Hormones are chemical signaling agents produced by different endocrine glands for regulating our biological functions. They are complex molecules, some of them with antagonistic pairs having opposite effects. For example, insulin is secreted by the beta cells of the pancreas and another hormone glucagon secreted by the alpha cells of the pancreas. They form an antagonistic pair.
When blood sugar levels are high after a meal, insulin helps the sugar to be absorbed into cells and the liver, thus reducing blood glucose levels. When glucose levels become too low in the blood, glucagon gets activated. It converts stored glycogen in the liver back into glucose and releases it into the bloodstream.
Similarly, the hormone ghrelin––called the hunger hormone for obvious reasons––have an antagonistic counterpart in the hormone leptin associated with satiety. When we have been without food for quite some time, Ghrelin levels increase, making us hungry. When we eat, ghrelin levels come down and leptin levels increase, suppressing hunger. As you can see, our endocrine system works on biofeedback that helps maintain a balance between the different hormones.
Pituitary, thyroid, and adrenal glands, ovaries in women and testes in men all secrete a number of hormones with different actions. When they are all perfectly balanced, we enjoy good health. But several factors like diseases, changes in the atmosphere and in the body, diet changes etc., may result in imbalances that produce undesirable symptoms and disorders. Since the actions of hormones are still not fully understood, it is very difficult to treat hormonal imbalances in the traditional way.
But people have observed over ages that certain herbs have a balancing effect on hormones, although it is not fully known exactly how they act. Such herbs usually have a beneficial effect on the general health and well being of a person. They are often referred to as adaptogens since they help the body to adapt to changes in the environment as well as metabolic changes within the body. The following are some of the best herbs for balancing hormones.
Commonly known as milk vetch, this herb is used in Chinese Medicine to treat a wide variety of health issues, including heart disease, liver problems, upper respiratory infections, and asthma. It is now commonly used for its immune stimulating action as well as its anti-aging effect. The latter is attributed to the compound cycloastragenol in the herb which activates the enzyme telomerase that protects the DNA of cells during cell division.
The hormone balancing property of Astragalus helps in regulating blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Astragalus has a protective effect on the beta cells of the pancreas that secretes insulin. It counteracts insulin resistance where the receptors of insulin become progressively desensitized to it because of high levels of circulating hormone. Insulin resistance is a leading cause of type 2 diabetes.
2. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha is a popular herb in the Indian system of medicine Ayurveda. Its wide-ranging action on the endocrine system makes it an excellent adaptogen. Ashwagandha has a balancing effect on the adrenal glands and the thyroid. People with hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism are both benefited by taking Ashwagandha extract.
Ashwagandha can reduce stress, improve blood circulation, and prevent premature aging. It is considered an aphrodisiac, and is used to treat erectile dysfunction in men, but its ability to relieve stress is thought to be behind this effect. A similar effect on women is attributed to increased blood flow to the reproductive organs.
As the species name ‘somnifera’ suggests, Ashwagandha improves sleep. It has a rejuvenating effect on older people, helping them to regain physical vigor and vitality. It also improves memory.
3. Maca root (Lepidium meyenii)
The root of this turnip-like plant belonging to the cabbage family is called Peruvian ginseng after its native place. It is no relative of true ginseng though. The highly nutritious root is used as a vegetable, and is consumed in the Andean cuisine.But what made it popular is its energy boosting effect that is thought to have provided strength and stamina to the Inca warriors of old.
Athletes now use powdered Maca root to increase stamina. The hormone balancing effect of this root provides additional benefits like stress relief.
Maca root has plant hormones that confer special benefits to women such as relieving premenstrual syndrome and menopausal symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats.
4. American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)
American ginseng is a true ginseng, although it has a milder and more controlled action compared to the Chinese ginseng. It supports the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, helping maintain correct hormonal balance. However, it does not overstimulate the endocrine system.
