HORMONES AND HERBS

Note from Four Winds Nutrition:
Dong Quai. Dong Quai contains a very remarkable type of phyto-estrogen (vegetable source estrogen). It can act as estrogen for women if needed. If, on the other hand, estrogen levels are too high in the body, this phytoestrogen competes with the body's estrogen for activity sites and lowers the body's estrogen levels to normal.

In the words of Dr. Bob Arnot, M.D.:
"Imagine a super estrogen that is hundreds of times more powerful that the most potent natural estrogen. It fits precisely into the estrogen receptor, just like natural estrogens. Then imagine that it is included in many of the foods you eat, every day at every meal. This is the nightmare scenario of the chemical estrogen theory of breast cancer: chemicals in the environment that act just like an estrogen when they attach to the estrogen receptor on breast cells but provide a signal that is many times more powerful."


Check your knowledge


Check your answers with the information below. Don't feel bad if you got some answers wrong, two years ago, before I started studying this subject in more depth, I would have answered many of these questions incorrectly myself.

1. Glandular herbs contain natural hormones.

False. Hormones are chemicals produced in the bodies of animals to regulate animal metabolism. Plants produce their own set of chemicals to regulate their plant metabolism, but they do not produce hormones.

2. The term estrogen does not refer to a specific hormone,
but rather to any chemical which induces ovulation and the urge to mate in female mammals.
True. Believe it or not ladies, there is no chemical in your bodies called estrogen. You actually have three estrogens in your bodies: esterase, estrone, estradiol. The term estrogen refers to anything which will put a mammal into heat. In addition to the estrogens our bodies produce, there are also phytoestrogens (chemicals in plants which mimic estrogen) and xenoestrogens (environmental pollutants which mimic estrogen). This is an important concept to understand, because when we are talking about plant estrogens, we are not talking about plant hormones. We are talking about chemicals in plants which imitate the effects of hormones.

3. Wild yam contains natural progesterone.

False. We have already established the fact that plants do not contain hormones, so wild yam cannot contain progesterone.

4. The sterols in plants such as wild yam and sarsaparilla
are precursors of (i.e., can be converted into) human hormones in our bodies.
False. When people learn that wild yam does not contain progesterone, they think it must contain precursors to progesterone. Unfortunately, that is not true either. Wild yam, and many other herbs, contain sterols which some herbalists believe are precursors of hormones, but there is no known metabolic pathway for converting these substances into hormones in our bodies. These substances are precursors to the chemical synthesis of hormones in a laboratory, which is probably where the myth arose. But the chemical manufacturer of synthetic hormones is different from the body's method of making them.

5. Excess hormones are a toxin which must be broken down by the liver.
True. Because the liver must detoxify excess hormones, liver weakness is often a factor in what appear to be glandular imbalances. So, even though it is not technically a part of the glandular system, liver function should be considered as a possible factor in hormonal imbalances.

6. Research suggests that phytoestrogens may help protect the body against certain types of cancer, but the effect is very weak.
True. As we indicated previously, phytoestrogens are chemicals in plants which mimic estrogen. However, the estrogen-like effect of these chemicals in plants is very weak in comparison to the body's hormones. The growth of breast and prostate cancers is usually stimulated by estrogen. The phytoestrogens, however, don't stimulate the growth of these cancers much because their effect is so weak. When foods containing these phyto-estrogens are consumed in large quantities, it is believed that they tie up estrogen receptor sites and prevent stronger estrogens (those produced by the body or chemical estrogens like pesticide residues) from binding to the same sites. Foods which contain phytoestrogens include green leafy vegetables, whole grains and soybeans. However, don't expect these foods to be of much help if you swallow a few grams of them in a capsule. You have to eat them as a regular part of your diet for them to be of any use. Additional research suggests that consuming these foods as a regular part of your diet also helps you avoid some of the symptoms of menopause by providing a natural estrogenic effect.

 

What are hormones?

Hormones are chemical substances created by the body that control numerous body functions. They actually act as "messengers" to coordinate functions of various body parts. Most hormones are proteins consisting of amino acid chains. Some hormones are steroids, fatty cholesterol-produced substances. Functions controlled by hormones include:

  • activities of entire organs
  • growth and development
  • reproduction
  • sexual characteristics
  • usage and storage of energy
  • levels of fluid, salt and sugar in the blood

hypothalamus
The hypothalamus is located in the brain, at the base of the optic chiasm. It secretes hormones that stimulate or suppress the release of hormones in the pituitary gland, in addition to controlling water balance, sleep, temperature, appetite, and blood pressure.
The pineal body is located below the corpus callosum, a part of the brain. It produces the hormone melatonin.

pituitary
The pituitary gland is located at the base of the brain. No larger than a pea, the gland controls many functions of the other endocrine glands.


