Even though most people rarely think about their endocrine system (also called The Master Control System), it actually influences almost every cell, organ, and function of the body and is also very important in maintaining homeostasis. Your endocrine system is the collection of glands that secrete hormones straight into the circulatory system to be carried to a distant target organ. The chief endocrine glands include the pineal gland, pituitary gland, pancreas, ovaries, testes, thyroid gland, parathyroid gland, hypothalamus, gastrointestinal tract and adrenal glands. With such an intricate system, it’s easy to understand the importance of keeping your hormones in balance. In natural medicine, working on hormone balance usually includes the use of either herbs or bioidentical (human identical) hormones or in some cases both. Let’s discuss the differences of these natural recommendations for hormone balance.
Your hormones act as chemical messengers that communicate to all the tissues in your body, including your brain. Most people understand the sex hormones, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone play important roles in human reproduction. But what may not be understood is that hormones also help control many other functions in the body, from your sleep patterns to your moods and memory, bone growth, muscle strength, and much more. When hormone production is optimal and ratios are balanced, you will feel great, have tons of energy, easily maintain an ideal weight, desire and enjoy sex and have a disposition that is not easily flustered. Almost sounds too good to be true, right?
When discussing how to achieve clinical (measurable by saliva and serum testing) hormone balance, I have seen far better results in those using bioidentical hormone replacement therapy than in those using only herbs and/or diet. Having said that, I absolutely believe herbs can play an important part in helping relieve some of the many symptoms of hormone imbalance. However, it is very important to note that symptom relief does not equal balance nor does it indicate that a health issue has healed.
Herbs for Hormone Balance
Phytotherapy is the study of the use of extracts of natural origin as medicines or health-promoting agents. Phytotherapy medicines differ from plant-derived medicines in standard pharmacology. Where standard pharmacology isolates an active compound from a given plant, phytotherapy aims to preserve the complexity of substances from a given plant with relatively less processing. The traditional herbs that are usually recommended for hormone imbalance are called phytohormones (plant hormones). These herbs are said to have adaptogenic effects. The term adaptogen was first defined by Lazarev, a Russian pharmacologist, in 1947. He defined “adaptogens” as agents which help an organism to counteract any adverse effects of a physical, chemical or biological stressor by generating nonspecific resistance. It is these effects that possibly provide relief of some hormone imbalance symptoms.
Phytoestrogens are part of the phytohormone class which means they structurally “resemble” the body’s native estrogen. This chemical structure allows them to weakly bind to an estrogen receptor, potentially blocking excess estrogen, or, when estrogen is low, stabilizing the system’s need for estrogen.
Phytoestrogens are believed to act as natural SERMS (selective estrogen receptor modulators), helping the body adapt to its current hormone levels. There is strong evidence that lifetime exposure to natural estrogens, such as estradiol, increases the risk of certain kinds of cancer, such as uterine cancer. Phytoestrogens may help reduce that risk because they may lower a person’s lifetime exposure to natural estrogens by competing for estrogen receptor sites or changing the way natural estrogens are broken down. For example, if one has high estrogen levels, a phytoestrogen can exert a type of modulating effect to stabilize the cell and protect it from over stimulation. If one has low estrogen levels, the same phytoestrogen will have a tonifying effect.
Phytoestrogens which are also adaptagens are often recommended for those looking to naturally boost low estrogen levels. Not everyone agrees about how phytoestrogens work or their level of safety. For a different perspective about phytoestrogens see The pros and cons of phytoestrogens
Traditional herbs/plants often recommended for hormone imbalance include Maca, Pueraria Mirifica, Black Cohosh, Licorice, Suma, Siberian Ginseng, Rhodiola, Chaga, Vitex (Chastetree), Red Clover, Kudzu, Passionflower, Soy, Ashwagandha and Wild Yam. Foods containing phytoestrogens include beans, soy products, peas, lentils, and whole grains and seeds, especially flax seed, rye and millet. The herb Vitex (Chastetree) is usually a recommended herbal choice to boost progesterone levels although there are other herbs that also have the ability to boost progesterone. It is important to understand that Vitex can take 3 to 6+ months to give results. We also know that at least 70% of pre-packaged foods contain soy and 93% of the soy grown in the USA is genetically modified. Could this be one reason why so many women (both young and old) have difficulties with hormone imbalance?
Why Herbs May Not Always Work Effectively
- Contraindications with medications. In recommending herbs for hormone imbalance, cautions such as contraindications with prescription meds are often not provided for the consumer. In 2013 Mayo Clinic researchers reported that nearly 70 percent of Americans were on at least one prescription drug, and more than half receive at least two prescriptions. According to the CDC, the percent of people using at least one prescription drug increased nearly 50 percent between 2007 and 2010. Antibiotics were the most often prescribed med with anti-depressants coming in as number two and painkiller opioids coming in as number three. Yes, herbs are natural but herbs are also powerful and should be respected as such. Many herbs are proven to be contraindicated when a person is taking certain types of prescription medications. The take away here is that if you are taking any prescription med or over-the-counter med, it is always wise, before using any herbal remedies, to research possible contraindications.
- Improper Dosing – Using Too Much or Too Little (remember: everyone is different)
- Poor Quality Herbs
- Matching Herbs to the Condition Rather Than the Person
- Using the Wrong Part of the Plant and the Wrong Type of Preparation
- Making Preparations Incorrectly
- Poor Formulation
- Trying to Suppress Symptoms Rather Than Getting to the Root Cause
- Not Giving It Enough Time (herbal preparations usually take longer to work)
- Difference in Potency. Herbs can have different potency levels with each batch harvested. For instance, herbs harvested at a young age, can be much more potent than the same herb harvested at maturity. This can make a huge difference in whether or not one is getting too much or not enough of the herb’s benefits.
