Herbs That Support Gynecological Health and Fertility
Written by: the Editors of goop
Updated on: July 9, 2020
Reviewed by: Roy Upton, RH (AHG), DipAyu
Photo courtesy of Chantal Anderson/The Licensing Project
Hormones and surgery are often doctors’ first line of defense for most gynecological concerns. Herbalist Roy Upton tells us, “The solutions are limited, invasive, and not always effective. Every year in the United States, 600,000 hysterectomies are performed. This is the kicker: Many of them are considered unnecessary by second opinion.”
Upton, who is also the general manager of the supplement manufacturer Planetary Herbals, shares several herbal medicine traditions that offer a different perspective on fibroids, endometriosis, PMS, and fertility. “If you can at least try an herbal protocol before you go under the knife for the surgical removal of the uterus or ovaries, then you’re way ahead of the game,” says Upton. “It can contribute greatly to helping people in ways that they are not getting help right now.”
Upton describes how herbal medicines from Chinese, European, and Native American traditions can work together to support gynecological and reproductive health.
(As always, consult your doctor before starting any kind of herbal protocol.)
A Q&A with Roy Upton
It was when I realized just how much of a positive impact botanicals—especially Chinese herbal medicine—can have on gynecological health and reproduction. I was studying traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and a big part of our patient population was coming in with chronic PMS, fibrocystic breasts, polycystic ovaries, uterine fibroids, or infertility. I found that herbal protocols and strategies were beneficial for these conditions.
There’s nothing that conventional medicine can do to change the functionality of the reproductive system. Either you start hormone therapy, which can increase the risk of heart disease and reproductive cancers, or, for endometriosis and fibroids, you have ablation therapies or surgery. There’s not a lot more that Western medicine offers for gynecological and reproductive health, and herbal medicine can be a big part of the answer to that.
I’ve been using the same basic strategies for twenty-five years. The two key principles from Chinese herbal medicine are building the blood and promoting pelvic circulation. An example of building blood would be meeting a patient’s requirements for iron, which are greater for people who lose blood via menses. And there are many factors that can prevent the optimal flow of blood to reproductive tissues: not getting enough activity, wearing tight clothes, being overweight. It’s important to support the circulation—the flow of blood to the ovaries, the uterus, the fallopian tubes, and the entire abdominal region.
We also learn from Western herbal traditions and pharmacology the importance of hormonal balance—that’s strategy number two. Strategy number three from Native American herbal medicine is the use of what are called uterine tonics. These are used to add tonicity to the tissues of the reproductive system—think of it as muscle toning for the uterus. The combination of these three strategies, which actually come from three different traditions, is the strategy I use for supporting gynecological systems. There are different herbs for each of those strategies.
Absolutely. I try to get people walking at least thirty minutes at least four days a week to promote blood circulation. In TCM, both endometriosis and fibroids and even menstrual cramps are said to be a reflection of blockage, of stagnation. Usually the uterus goes into spasm because the blood is just not moving. Then typically when the blood flow comes full force, the spasms—the uterine cramps—go away. It’s all about blood flow.
In terms of gynecology, it’s a primary treatment simply because I don’t think Western medicine really has much to offer with regard to functional reproductive health. Typically, I look at herbal medicine as being a complementary adjunct to every other therapy, just as I see Western medicine as being complementary and adjunctive to herbal medicine. I don’t really separate, especially for something like cancer—the research suggests that the combination of conventional therapies plus natural medicine may give you the highest quality of life.
The primary herb that’s used for both building and moving blood is from TCM: dong quai (Angelica sinensis). That is the number one herb used for the last thousand years in TCM for promoting a healthy gynecological system. Dong quai is almost never used by itself. It’s almost always used in conjunction with three other herbs that form the basis of a formula called dong quai four. It’s used as a tea, as a syrup, and as ingredients for soup. Those four herbs together are designed to build blood and improve pelvic circulation.