Endocrine Systemthyroid and parathyroids
The thyroid gland and parathyroid glands are located in front of the neck, below the larynx (voice box). The thyroid plays an important role in the body's metabolism. Both the thyroid and parathyroid glands also play a role in the regulation of the body's calcium balance.

thymus
The thymus is located in the upper part of the chest and produces T-lymphocytes (white blood cells that fight infections and destroy abnormal cells).


adrenal gland

The pair of adrenal glands are located on top of both kidneys. Adrenal glands work hand-in-hand with the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.

kidney
The pair of kidneys are located near the middle of the back, just below the rib cage. The kidneys process the blood to sift out waste products and extra water. This waste and extra water becomes urine, which is stored in the bladder.

pancreas
The pancreas is located across the back of the abdomen, behind the stomach. The pancreas plays a role in digestion, as well as hormone production.

ovary
A woman's ovaries are located on both sides of the uterus, below the opening of the fallopian tubes (tubes that extend from the uterus to the ovaries). In addition to containing the egg cells necessary for reproduction, the ovaries also produce estrogen and progesterone.

testis
A man's testes are located in a pouch that hangs suspended outside the male body. The testes produce testosterone and sperm.


7. The pancreas manufactures hormones which raise and lower blood sugar levels.
True. The pancreatic tail makes two hormones, insulin and glucagon. When blood sugar levels are high, insulin carries the sugar into the cells. When blood sugar levels are low glucagon brings sugar out of storage and into the blood.

8. A review of traditional herb sources suggests that wild yam has no hormonal effect.
True. Wild yam has been around for a long time. It was used by the eclectic physicians (medical doctors of the last century who made extremely careful observations about the effects herbs had on their patients). Prior to the 1960s there are no references to wild yam having hormonal effects.
What changed this was the discovery that diosgenin, a sterol in wild yam, could be converted into progesterone to make birth control pills. Herbalists began assuming that this meant that wild yam itself had a progesterone-like effect. This assumption was not made based on clinical experience or scientific data and did not correlate with the traditional uses of wild yam. As a result, many herbalists don't know some of the real benefits of wild yam. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic herb. Its traditional use was to relieve pain and cramping in the digestive tract associated with adult colic (gas), diverticulitis, irritable bowel and colitis. This is why it is found in CLT-X, an NSP formula for colitis. Because of its antispasmodic action it has also been used to relieve menstrual cramps.

It is used topically as a soothing emollient to soften hardened tissue.

The so-called wild yam creams, are actually progesterone creams. They contain a small amount of natural progesterone in a wild yam cream base. The hormonal effects come from the progesterone in the cream, not from the wild yam. Many companies don't put the fact that the cream contains progesterone on the label. Some creams contain no progesterone. NSP's Wild Yam Emollient does indicate on the label that it contains the progesterone hormone.

None of the above means that wild yam has no hormonal effects, period. It merely means that there is a lack of data to support that conclusion. If wild yam does have a hormonal effect it is more likely it affects the adrenals and the anti-inflammatory hormones they produce. Which brings us to the final issue about the hormonal effects of wild yam.

What about its use as a birth control agent? Some herbalists discount this, but I have had many positive reports from people about wild yams ability to prevent conception, so I tend to believe that it can. However, its birth control effect is not necessarily hormonal. If it is acting as a natural progesterone, then theoretically it would shut down the menstrual cycle like birth control pills and would probably have the same side effects. So, how does it work?

When I was working for NSP years ago, the company was considering introducing wild yam because managers wanted to have it available to use for birth control. The debate at the company centered around the fact that the research and development people were not sure how it worked. I was told it was possible that it caused the uterine lining to become slippery so that a fertilized egg would be unable to implant in the womb. Because wild yam is an emollient, I tend to believe that this is how it works. It fits with the description of how the plant is used. It must be taken regularly for two months before it becomes effective and if you miss a day you have to start over. This sounds to me like a mechanical action rather than a biochemical one. Wild carrot seed, another natural contraceptive, works by this same mechanism.

9. Melatonin is a natural substance derived from plants. It has been thoroughly researched and proven to be safe and effective.
False. First of all, melatonin is a hormone, so it cannot be derived from a plant. Secondly, it has been researched pretty thoroughly for short term use for occasional insomnia. However, its claims as an anti-aging wonder drug for daily use are subject to suspicion.

