For women of all ages and stages: nettles, vitex, comfrey, motherwort
I am often asked what herbs can help with women’s health concerns. In the Wise Woman Tradition, we see nourishment as the foundation for establishing and sustaining optimum health. So rather than looking at our bodies (or our emotions, for that matter) as something dirty, base or un-holy . . . we instead love ourselves, body and soul.
This Wise Woman approach to nourishment includes the physical and emotional. This means a baseline of solid nutrition—a wide range of whole foods, including healthy fats like organic butter and coconut oil—coupled with emotional wellness, which begins with the vital (if somewhat arduous and perhaps even radical) step of accepting and loving ourselves.
Still, we may find specific issues calling our attention to the hormonal system, bone strength, or other needs that arise through the physical transitions of our lives. There are a wide variety of commercially produced vitamins and supplements that many use, but personally I prefer another way, a natural way, a women’s way.
I’ve been an herbalist for decades, schooled in the Wise Woman Tradition of earth-based health and healing. One of my guiding principles is that common, local plants can usually provide the support we need to be strong, healthy, and whole. Our bodies were not designed to easily absorb heavily processed or synthesized nutrients. We are, however, physically receptive to the gifts of the plants and herbs that grow in our gardens and woodlands. It’s how we’re built.
Women, in particular, have very specific needs during different phases of life, from menarche, menstruation and/or childbearing, through menopause and beyond. In my programs and conferences, women are often wondering about local herbal allies that support women’s bodies through these ages and stages.
Yes, there are. Absolutely. My all-stars are four common herbs that grow naturally or are easily cultivated in this region. Developing a relationship with this small handful of favorite plants can provide for many of your health needs through the seasons of the year and of your life.
Vitex (Vitex-angus-castus), sometimes referred to as “chasteberry,” is a shrub with beautiful, lavender colored cones of blossoms that butterflies love. Although it grows in the South, it’s not likely to be found wild here—but it is easily cultivated. In the fall, vitex develops deep brown berries, which can be harvested around the end of October for medicine to support the hormonal system. Vitex is very powerful at long-term regulation of hormones, working through the pituitary gland, which in turn controls ovarian hormones. This is an ally to embrace for the long term—although it can take three to six months before results are evident, they are deep and profound.
Vitex helps to balance hormonal symptoms through the menopausal transition, including hot flashes, sleeplessness, and heavy bleeding (flooding). It’s also useful during the menstruating years when getting off the pill, following the birth of a baby, during bouts of PMS, or whenever the hormonal system is a bit wacky. Although Vitex tonifies the hormones in any direction needed, it is especially supportive in the progesterone direction. In our culture, there tends to be a lot of estrogen dominance, recently linked to estrogen-mimicking compounds found in plastics as well as bovine growth hormones found in commercial dairy products (local/organic-sourced dairy is fine). This can contribute to menstrual irregularities including fibroids and endometriosis.
The most effective method for receiving the properties of vitex is in a tincture. Pack a jar full of berries (ideally, fresh) and fill the jar with 100 proof vodka. Cap and leave in a cool, dark place for 6 weeks, shaking daily. Strain, bottle the liquid and store in a cool, dark place. Take 25-50 drops of the tincture daily (I find first thing in the morning best).
If you would like a concise reference chart for making tinctures and other herbal preparations, check out my Wise Woman Medicine Making Chart.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is one of my all-around favorites. It has amazing nutritive properties that benefit everyone—but are especially generous with women. Nettles are high in chlorophyll, which is only one molecule away from hemoglobin. That molecule is iron, also abundant in nettles, so this plant is very powerful for building our blood.
As a blood nourisher, nettle is useful through all stages of a woman’s life. In menarche, it supports young women just coming into their moon cycle. During menstruating years, it steadily nourishes the bones, the blood, and the adrenals, as well as supporting us in critical times (heavy bleeding, birth and miscarriage). In menopause, nettle is a valuable ally in many ways, including flooding (extremely heavy bleeding), a common menopausal issue. Nettle’s chlorophyll and iron helps us to avoid anemia.
