8 Doctor-Approved Adaptogenic Herbs For Less PMS & Better Periods
Dr. Jolene Brighten, NMD, is one of the leading experts in women’s medicine and is a pioneer in her exploration of the far-reaching impact of hormonal birth control and the little known side effects that impact health in a large way. A trained nutritional biochemist and Naturopathic Physician, Dr. Brighten is the founder and Clinic Director at Rubus Health, an integrative women’s medicine clinic
So many of my patients struggle with breast tenderness, mood swings, bloating, headaches, anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, and acne that dial up their already unpleasant periods.
And you're not alone if these unpleasant—OK, freaking miserable—symptoms pop up before your menstrual cycle. About 75% of women experience them, and for about 20% of them, those symptoms are so severe that they resort to medications.
Oftentimes, hormonal imbalances ramp up these symptoms, including dominant estrogen levels, which crowd out progesterone and other hormones. In addition to killer PMS and periods, these hormonal imbalances can—over time—lead to hair loss, weight gain, difficult perimenopausal symptoms, mood disorders, the inability to get pregnant, and so much more.
Many of my patients also struggle with sugar cravings before their periods. Others rely on coffee to compensate for bad sleep. Or they take the edge off a bad day with a few glasses of red wine. Combine these with chronic stress, environmental toxins, and vegging out on reruns instead of exercising, and you've got a surefire formula to knock hormones out of balance and amplify PMS symptoms.
So, how do you even start to get your symptoms under control? In my clinic, I use labs and my patients' personal health history to understand what's causing those symptoms. But while we wait for labs to come back (which will allow us to take a more tailored approach), we employ a few different strategies to bring the body into balance and offer PMS relief—including one of my favorites: adaptogens.
How adaptogens help reduce PMS symptoms.
While adaptogens won't eliminate PMS and period symptoms in isolation, they can do wonders if you're also working to get other aspects of your lifestyle in check. I elaborate on this in the last section, but eating an anti-inflammatory diet, managing stress levels, and keeping blood sugar levels stable are also key for balancing hormones and minimizing symptoms. (In this article, I reveal exactly what to eat during your period to minimize PMS symptoms).
How do they work? Adaptogenic herbs create balance. They regulate your cortisol and begin to balance your hormones overall while also allowing your body to better manage stress. Think of them as a thermostat that naturally adjusts itself to create the perfect room temperature. They don't create that crash-and-burn aftermath like caffeine or alcohol.
A few things adaptogenic herbs can do, which can all play a role in minimizing pesky PMS and period symptoms:
- Improve your cortisol levels (bye-bye, stress!)
- Lower inflammation
- Enhance adrenal function
- Support your immune system
- Boost physical and mental endurance
- Help your brain and adrenals better communicate
My top 8 adaptogens for easing PMS.
Here are my favorite adaptogens that I've found most helpful for PMS symptoms:
1. Maca (helps with: hot flashes, night sweats)
Feeling all hot and sweaty before your period? No, those hot flashes and night sweats don't just hit women in perimenopause; they can hit any of us leading up to our period due to fluctuations in estrogen. This powerful root can balance hormones and enhance sexual desire. Maca can also help manage PMS symptoms, support your immune system, keep your thyroid healthy, and more.
Some people find maca a little too stimulating, and it can cause stomach discomfort. This is why I recommend to start small and gradually work up to the full daily dose of 1.5 to 3 grams per day. (Check out my maca smoothie recipe at the end of this article.)
2. Siberian Ginseng (helps with: lack of focus, productivity)
Can't focus, concentrate, or just plain "adult" before your period? "Small tasks feel like massive undertakings when I have PMS," a patient once told me. I get it: Being productive and focused during this time can be tough. That's why I recommend Siberian ginseng to improve energy, stamina, focus, and concentration.
Ginseng helps eliminate fatigue, support the immune system, improve memory and mental alertness, and reduce insomnia. Research also shows that ginseng can improve anxiety and depression caused by stress as well as inflammatory diseases. As an all-around bonus, it can also increase sex drive.
Avoid this herb if you have high blood pressure, and be sure to take it before noon to ensure a good night's sleep.
3. Gotu Kola (helps with: excessive stress)
Feeling at the mercy of stress? PMS symptoms ramp up whatever stress you're feeling. Gotu kola can be helpful if you've been under constant stress. Giving your adrenals some love during this time while reducing whatever overstimulates them can help you better manage symptoms.
