There are 157.2 million females living in the United States (1), and all are fair game to be natural products shoppers. After all, millions of women want to become moms, and could benefit from proper nutrition; nearly all will go through menopause and may be looking for natural relief; and all want to avoid breast cancer and may want to hear how supplements can help.
So, what are you waiting for? Enter the vast world of women’s nutrition.
Answering the Call to Motherhood
Optimizing fertility. Becoming a mother may well be the most exhausting, nerve-racking and joyous experience a woman can have—and millions upon millions of women happily make the choice to do so every year. For some, the journey down the road to motherhood begins without a hitch. But for others, conception can be an immensely challenging process for both body and mind.
For couples longing to turn their duo into a trio, retailers should be aware that nutrition can support healthy fertility (though no diet or supplement can claim to stop infertility or guarantee pregnancy).
According to Grace Ormstein, M.D., scientific herbal advisor to Himalaya Herbal Healthcare, Houston, TX, the first place to start is a healthy lifestyle. The reason why, she says, is that accumulated toxins from one’s diet or environment can build up over time and stop nutrients from getting to a woman’s reproductive organs. Ormstein states, “A woman’s body, particularly when we look at cells of the reproductive system, requires optimum nourishment to function at optimum levels, and supplements can help women do that very well.”
In agreement about the connection between toxins and having trouble conceiving is Martie Whittekin, a certified clinical nutritionist, nationally syndicated radio host and author of Natural Alternatives to Nexium. “Environmental chemicals interfere with hormone function and fertility,” she says. “It stands to reason that efforts to improve health with nutrition and green products would improve fertility.”
Another reason why nutrition is so important, says Suzanne Munson, M.S. (Nutrition), director of Fairhaven Health, Bellingham, WA, is that it plays a role in healthy ovulation—a key to successful conception. States Munson, “Nutrient deficiencies and hormonal imbalances can negatively impact the function of the female reproductive system by causing irregular menstruation and infrequent ovulation.” For this reason, Munson believes that women trying to conceive (and those who become pregnant) should take a prenatal supplement with full vitamin and mineral support plus fertility aids (such as his firm’s FertilAid for Women).
Herbal supplements are shining stars in this area, but David Winston, RH (AHG), president of Herbalist & Alchemist, Inc., Washington, NJ, reminds us that to use them properly, it’s helpful to understand the underlying cause of infertility or subfertility.
For instance, if a woman is having trouble conceiving because she has elevated levels of androgenic hormones (such as is the case in women with polycystic ovary syndrome [PCOS]), Winston says that chaste tree, white sage, saw palmetto, licorice and white peony are good choices.
Regarding POS, Mark J Kaylor, vice president of education and research for Mushroom Wisdom, East Rutherford, NJ, states a fraction of Maitake mushroom (SX-fraction from Mushroom Wisdom) also may help women with PCOS. He states, "In fact, one study comparing its benefits to the most commonly prescribed pharmaceutical drug found the results similar as well as a possible synergy between the SX-fraction and pharmaceutical. In this comparison study, two out of three women using the SX-Fraction were able to become pregnant but none in the drug alone group. Another recent PCOS paper demonstrated how the SX-Fraction exhibits anti-aromatase activity benefits adding another level of benefit for the mushroom extract."
Munson agrees with Winston that chasteberry (vitex) is a good option, since its active compounds decrease levels of the hormone prolactin (which a woman’s body later uses to signal breast milk production). While a woman naturally has high levels of prolactin during pregnancy (and after childbirth, if she chooses to breastfeed), it’s not an advantage while she’s trying to conceive. She states, “In addition to sustaining breast milk production, prolactin also plays a role in preventing conception by suppressing ovulation. Interestingly, this is why it is difficult for a woman to get pregnant while she is breastfeeding. Specifically, prolactin inhibits a follicle-stimulating hormone and gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH), both of which help your eggs to develop and mature in the ovaries. As a result, elevated prolactin levels disrupt ovulation and impact the regularity of your menstrual period, making it difficult to conceive. By reducing prolactin levels, vitex helps to restore regular ovulation and menstruation.”
