If you’re intrigued by ancient uses for plants or how they fit into our culture today, guess what? You’re interested in ethnobotany! Ethnobotanicals, by extension, are the plants that are the subject of this study and folklore.
Ethnobotanicals have been used for centuries for a variety of purposes: to elevate mood, calm the spirit, provide a boost in energy, and naturally treat ailments, just to name a few. Certain ethnobotanicals are particularly helpful for women, whether seeking relief from PMS, menstrual cramps, or menopause.
Women’s use of ethnobotanicals dates back to the 12th century, if not before, when traditional herbal Chinese medicine was born. In Japan, a similar style of medicine is known as Kampo. Some of these Chinese and Japanese treatments are still used today, with empirical evidence proving what women have known for hundreds of years: Herbs can ease their pain.
Read this article to learn about some readily available ethnobotanicals and how they can make life a little more pleasant — whether it’s “that time of the month” or you’re gracefully easing into menopause.
Ginger can relieve menstrual pain.
Ginger is lovely in stir-fry or an icy lemon-lime summer drink, but did you know some people use it to soothe painful periods, instead of ibuprofen?
The 2011 edition of Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects notes that 250-mg capsules of ginger worked just as well as 250 mg of Ponstel (Mefenamic Acid) or 400 mg of ibuprofen in treating lower-abdominal cramps right before or during menstruation. Herbal Medicine adds that using ginger has also reduced vomiting and nausea in women who were fewer than 20 weeks pregnant.
More research needs to be done, but both of these findings are quite promising.
Ginger is a well-known anti-inflammatory and digestion-soother (which you know if you’ve ever sipped ginger ale on a turbulent airplane ride or after an upset stomach). Native to Southern China, ginger root is the underground stem, or rhizome, of the Zingiber officinale plant. Above ground, the plant is thin and leafy with small pink and yellow flowers.
Gingerol is the active agent in ginger, which is made into everything from teas and juices to candies and liqueurs. In India, people even apply it to their temples as a paste to vanquish headaches.
This potent, spicy-smelling root has many wide-ranging applications. Some think it’s an excellent natural remedy for menstrual pain.
Wild yam can help balance hormones.
Image: Nicole Castle
The symptoms of menopause can descend like a swarm of angry bees: Unpredictable mood swings. Sudden hot flashes. Upsetting night sweats.
Wild yam might help make these tortures more bearable. That’s because it contains diosgenin, one of the key elements of progesterone. This is no holiday dinner yam, mind you — according to the National Institute of Health, only 12 of about 600 wild yam species are edible.
East Indian traditional medicine incorporated wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) when hormonal or sexual problems arose. Its vines and heart-shaped leaves grow in wooded areas in the southern and central U.S., as far West as Texas.
In addition to easing hormonal transitions, wild yam is widely regarded as an antispasmodic, or treatment to reduce muscle spasms. Not something you can say about the Thanksgiving turkey, is it?
Stinging nettle might actually help your stinging go away.
Image: John Tann
This herb is also known as “stinging nettle,” due to the plant’s tiny and painful hairs underneath its leaves. But people have used this ethnobotanical to ensure their uterus is anything but stinging.
The calcium in nettle (Urtica dioica) is thought to make uterine pain less intense. It is also a diuretic, meaning it can help flush out toxins in the body. Nettle might also help replenish iron lost during menstruation or prevent women from losing too much blood during childbirth.
If one can harvest the nettle leaves and stems while avoiding its stinging hairs, it can be used in tinctures, teas, creams, and capsules. You can find nettle in North America in the countryside, at farmers’ markets, and, of course, at Herb Stomp.
Maca root is popular with menopausal women.
Maca often gets mistaken for its cousin, the radish, or called “the Peruvian ginseng,” but it has a personality all its own.
For starters, it only grows in the Andes Mountains at elevations from 12,000 to 15,000 feet. Maca doesn’t contain hormones, but it has been used to balance them during PMS and menopause. The vegetable might help quell stress hormones while nurturing the glands that serve as Commanders in Chief: the hypothalamus and pituitary glands. Menopausal women often take maca root as a more natural alternative to hormone replacement therapy. Women on their period also use it to retain vitamins and minerals.
Maca root has a comforting butterscotch smell, and Peruvian farmers have been harvesting the ethnobotanical for soups and other dishes for at least 3,000 years. Legend has it that cattle that dined on maca root were unusually strong and healthy, making their Peruvian caretakers take note.
As a powder or capsule, maca root is a fast way to power up a morning cup of tea or healthy smoothie. (Unless you are pregnant or breastfeeding, that is.)
Have you used herbs to treat PMS or menopause? Tell us what worked for you (or what didn’t have any effect at all) in the comments!
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