4. Rhodiola Rosea (helps with: fatigue)
Fatigue before your period? Try this herb. Rhodiola Rosea extract is what I call the endurance herb. This is your primary adaptogen bestie to manage stress hormones while boosting energy levels. Research shows this herb can relieve stress symptoms and prevent chronic stress as well as stress-related complications.
Added bonus: Rhodiola also supports healthy progesterone. However, you shouldn't take it without supervision if you have a history of depression or bipolar disorder.
5. Ashwagandha (helps with: anxiety, insomnia)
Insomnia or anxiety leading up to your period? Ashwagandha puts the "hush" on cortisol and brings a deep sense of calm. If you feel "wired and tired," this herb can be especially helpful at bedtime.
Ashwagandha reduces inflammation, oxidative stress, and anxiety and improves sleep, memory, energy, and libido. It can also reduce heavy bleeding during your period and eliminate uterine fibroids with long-term use.
Ashwagandha is a nightshade, so it may be problematic if you have a sensitivity to the nightshade family.
6. Cordyceps Sinensis (helps with: junk food cravings)
Cravings getting the best of you? Cordyceps Sinensis is a medicinal mushroom that helps balance blood sugar, which can be at the root of cravings. It also helps nourish and support your adrenals and improve liver function.
Research shows that cordycepin, an extract of Cordyceps Sinensis, makes a great antioxidant and cancer-fighter, all while lowering inflammation. Cordycepin also can support your immune system, liver, kidneys, heart, and more. Added bonus: It makes a great natural aphrodisiac.
7. Licorice Root (helps with: hormonal breakouts)
Do oily skin and breakouts plague you as part of your PMS symptoms? It might be due to testosterone. Licorice can help because it blocks the production of those androgens (predominantly male hormones) that cause your pimples to show up everywhere!
Licorice root has a long history in Chinese medicine to fight microbes and viruses. It also increases energy and decreases inflammation. Note: Do not take this herb if you have high blood pressure.
8. Reishi (helps with: immunity)
Tend to catch colds in the second half of your cycle? Reishi is a mushroom that builds your adrenal strength, makes you more resilient to stress, and helps keep colds at bay by bolstering your immune system.
How quickly do these adaptogens work their magic?
These adaptogenic herbs work really well on their own and can be combined to have a synergistic effect. Please be patient, though. While I love these herbs and they can be tremendously helpful, they don't work overnight. Give them two to three months to really work their magic. I love products that combine standardized adaptogenic herbs with other nutrients such as B vitamins for comprehensive adrenal support.
How to boost their effectiveness.
You'll get maximum leverage from adaptogenic herbs—and say goodbye to period problems—when you get plenty of exercise and sleep and take charge of your lifestyle in the following three ways:
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. PMS and inflammation can go hand-in-hand, which can increase your symptoms and contribute to nearly every disease imaginable. Cool down that inflammation by eliminating gluten, dairy, sugar, processed food, and any foods you are sensitive to. Add in lots of anti-inflammatory rock stars like wild-caught fish, leafy and cruciferous veggies, and low-sugar fruits like avocado and berries.
- Manage stress. Your body releases cortisol, a stress hormone secreted by your adrenals, at only certain times of the day and in times of stress. When you experience prolonged, chronic stress, your adrenal glands work overtime and release extra cortisol, knocking other hormones out of balance. Yoga, deep breathing, and meditation are great ways to manage cortisol.
- Keep blood sugar stable. When insulin goes up, so does estrogen. Symptoms like mood swings, heavy periods, low libido, and bloating can result. No skipping meals during your period! Instead, load your plate with fat, protein, and fiber—the perfect trifecta!—while limiting simple carb intake can help lessen the load on your hormones.
Morning Maca Smoothie
Try replacing your morning cup of coffee with this nutrient-boosting, hormone-stabilizing smoothie with maca as the star ingredient. As I mentioned above, maca can be naturally stimulating and help ease period-related hot flashes. Your liver will thank you for the additional boost of energy, and you'll be saved from any caffeine crash.
- 1 cup coconut water
- 1 cup roughly chopped spinach
- 1 frozen banana
- 1 teaspoon matcha
- 1 teaspoon maca powder
- ½ avocado
- 1 serving protein powder (preferably a high-quality nondairy, non-soy variety)
Combine all the ingredients in a blender until the mixture is smooth.
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