American ginseng works by strengthening the immune system and relieving stress. It improves digestion, absorption, and assimilation of nutrients from the diet, which goes a long way in building up strength and stamina and improving general health. It has special benefits for male reproductive health too, since it improves sexual drive and performance.
5. Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens)
The berry of Saw Palmetto is used in herbal medicine to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia. Taking this herb may help increase sperm count and reduce chronic fatigue. It relieves stress and improves immune function too.
Saw Palmetto has a balancing effect on the endocrine system as a whole, but is particularly known for its beneficial action on both male and female reproductive system. Since both men and women have the same sex hormones estrogen and progesterone, but in varying amounts, it is not difficult to see how the same herb can be of use for improving the reproductive function and libido in both sexes.
6. Tribulus (Tribulus terrestris)
This common weed growing prostrate on the ground is known as goat-head and puncture vine because of its spiny seeds. Generally regarded as an aphrodisiac, the extract of this plant is used in Indian and Chinese medicine systems to treat male reproductive problems, including low sperm count. Rather than increasing the production of testosterone or other male sex hormones, Tribulus is thought to stimulate androgen receptors in the brain which results in better utilization of these hormones.
A component of Tribulus known as Protodioscin may help increase DHEA levels in men, which can help with erectile dysfunction and increase fertility. Studies have shown that it could be useful in treating infertility in men due to antisperm antibodies produced by the body.
7. Epimedium (Epimedium spp.)
The herb Epimedium or horny goat weed is widely used in Chinese medicine to treat a variety of health problems such as osteoporosis, coronary heart disease, hypertension, memory loss, joint pain etc. This can be expected of adaptogenic herbs that have various mechanisms of action geared towards improving general health. It has been found to be effective for treating irregular periods in women and sexual dysfunction too.
The active ingredient in Epimedium is identified as a flavonoid called icariin, which has relaxing effect on smooth muscle tissue. It is thought to mimic the hormone testosterone, and improve sexual performance. The common name horny goat weed comes from this.
8. Chasteberry (Vitex agnus-castus)
This Mediterranean bush has a long history of being used for female reproductive health. As the common name suggests, the leaf extract of chasteberry was earlier used to dampen libido and help women remain chaste. However, chasteberry extract is found to have the opposite effect, probably due to differences in concentration. Similarly, an extract of lower concentration increases prolactin levels, while a reduction in hormone levels is observed with a higher dose.
Chasteberry extract acts on the pituitary gland to regulate various hormones like estrogen, follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone, and prolactin. It is now used in treating a host of health issues arising from hormonal imbalance in women, including premenstrual syndrome, cyclical breast pain, polycystic ovary disease, uterine fibroids, menopausal problems etc.
9. Suma root (Pfaffia paniculata)
Suma is a South American native commonly called Brazilian Ginseng although it is not related to the true ginseng. The root extract of this herb is known to normalize endocrine function, improve immunity, and increase strength and performance. It its native land, Suma is known as a ‘cure all,’ and it is used for treating a large number of ailments besides being used as a general tonic and calming agent.
Suma is also known as ‘Russian Secret’ because Russian athletes used an ergogenic compound ecdysterone extracted from the Suma plant to increase sports performance. It was found to be free of the side effects associated with many other anabolic steroids. Although it remained a well kept secret of the Russians for quite some time, this compound is now used by sportspersons everywhere. Other uses of this herb includes enhancing memory, stimulating appetite, and balancing blood sugar levels.
10. Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa)
Black cohosh has been used by Native Americans for treating many conditions associated with female fertility. Studies have shown that certain components in black cohosh can act like estrogen in the brain, and they may have a similar effect on the reproductive system. In fact, many menopausal women find black cohosh highly beneficial in reducing symptoms associated with estrogen insufficiency.
The hormone-balancing effect of this herbal medicine is partly attributed to its estrogenic properties, but the glycosides in the herb may be having a regulating function too. Black cohosh has anti-inflammatory action, thanks to isoferulic acids that help in relieving pain and swelling associated with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
Note: Always check with a qualified health practioner before using herbs