It’s important to understand that everyone, no matter how healthy, naturally has lower levels of most hormones—including estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and growth hormone — as they grow older. I refer to this hormonal reservoir as our Vital Essence, from which we draw our restorative hormonal well being. We all need support as we age, and that’s why I recommend botanical extract formulations and companion nutrients to increase Vital Essence, enhance anabolic (building) processes, and maintain hormonal balance.
Adaptogenic herbal formulas are the foundation of my botanical approach, because they provide the vital support that enables us to adapt to life stressors, provide us with cellular hormone energy, and protect us from the short and long-term adverse effects of chronic stress. This includes perimenopause and menopause and the other changes that naturally occur with aging. The stress of menopause greatly contributes to endocrine dysfunction and deficiency, and generally adds to endocrine/hormonal exhaustion. I find this depletion is best addressed by using an Adaptogenic formula together with a Vital Essence Tonic formula. The Adaptogenic formula should be a combination of primary adaptogens, including American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), schisandra (Schisandra chinesnsis), ashwaganda (Withania somnifera), and eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus).
Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary biology, said that only the fittest would survive. The “fittest” are those that “fit” into their environment most perfectly and can adapt to change to ensure their good health. Adaptability is probably the most distinctive characteristic of life. Either over or under adjustment will lead to disharmony. For example, as a result of constant dieting, your body’s metabolism will slow down, but if you were on a desert island without sufficient food this metabolic shift would serve as a survival mechanism designed to preserve fat stores for energy and survival. As another example, the ability of Sumo wrestlers to gain the weight and size (up to 300-400 lbs.) needed for their sport is an over-adaptation mode where they continually fast and then eat large amounts of food to slow down their metabolism.
Now more than ever, it is necessary to adapt rapidly to our ever-changing environment as society puts more demands upon us. The Russian scientist G.M. Barenboim said it well: “For the first time in the history of human civilization the biological potentialities of the human body have failed to meet the requirements imposed on it. One witnesses an unusual ‘epidemic’ of fatigue aggravated by the powerful action of man-made, external chemical and physical environmental factors. Like the drugs that saved the world from numerous bacterial and viral epidemics that cost millions of lives in the past, the adaptogens are needed to help humankind withstand the diverse stresses of today.”
By helping us maintain a state of balance in every body system, adaptogens hold the key to vitality. I often use the analogy of a savings account to explain the importance of managing our vital energy. Let’s say to run our body at an optimal state of health will cost $100.00 per day of life energy. If we exceed this by $20.00 per day, we soon begin to suffer in whatever way we are constitutionally vulnerable. If we run at a deficit, something eventually breaks down. This may not happen immediately, but on some level we have compromised our wellbeing, and we will suffer from poorer weight control, digestion, glucose and insulin control, hormone detoxification, etc. If this net energy deficit continues for a prolonged time, we become susceptible to disease and a shortened lifespan.
Herbal formulations that include adaptogens are not going to steer the ship, but instead lend a helping hand to our Life Force and Essence. Adaptogens help to improve hormone production, but mostly aid in hormone efficiency, transmission, utilization, and spare the loss of Essence caused by chronic stress and aging.
As we age, many hormone-regulated systems begin to fail and cease to maintain an optimal state of balance. For instance, normal life cycle hormonal shifts—such as menopause—adversely affect thyroid function. Women in menopause often experience fatigue and a significant decline in energy along with weight gain, dry skin and hair, depression, decreased libido, and increased cholesterol levels. These symptoms are generally considered to be a classic depiction of menopause, and often manifest as low thyroid function. The root cause, however, is related to Kidney Essence depletion. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Kidney Essence (also known as Essential Jing, which is the pure part of Qi) is believed to be foundational to human growth, development, and vitality.
The endocrine system is a classic cybernetic system, with an intricate system of feedback mechanisms. Thus, it is impossible to think we can create bio-identical hormones—we are not meant to have a relationship with synthetic hormones. We are meant to have a relationship with plants. Because we co-evolved with plants, they have the unique ability to positively affect our life force, and to help us in adapting to life.
In evaluating hormonal issues, it’s important to carefully consider the two forms of Essence: Inward and Outward.
Inward Essence is similar to the concept of “Yin” in TCM and represents the feminine energy, which is soft, moist, elastic, and flexible. A deficiency of Inward Essence is the most frequently deficient energy in aging adults.