Difference Between Herbs & Bioidentical Hormones
The differences between herbs and bioidentical hormones have to do with hormone receptors which are the places on the cell membrane where substances can attach and produce an effect. There are two types of estrogen receptors: alpha and beta.
The alpha estrogen receptor is the one that gets the most attention because that is the one that mammalian estrogen binds to—resulting in typical estrogenic effects on breast and genital tissue.
Phytoestrogens, on the other hand, bind to the beta estrogen receptor. Their three-dimensional structure is a different shape, so they do not interact with estrogen receptors the same way as bioidentical or synthetic hormones do—and therefore they don’t produce the same biologic effects.
Bioidentical hormones and synthetic hormones have a different three-dimensional structure. Bioidentical hormones, although plant-based and created outside your body, have the identical molecular structure as the receptors in your body. This identical molecular structure makes human identical hormones a great fit. And this is the most important reason I recommend their use in order to achieve clinical hormone balance.
Synthetic hormones, such as Premarin and Provera, have a molecular structure that is different than bioidentical hormones. Most believe this is why their safety is very questionable and why many women experience concerning side effects when using synthetic hormones.
Should Women Suffer With Hormone Imbalance?
Seemingly there are many healthcare practitioners who believe that women should accept being in a “natural state” of hormone decline, that it is safer and women just need to “push through” any side effects from hormone imbalance. From personal and practitioner experience, I respectfully disagree. Unfortunately, male practitioners have absolutely no idea what women go through when they begin that “natural decline in hormones.” They may have observed their wife, sister, mother go through peri-menopause and post-menopause, but “observing” is not anywhere near the same thing as actually going through it in your own body. Even women with the most pristine of diet and healthy lifestyle can develop unbalanced hormones and, for many, the use of herbs does not result in hormone balance. I have women convey this to me all the time – they tried herbs and all they felt was some some symptom relief that eventually wore off. Most likely the reason for this has more to do with the higher levels of xenoestrogen bombardment that we now experience from environmental toxins – which are everywhere and seemingly in everything. Stress comes in a close second as a creator of hormone imbalance; however, even when/if both of these (xenoestrogens and stress) could be completely eradicated, the damage has already been done. BHRT (especially bioidentical progesterone) can help a woman get back what I call her “smile and vitality” while also providing clinical hormone balance.
With all the hormone counseling I have done over the years, I have found that herbs usually do not completely balance hormones. They may help with some symptom relief especially for those who are not experiencing debilitating symptoms, but as I wrote above, symptom relief does not equal balance. Vitex comes the closest to providing some hormone balance, but it can take from 3-6+ months to begin to work and for most women this is much too long to wait – they want and need relief as quickly as possible. Implying that women should learn to wait-it-out comes across as very condescending, in my opinion. As one client told me, “If I don’t get some relief soon, I’m not going to be responsible for my actions.”
Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy is not synthetic in the same way as synthetic hormone replacement therapy. Bioidentical progesterone is derived from the root of the Mexican Wild Yam (not extract) in a laboratory. Being derived in a laboratory does not make something synthetic, but does make it synthesized. There is a difference. If BHRT was the same as synthetic HRT, then BHRT would produce the same side-effects – which it does not. There is very good research and documentation about the difference of side effects between synthetic and bioidentical hormones even though pharmaceutical companies would love for women to believe they are exactly the same and give the same results. The FDA has actually approved 14 different bioidentical progesterone products manufactured by pharmaceutical companies – without those “gold standard” clinical trials – they know BHRT works effectively and safely. Their agenda of the drug companies is to corner the hormone replacement market and, in fact, have asked the FDA several times over the last 10 years to make bioidentical hormones prescription-only. Thankfully, thousands of women have literally screamed about this and, so far, the FDA has listened.
The Best Answer: Herbs or Bioidentical Hormones
Hormone balancing should never be approached in a one-size-fits-most manner. We are all unique and different – different toxin exposure, different stressors, different diets, difference lifestyle habits – all of which have a distinct effect on the endocrine system. With any health concern, it is always best to begin with addressing the underlying root cause and not just the symptoms. Diet, stress, digestive tract health, thyroid, toxic chemical exposure, liver and gallbladder health, stress and inflammation – all can influence hormone balance. While dietary and lifestyle changes, supplements and herbs can often relieve some of the symptoms of hormonal imbalance, bioidentical (not synthetic) hormone replacement therapy is usually the best option to provide both consistent relief and clinical balance. Before doing any type of hormone replacement therapy, including herbs, I highly recommend saliva testing (female/male saliva profile III) your sex hormones, adrenal hormones and thyroid. This will provide you with a baseline and, of course, will indicate whether or not there is a definite physiological need for bioidentical hormone replacement therapy. With the results of your tests in-hand, you will be able to take them to a knowledgeable practitioner experienced in bioidentical hormone balancing. Keep in mind that you may not need to be on BHRT forever. For many women, once hormones are balanced and their body adjusts to its new normal, BHRT can gradually be decreased and hormones managed through lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise, stress relief, etc.
- Patisaul, HB., Jefferson, W. The pros and cons of phytoestrogens. Front Neuroendocrinol. 2010 October; 31(4): 400-419.
- Northrup, Dr. Christiane. Traditional Herbs or Bioidentical Hormones: Which Is Better?
- de la Foret, Rosalee. 9 Reasons Herbs May Not Work. Herbs with Rosalee. 2012.
- Tierra, M. (1998). The Way Of Herbs (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Pocket Books.