10. Odors and thoughts have a powerful influence on hormone production via the hypothalamus.
True. The hypothalamus is a stalk of the brain upon which the pituitary sits. The cells which have nerve endings to detect odors are connected to the hypothalamus. As a result, smells cause immediate changes in our moods by altering hormonal output in the pituitary. This is an exciting new area of research which suggests we can use volatile oils to correct hormonal imbalances. Some of the interesting tidbits I have gathered include the fact that the smell of sweat helps to regulate the female menstrual cycle. This was discovered after it was determined that women who had regular physical intimacy with a man or who lived in close proximity to other women (as in a dorm) had more regular menstrual cycles than women who lived alone. Another piece of research I saw on PBS indicated that the smell of cinnamon buns increased testosterone levels in men, adding to the old maxim the way to a man's heart is through his stomach.

11. Any plant containing phytoestrogens should be avoided during pregnancy.
False. As we pointed out earlier, some of the best sources of phytoestrogens include whole grains, green leafy vegetables and soybeans, all of which are excellent foods to be used during pregnancy. Unless an herb has been observed in its traditional use to induce abortion or damage the fetus we should not be afraid to use it during pregnancy.

12. DHEA has no known side effects.

False. DHEA does have side effects. It can cause breast swelling and tenderness in women, acne and mood swings. Basically, taking too much DHEA can bring back all the problems you experienced in puberty.
Personally, I am glad DHEA levels tend to decline with age. I don't want to be a teenager again. I believe that you should not take DHEA unless a lab test shows you are actually low in DHEA and you should try to figure out why your levels are low and correct the underlying imbalances rather than just relying on the hormone.

13. Natural progesterone is synthesized from wild yam or yucca.
True. Wild yam and yucca both contain sterols which can be used as the basic building blocks for synthesizing progesterone. I have also been told they are synthesizing it from a chemical in corn. The question is tricky because people wonder, how can natural progesterone be synthesized?
After all, something which has been synthesized is synthetic, not natural, isnt it? Well, thats the way us common people think, but its not the way a natural products chemist thinks. To us lay folk, the word natural means it comes from nature. To the product chemist, however, it means that the substance duplicates what is found in nature.
The progesterone being used in the wild yam creams is not from nature, it is a synthesized version of the natural progesterone found in our bodies. A distinction needs to be made because most hormone-replacement drugs are not duplications of the natural hormones in our bodies. They are isomers of the natural hormones.

To understand the concept of an isomer, we need to understand how our steroidal-based hormones (such as testosterone, estrogens, etc.) work. A hormone molecule has a three dimensional shape. Inside our cells are molecules called hormone receptors. The hormone is like a key and the hormone receptor is like a lock. The hormone shape fits into the shape of the hormone receptor and joins with it to create a new molecule which moves into the nucleus of the cell to trigger certain chemical reactions.
Because these hormonal effects are triggered by molecular shapes, not by chemical composition, other substances with a similar shape can attach to a hormone receptor and trigger it. This is why chemicals in plants (which are not hormones) and environmental pollutants (like pesticides) can act as estrogens. Even though their chemical structure is different, their molecular shape is similar enough to trigger a hormonal reaction.


The reason why drug companies don't manufacture duplicates of the natural hormones in our bodies is because they cannot be patented. Since they did not create it, they cannot own it. Anyone who can synthesize or extract a natural substance can sell it. So, what drug companies do is create isomers of the hormones. Isomers are molecules which have been slightly altered from the original, but still possess some ability to bond to the hormone receptor sites and stimulate them. Because they create molecules which do not exist in nature they can patent them and have exclusive rights to market them.

The doctor who started the craze with natural progesterone creams felt that the natural form of the hormone was less harmful and more beneficial than the isomers. There may be some merit to this argument, but it sure causes confusion in the public mind. Anyway, I hope its clear to you, now.
As a side-light, there are natural forms of most hormones available in the marketplace. Hence, if you must be on some type of hormone replacement therapy, you might want to ask your doctor to prescribe the natural hormone instead of the isomers.

14. Kelp and other seaweeds help to reduce overactive thyroid function.
False. Many people believe that seaweeds like kelp will help to balance out an overactive thyroid as well as an underactive thyroid. This is simply not true. If you run into someone with an overactive thyroid (also known as Graves disease) do not use Thyroid Activator (KC-X), TS II, kelp, dulse or other iodine supplements with them.
Support the adrenals with licorice root and adaptagens. Use nervines to help reduce stress (hops or catnip might be a good choice). Bugleweed helps to reduce an overactive thyroid function and is a specific for this problem. Motherwort also helps calm an overactive thyroid and sedates the heart (which tends to race when the thyroid is overactive).
Raw cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, etc.) also tend to inhibit thyroid function.

