One of the most important herbs for female health is black cohosh root (Actaea racemosa). Native to the Appalachian region of North America, black cohosh (also called snakeroot and bugbane, due to its efficacy in treating snake bites and bug infestations) was historically used by Native Americans to treat a variety of female-related ailments, as well as snake bites and inflammation. Early European settlers in North America integrated the herb into their own treatment systems, where it was primarily used to ease female health complaints related to childbirth and menopause.
Black cohosh root is a perennial herb that can grow quite tall, often producing white flowers that bloom on a raceme that can be up to two feet in length. Although the herb is generally wild harvested, some plant nurseries have begun to cultivate it in an attempt to reduce the impact of harvesting and maintain the plants’ wild habitat.
Although it is not entirely clear exactly how black cohosh works, research has identified a wide variety of active compounds within the plant, chief among them polyphenols and triterpene glycosides. It is believed that these, and the numerous other compounds found in the plant, are responsible for its incredible healing powers. There has been some debate about potential harm to the liver as a result of taking black cohosh, but a study undertaken in 2010 was unable to find any definitive relationship between the herb and liver damage.
Below are five of the most prominent healing benefits to be derived from taking this incredible herb:
1. Helps Reduce Premenstrual Syndrome And Menstrual Cramps
Bloating, mood swings, and food cravings are just a few of the many Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms that plague women. Add to that the sometimes crippling menstrual cramps, and it’s no wonder why women turn to a multitude of treatments in the hopes of finding relief from their uncomfortable PMS symptoms. Luckily, black cohosh root has proven to be a tried and true remedy, offering relief to early settler women from as far back as the late 1800s, and to Native American women for any number of years previous to that.
Most often taken in capsule or tincture form, and sometimes cooked down in a decoction, this powerful herb brings pain relief while also calming the nervous system and reducing anxiety. Sherri Taylor, a licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Medicine practitioner, prescribes black cohosh for “hormonal balance, like irregular bleeding or spotting with a women’s menstrual cycle.”
The single herb of black cohosh is generally never prescribed by itself in Chinese Medicine. According to Taylor, “It’s usually part of a prescribed formula based on the person’s Chinese Medicine diagnosis.” In Western herbalism, black cohosh is also often used in conjunction with other powerful female oriented herbs such as Vitex, Sage, and Red Raspberry Leaf.
2. Beneficial In The Treatment Of Menopausal Symptoms
Menopause, caused by a reduction in the amount of estrogen and progesterone that are released by the ovaries, is a natural occurrence that generally starts for women in their late 40’s and early 50’s. Signaling the cessation of a regular menstrual cycle and often characterized by mood swings, hot flashes, and sleep disturbances, this phase of life can cause many women moderate to extreme discomfort.
The most commonly prescribed conventional treatment for menopause is synthetic Hormone Replacement Therapy. Utilizing synthetic estrogen and progestin, these therapies have a host of alarming side effects, among them an increased risk of breast cancer, vaginal bleeding, dementia, and stroke. Luckily, many women are turning to safer, alternative treatments to relieve their menopausal symptoms, with one of the most effective being daily use of black cohosh root. This powerful herb has been used extensively in Europe and the US to help alleviate many of the characteristic symptoms of menopause. Although there has been some concern regarding the possible estrogenic activity of black cohosh, studies have confirmed that it does not, in fact, have estrogen-like properties, nor is it a risk for women who have had breast or other estrogen-related cancers. Often sold under the brand name Remifemin, black cohosh can also be purchased in a variety of forms (capsule, tincture, dried root) at any well-stocked health food store.
3. Reduces Inflammation In The Body
Inflammation, a major factor in many common illnesses ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to cancer, has numerous causes but far fewer treatment options. Luckily, herbs like black cohosh (which contain salicylic acid, an anti-inflammatory compound found in many plants) exhibit their value once again, proving that their use can alleviate the symptoms associated with inflammation in the body. According to Taylor, in Chinese Medicine black cohosh “is also indicated for heat and toxicity that manifests in the upper body such as sore throat, mouth sores or ulcerations, bleeding gums, tooth pain, fever, and headache.” Often taken in conjunction with other pain relieving herbs like willow bark, black cohosh root has also been shown to reduce pain and swelling attributed to arthritis.
4. Eases Insomnia And Sleep Disturbances
For many women entering their menopausal years, insomnia proves to be a persistent foe, manifesting in both difficulties falling asleep and waking up numerous times throughout the night. Often, these sleep disturbances are associated with other menopausal symptoms such as night sweats and hot flashes. In numerous studies black cohosh has proven to be an effective treatment, helping ease symptoms and promoting overall restful sleep. Because black cohosh has not exhibited any negative interactions with other sleep promoting herbs, it is often taken in conjunction with herbs like motherwort, oat straw, and lemon balm, all of which have calming, relaxing properties.
5. Reduces Anxiety And Depression
Studies have shown that women are much more likely than men to suffer from anxiety and depression. This is due in large part to societal pressures, stress and gendered power issues in the workplace, high instances of physical and sexual abuse, and hormonal fluctuations. Taking those factors into consideration, it should come as no surprise that over the years women have consistently turned to herbs for help in treating the often paralyzing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Black cohosh root, in particular, has proven quite effective in the treatment of anxious and depressive symptoms associated with PMS and menopausal hormonal fluctuations.
Taking control of our feminine health and gaining an intimate understanding of the beautifully complex female experience can be an empowering and rewarding journey. Conventional medical treatments may come and go, but the power of herbal remedies, supported by a vast body of knowledge and many years of direct experience, remains a constant source of replenishment and healing for our bodies and minds.
Rosanna Keyes is a freelance writer, editor and non-profit office administrator living in the Asheville, NC area. She has a B.S.S. from Ohio University with concentrations in English Literature, Creative Writing, and Geography. She is a passionate advocate for sustainable food production, herbalism and the preservation of wild spaces for plant and animal habitat.
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