Outward Essence is similar to the TCM concept of “Yang” and represents the male energy, which is strong and muscular. Perhaps the single most important assessment of the depletion of Outward Essence is the loss of skeletal muscle mass (sarcopenia). Sarcopenia is an important marker for aging as well as for recovery from illness, injury, and surgery. Sarcopenia differs from cachexia in that the process is much less dramatic and reflects changes in body composition rather than malnutrition. Both hyper and hypo-metabolism can alter body composition over time, resulting in a higher percentage of body fat and loss of muscle mass. New research confirms that small losses of muscle mass over time reflect the influence of the stress-modulating system and may be related to an increase in the expression of catabolic genes—resulting in risk for later-stage chronic diseases. Most aging adults often are deficient in this energy as well.
Botanical and nutritional agents play a pivotal role in the rejuvenation of our hormones, thus reducing age-related chronic diseases and helping us to live at an optimal level of health. In my experience, I’ve found the following herbs to be among the most important and effective anabolic Vital Essence and adaptogenic herbs:
Leuzea (Rhaponticum carthamoides): This herb is used in traditional Russian medicine to enhance physical performance and to promote muscle building. It is a natural anabolic agent that builds lean muscle mass, increases energy and stamina, reduces muscle breakdown during prolonged strenuous activity, and has pronounced anti-oxidative capacity; it is also a neurological protectant.
Ajuga (Ajuga turkestanica): This powerful herb, used by Russian athletes to enhance their training regimen, helpsimprove resistance to stress and supports healthy body weight, muscle mass, and muscle-to-fat ratio. The ecdysteroids in ajuga encourage healthy anabolic metabolism, protein synthesis and skeletal strength.
Cissus (Cissus quadrangularis): An ancient medicinal plant native to Ceylon, India, and Africa, cissus is used in classical Ayurvedic medicine to support healthy bones, ligaments and tendons. Cissus contains ketosterones, which enhance healthy anabolic metabolism. I recommend a standardized extract of cissus (ActiCissus®) to support bone health and strength.
Mumie “Russian Shilajit”:Valued as a rejuvenator and immunomodulator, mumie is believed to slow the process of aging and prolong life. It has pronounced anabolic activity, accelerates protein and mineral metabolism, increases lean muscle mass, and helps build bone density. Mumie also possesses anti-stress adaptogenic actions, anti-cancer effects, and improves cognitive abilities.
For low Inward Essence involving the thyroid, I often recommend herbal formulas that include thyroid support. The thyroid is intimately involved in regulating hormones and is often operating at a sub-par level for menopausal women. Some of my favorite thyroid supportive herbs include a blend of sea vegetables (providing an organic source of iodine and other intrinsic health promoting compounds such as alginate and various trace minerals), coleus (Coleus forskohlii), and guggul (Commiphora mukul). In addition, I recommend N acetyl tyrosine, NADH, B-complex vitamins, selenium, and vitamin D.
At the same time, it’s important to nourish Inward Essence with tonic herbs such as rehmannia (Rehmannia glutinosa), shatavari (Asparagus racemosus), vitex (Vitex agnus-castus), eucommia (Eucommia ulmoides), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), and fenugreek seed (Trigonella foenum graecum). Both wild yam and fenugreek seed are rich in diosgenin, which aids reproductive health. Rehmannia is used in TCM to support women through the menopausal transition, while shatavari, referred to as the “Queen of Herbs”, is revered in Ayurvedic medicine as one of the most powerful rejuvenating herbs for women. Both rehmannia and shatavari are traditionally recommended to alleviate mild symptoms associated with menopause. Eucommia is a rich source of polyphenolic compounds such as phenolic acid (chlorogenic acid), flavonoids, and lignans. Used throughout TCM as a kidney-tonifying herbal medicine, it has a long history of safe use in the treatment of menopause, bone fractures and joint diseases. It is a musculoskeletal and connective tissue restorative.
Understanding The Relationship of Cholesterol And Hormones
As we age, it’s common for cholesterol levels to increase, while hormone levels appear to decrease. In reality, it’s more a matter of hormones becoming “resistant,” or working less efficiently, instead of actually decreasing. Conventional doctors treat these changes by prescribing drugs to lower cholesterol, instead of working to improve the conversion of cholesterol to hormones. Matters are made worse when exogenous toxic hormones are prescribed, which causes the innate production of hormones to further diminish. Cholesterol lowering statin drugs cause testosterone levels to go down, which increases the risk of insulin resistance and diabetes.