The primary herb we use to promote hormonal balance comes from European herbal traditions—Vitex agnus-castus, or chaste tree berry. When I was working at the Herb Room in Santa Cruz, a woman came in and said, “Do you have any vitex? I have really severe PMS every month. I literally feel like I’m going crazy.” I said, “This stuff works for you?” She says, “Like a charm. Two doses, and it totally mellows out my mood and makes it much more even, and I can get through my cycle.” She’s the one who turned me on to the efficacy of vitex for PMS, from an emotional perspective. Then I started looking at the literature on it. Some studies say that it raises estrogen, some studies say that it raises progesterone, and other studies say that it doesn’t do anything from a hormonal perspective. I find that it’s usually more of a progesterone agonist, which is good for fertility. I think being more estrogenic than progesteronic contributes to the very high incidence of miscarriage in Americans. You need slightly higher progesterone in order for conception to really hold. In herbal medicine, Vitex agnus-castus is the primary strategy to promote hormonal balance.
The last part of the strategy is from Native American herbalism—they had the concept of tonifying uterine tissue so that implantation can take place. The primary herb for uterine tonicity is cramp bark, Viburnum opulus, which is an herb that was used in traditional Native American and Appalachian herbal medicine. It was used primarily for menstrual cramps.
This protocol is used with slight tweaks for a variety of gynecologic health concerns, because the strategy is about promoting a healthy gynecological system. When you do that, you affect a lot of different conditions. A similar protocol can be used for uterine fibroids, polycystic ovaries, infertility, and chronic PMS. A strategy for reproductive cancers would be totally different, though.
When people have uterine fibroids or endometriosis, I also specifically recommend the application of hot ginger compresses, specifically over the area where the blockage is. Oftentimes with fibroids, it’s in the lower left quadrant of the abdominal area. You can make a hot pot of ginger tea on the stove, dip a muslin cloth in it, put it on as hot as you can handle it without burning yourself, and then cover it with a towel to stimulate warmth and circulation from the outside, while taking herbs internally [as described above] to do the same thing.
There’s one other very important part of any reproductive protocol in my practice: minimizing exposure to xenoestrogens. Animal products we eat in the US contain more estrogen than they should—for example, many cows are given estrogen supplements. This is not allowed in organic meat or dairy. The second source is many pesticides that are used on plants and have estrogen-like activity.
Before using the protocols I’ve described, go to a conventional medicine practitioner or a TCM practitioner. I would recommend seeking the guidance of a TCM practitioner who specializes in gynecology or who comes well recommended. The California Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine has a practitioner list. That’s only going to be a list; you would want to do a little more investigation to find somebody with a good reputation. It’s a lot harder to find a practitioner who uses multiple traditions, because usually people are steeped only in Chinese medicine, only in Ayurvedic medicine, or only in Western herbal medicine, and there’s often not a lot of crossover. Nevertheless, Chinese medicine by itself has extremely effective protocols. Then you also have the benefit of acupuncture, which according to TCM promotes the circulation of both blood and energy.
There are some important things to know whenever you do this. The first thing I always tell people I work with is that once you start this protocol, you want to do it for at least three to four months, ideally six months. If you’re trying to conceive, don’t attempt conception during that time period; take the time off to help your body heal. I try to get my patients to look at their reproductive system as if it were a garden. Before you ever plant the seed, till the soil. The herbal protocols are designed to make the soil ripe for implantation, but you don’t want to try to conceive too soon. Don’t plant in the middle of the wrong season.
The second thing is: Expect the cycle to change. Either the first or second cycle is almost always earlier than normal, heavier than normal, or clottier than normal. That’s to be expected, so don’t be concerned.
These herbs are typically taken throughout the month, except during bleeding. When bleeding starts, you stop taking the herbs. When bleeding stops, you can start taking them again. In some cases, especially with fibroids and endometriosis, sometimes the bleeding starts right back up again. Remember the cardinal principle: Don’t use during bleeding.
This last principle is very important. In some cases of fibroids and endometriosis there’s really heavy bleeding. Again, before using the protocols I’ve described, go to a conventional medicine practitioner or a TCM practitioner who could first control the bleeding. If there is menstrual flooding, do not use the protocol I’ve described; other protocols are needed. And this protocol is not to be used in pregnancy.
Roy Upton, RH (AHG), DipAyu, is the founder and president of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, a member of the Standards Committee of the American Herbal Products Association, and the general manager of Planetary Herbals. You can reach him at [email protected].
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.