15. The precursor to steroidal hormones is cholesterol.
True. If you want a hormone precursor for DHEA, estrogen, testosterone, etc. then eat a steak or pat of butter. Cholesterol is not all bad, we need it for many body functions, including the health of our adrenal and reproductive glands.

16. Frequent use of caffeine bearing plants (guranna, coffee, kola nuts, etc.) and stimulants like Chinese ephedra can deplete the bodys energies by overtaxing the adrenals.
True. Caffeine is an adrenal stimulant and ephedrine (the alkaloid in ephedra) mimics adrenaline. Hence, frequent use of these plants has a similar effect on the body as constant stress. These plants increase the heart rate, tense the muscles, inhibit digestion and ultimately drain the bodys energy reserves. This leads to a condition I like to call burn-out.
Burn-out is very common in our society and is characterized by fatigue, restless or poor sleep patterns, confusion, loss of short term memory (absent-mindedness), emotional sensitivity and a general drained feeling.
Licorice root and Nervous Fatigue Formula are my favorite remedies for aiding burn-out.

17. Circle all of the plants which contain phytoestrogens:
The following plants contain phytoestrogens:
Hops, black cohosh, red clover, soybeans, licorice, green tea and coffee beans.
The rest, including red raspberry, dong quai and chaste tree do not.
Hops are one of the most estrogenic herbs on this list.

Hops
have been traditionally used to increase sexual drive in woman
and decrease it in men. Says something interesting about drinking beer doesn't it? It is likely that the phytoestrogens in alfalfa, red clover and soybeans have a protective effect against cancer.
Red raspberry tones the uterus muscle, but is not hormonal.
Dong quai is a blood nourishing tonic in Chinese medicine. It helps anemia, pelvic congestion, loss of blood and estrogen utilization, but is not directly estrogenic.
Chaste tree helps regulate the cycle by regulating the pituitary and hypothalamus, but does not have a direct estrogenic effect.

18. Circle the hormones which are manufactured in the adrenal glands.
All of these hormones are produced by the adrenals. Before puberty, the adrenals take the major role in producing sex hormones. After menopause, the adrenals again become the major suppliers of female hormones. Hence, much of the discomfort associated with menopause in women may be due to adrenal fatigue (see Ardenal Support).

19. Circle the plants which have oxytocic effects.
Blue cohosh and scotch broom both mimic the hormone oxytocin, which is produced by the pituitary to stimulate uterine contractions during labor and delivery.
While alfalfa feeds the pituitary, it does not stimulate uterine contractions.
Black cohosh relaxes muscle spasms rather than causing the uterus to contract.

This information is for educational purposes only. Consult with a qualified health practictioner for all serious or persistant illness. Copyright 2000 by Robinson & Horne, L.C., P.O. Box 1028, Roosevelt, UT 84066. This material may be duplicated for educational purposes only (not for resale)
Distributed by: Four Winds Nutrition

 

The queen of female herbs - "Female ginseng" Angelica, sinensis.
Dong quai root is an aromatic that has been used for 20 centuries in many Chinese herbal formulas.

It has a reputation for stimulating female reproductive organs and for being a general nerve and organ tonic.
It is considered the "female ginseng" although both are useful to women.

Men sometimes use dong quai for kidney problems and related symptoms including eczema.
It is used in hemorrhages of all kinds.

Dong quai helps to regulate monthly periods (also relieving menopausal hot flashes and cramps) as well as a mother's recovery after childbirth.
It is also used for pernicious anemia because it is high in iron and cobalt (a critical component of vitamin B12).
It is usually used for the 7-10 days of each month when it is needed, rather than continuously.
Avoid using during early pregnancy or abdominal inflammation

Comments from Mr. Steven Horne, RH (AHG)
Dong Quai also known as tang or dang qui, is the queen of tonics, and may be the most extensively used herb in the world. Around half a billion Women in China alone take this herb daily.
Dong quai is a blood tonic, which means it is nourishing to the blood and tissues. During their child-bearing years, women lose blood each month and dong quai helps them replenish this loss. It is high in iron and helps improve blood flow, especially to the digestive organs and female reproductive system.

Studies have validated its traditional uses in treating PMS symptoms, including breast tenderness, constipation and dizziness.
It also excels in regulating the period, treating amenorrhea and cramps, but can also be helpful as a tonic for women during and after menopause.

Dose is 2 capsules 2-3 times daily.