Botanical compounds, such as isoflavones, flavonoides, saponins, sterols, and ecdisterones normalize endocrine health and restore harmony to the body. If complete harmony cannot be achieved through this methodology then it becomes appropriate to use more specific herbal and nutritional agents.
Rebuild Hormones While You Sleep
Although it’s commonly known that estrogen and progesterone sharply decline during menopause, other equally important hormones also diminish with age. These include testosterone, DHEA, human growth hormone (HGH), thyroid stimulating hormone, insulin, IGF-1 and IGF-2, melatonin, and vitamin D.
To encourage endocrine harmonization and restoration, I recommend a specific combination of botanicals, amino acids, and other nutrients to be taken just before bed. During sleep, our bodies naturally undertake the processes of cellular repair, rebuilding muscle tissue, and modulating androgens, insulin, dopamine and growth hormones. Balancing hormones also encourages fat metabolism and lean muscle strength, a healthy libido, and optimal immune system function. My book, “Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism” thoroughly explains this subject and more. I strongly recommend reading the entire book to gain a better understanding of how to enhance hormone health naturally.
I find the following botanicals to be especially beneficial for helping to bolster the body’s natural processes of repair and restoration during sleep:
Mucuna pruriens, a prized herb in Ayurvedic medicine, contains high levels of the amino acid L-dopa, which is a precursor for the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine promotes a healthy sex drive, stimulates motivational behavior and regulates hormones essential for health and longevity. Mucuna pruriens has been shown to successfully assist in HGH production, and can be used as a natural, safe, and effective strategy for HGH regulation.
Tribulus terrestris is a botanical long used in Ayurveda to enhance physical and reproductive strength. It contains compounds (including saponins and protodioscin) that optimize hormones involved in healthy reproductive, immune, and cardiovascular health.
Eurycoma longifolia jackcontains compounds called quassinoids; the herb has been shown to increase testosterone and improve libido. It also has anti-ulcergenic, anxiolytic, anti-tumor and anti-parasitic activities. Researchers believe that the positive effects of eurycoma may be the result of an ability to modulate negative feedback to the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, so the body continues to produce testosterone at sustained optimal levels.
Chrysin, a naturally occurring bioflavonoid found in passionflower and chrysanthemum, is an aromatase inhibitor and helps to encourage normal hormonal balance.
Botanicals For Relief Of Menopausal Discomfort
Finally, it’s important to address the symptoms that accompany menopause, such as hot flashes, insomnia, and anxiety. These symptoms are caused by hormonal shifts, and can be safely managed with botanicals that promote a healthy balance of progesterone and estrogen. I recommend acombination of the following botanicals:
Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa) contains diosgenin, a phytoestrogen that can be converted into progesterone. It is useful for relieving symptoms of menopause such as mild menstrual cramps, low libido and edema.
Chaste tree, also known as vitex (Vitex agnus-castus) has a rich tradition of use for reproductive health dating back 2500 years to Hippocrates. Modern research validates the benefits of vitex, and it is widely used by European gynecologists for treating symptoms associated with the menstrual cycle and menopause, including mood changes, cramping and hot flashes.
Originally used as an herbal remedy by Native Americans, black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) has been shown in clinical studies to alleviate menopausal symptoms including hot flashes, mild muscle cramping, dryness, and occasional sleeplessness.
A traditional herb used in many cultures to promote relaxation and support hormonal balance, hops (Humulus lupulus) contains natural phytoestrogens. I use a unique standardized extract (Lifenol®)
that is rich in prenylflavonoids including 8-PN, a natural phytoestrogen that helps to balance hormonal function during menopause.
In summary, although hormones naturally decrease with age, we can mediate the process with a comprehensive wholistic approach that is not only effective, but is without risk or negative side effects. It’s important to also recognize that stress speeds up the natural age-related decline. Our chemical messaging system interprets our reactions and responds according to the type and magnitude of the stress trigger and our unique constitutional genetic makeup. Basically, the way we age as individuals appears to be strongly influenced by how well we adapt to life stressors.
Learning to manage the inevitable stresses of life through meditation, prayer, yoga, and other spiritual practices is invaluable. It is equally important to do everything possible to maintain health and vitality by eating a healthful Mediterranean style diet, getting appropriate exercise, and allowing time for adequate sleep and rest. This positive approach to menopause and aging, combined with targeted botanical support, can allow for a vibrant, creative, and healthy passage through menopause and beyond.