Because it is so rich in minerals, nettle nourishes the bones. It’s easiest for a woman to build bone mass in her thirties, but coupled with weight-bearing exercise and nourishing foods, nettle can actually help us to continue to build bone mass into menopausal years and beyond. Nettles support the creation of the bone cells called osteoblasts—the new, young bone cells that contribute to flexibility—so you get the benefit of both bone density and flexibility.
For adrenal support, nettle is a superstar. In our society, especially as women, we tend to have adrenal fatigue and even exhaustion. We’re subjected daily to adrenal-challenging experiences (even watching the news or driving in traffic can set off a response), as well as adrenal stimulating substances like caffeine, which we use to get a burst of energy. Brewing nettle infusion instead is a long-term, nourishing way to support adrenal energy without an unnatural spike of adrenaline that ultimately contributes to exhaustion.
In addition to nettle soup as a prime choice, infusions are a food-like form for receiving the nutritive benefits of herbs and are simple to prepare. If you begin to harvest from your nettle patch in the spring, you can continue to cut them back and harvest all through the season (wear gloves to prevent the sting).
For infusions, dry your nettle by hanging it in a cool, dry place until the leaves are nice and crispy. Immerse one cup of dried nettle in a quart of boiling water and allow the infusion to sit for at least four hours. Strain the liquid and store in the refrigerator for several days. At least one cup of infusion per day is recommended, but it’s so satisfying and nourishing, you’ll probably want to enjoy it all day long!
My one page reference chart, the Wise Woman Medicine Making Chart, also includes information on making infusions.
The soft green, fuzzy leaves of comfrey (Symphytum officinale) are a familiar sight in these mountains where the plant has been used medicinally for generations. Also known as “knitbone,” it’s used topically as a poultice, oil, or salve (there is some debate about toxicity when consumed). Wilted and then steeped in organic olive oil, comfrey oil (or salve, with beeswax melted in) is soothing and moisturizing—promoting cell proliferation. It’s outstanding for maintaining the health and flexibility of the skin.
During pregnancy it’s a powerful ally to improve suppleness of the breast and belly skin as it expands, minimizing stretch marks. Comfrey salve or oil is excellent for perineal massage prior to birth to promote elasticity and prevent tearing during labor. While nursing, I found comfrey salve especially helpful in combating sore nipples. Put it on after you’ve nursed to relieve irritation. If concerned about internal use, wash the nipples before nursing again.
During menopause, use comfrey oil or salve to ease vaginal discomfort and strengthen and plump the vaginal tissues, which can become thin, dry, and susceptible to tears as we age. Comfrey oil can also be used as a sex lubricant (but don’t use it with latex condoms because oil degrades latex).
For instructions on making an oil or salve, you can refer to my Wise Woman Medicine Making Chart.
When you’re having a rough time, it’s comforting to have some “mother” to lean on. Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is a member of the mint family with maple shaped leaves that is easily cultivated. As a fast acting complement to vitex, motherwort is useful in regulating menstrual cramps, hot flashes, and hormonal mood swings that tend in the rage direction, if you know what I mean!
Her taste is sometimes compared to bitter chocolate, so I prefer to take motherwort as a tincture rather than a water-based infusion or tea. Motherwort can take the edge and intensity off hormonal symptoms within 20 minutes, although symptoms may not disappear completely with the first dose. Nonetheless, it has a very calming and centering effect, working to regulate the cardiovascular system and helping to quiet heart palpitations, which can be an issue during menopause.
Making friends with these four, and other beneficial local herbs, offers women an opportunity to be proactive about their health and wellness in a way that is harmonic with their body’s natural wholeness.
Corinna Wood, seasoned teacher and mentor along the wise woman path–from herbs to self love
"I was initiated into the Wise Woman Tradition at the tender age of 22, by Susun Weed and a beloved patch of nettles. Today, I support women with inner growth and healing tools to ground you in your own innate wisdom, needs and desires. My teachings on heart and soul healing draw on earth wisdom of our foremothers––the shoulders on which we stand––to navigate the challenges we face as women in the world today."