cited on 13/09/2018, https://www.naturalmedicinejournal.com/journal/2012-03/siberian-ginseng-review-literature
44. World Health Organization, 2004, “Radix Angelica Sinensis”, Essential Medicines and Health Products Information Portal, cited on 13/09/2018, http://apps.who.int/medicinedocs/en/d/Js4927e/5.html
46. Jugdaohsingh, R. 2007, “Silicon and Bone Health”, J Nutr Health Ageing, Vol. 11(2), pp. 99-110.