Other fertility support herbs include maca, shatavari (a “tropho-restorative to the female reproductive system, helping to nourish, enhance and restore normal female sexual function,” says Winston) and cordyceps, which helps support proper endocrine function. To this list of herbs that may “help balance the hormones so that conditions are right for conception,” Steve Holtby, President & CEO, Soft Gel Technologies, Inc., Los Angeles, CA, adds red raspberry (which acts like a mild progesterone) and false unicorn and red clover (which have estrogenic properties).
Another important factor in fertilty, says Hyla Cass, M.D., author of 8 Weeks to Vibrant Health (www.cassmd.com), could be low thyroid function. “Look for signs of hypothyroidism such as feeling cold, weight gain, thinning hair and low energy,” she states, adding that with a physician’s knowledge, “Taking thyroid support supplement formulas such as ThyroSense by WomenSense (Natural Factors) can help enhance thyroid function and fertility. Not for use by women with hyperthyroidism.”
But it’s not just about hormones. Some supplements also promote cervix health. Just before ovulation, a woman’s body produces cervical mucus to protect and nourish sperm as it travels through the uterus and into the fallopian tubes. According to Munson, “Many women do not produce enough fertile-quality cervical mucus, which can make it difficult for sperm to make it to the Fallopian tube to meet the egg for fertilization.” He explains that a supplement from his company (FertileCM) combines L-arginine and N-acetyl-cysteine, which “promotes the production of fertile-quality cervical mucus, and nourishes and heals the endometrial lining to ensure successful implantation in the event that conception does occur.”
Other nutrients like antioxidants could affect the quality of oocytes, the cell from which an egg or ovum develops, experts say. “Macro- and micro-nutrients have significant roles in female fertility and fetal development upon conception,” states Kaori Shimazaki Dadgostar, Ph.D., technical specialist at Jarrow Formulas, Inc., Los Angeles, CA. For instance, research supports the use of inositol for improved oocyte quality. However, there are some nutrients and supplements that seem to improve or maintain healthy reproductive organs, which may increase the chance of successful conception and may prevent miscarriages (2).
And, experts say that not having enough vitamin D in one’s system is connected with trouble conceiving (3).
Holtby feels vitamin E is not only a powerful antioxidant, but it also balances the hormones. Dadgostar adds that antioxidants help with “ensuring normal oocyte development, maturation, and corpus luteum function while preventing oxidative stress-induced abortions, preeclampsia, hydatidiform mole, fetal embryopathies, preterm labor, gestational diabetes, follicular atresia, and luteolysis,” according to research (4, 5).
She mentions an added bonus. If pregnancy occurs, these and other antioxidants like vitamin C, iron, zinc, selenium, L-arginine and omega-3 fatty acids also support healthy pregnancy, lactation and fetal development. But, be sure clients ask their healthcare providers before trying these remedies.
It takes two to tango. It is also worth mentioning that fertility problems could stem from the other partner. About 40% of all cases of infertility or subfertility have to do with the male partner, says Munson. “The deterioration in overall sperm health is a symptom of our modern lifestyle that is too often characterized by poor diet, exposure to environmental contaminants, and chronic stress,” says Munson.
In men, says Frank Schönlau, Ph.D., scientific director of Horphag Research (worldwide supplier of Pycnogenol) and Natural Health Science (North American supplier of Pycnogenol), sperm quality can be the problem. “Sperm membranes are very rich in oxidation-sensitive polyunsaturated fatty acids,” he states. “Sperm cells require about 90 days for maturation. During that time, oxidative stress accumulates, which damages sperm during this developmental time.”
Schönlau notes that a researcher from the West Essex Center for Advanced Reproductive Endocrinology studied whether a branded French maritime pine bark extract (Pycnogenol) affected sperm function and morphology, since the cell’s size and shape can affect fertility. After a 90-day study on 19 men, it was found that 200 mg of the extract taken daily increased normal sperm shape/size and mannose receptor binding (6).
Dadgostar speaks of several other nutrients that support men’s fertility: “Studies have shown that L-carnitine, acetyl-L-carnitine, and co-enzyme Q10 can enhance sperm motility and they may increase pregnancy rates (7, 8). Calcium, magnesium, zinc and copper also play significant roles in sperm production and male fertility. Zinc, for instance, is important for testosterone production, and supplementation may increase testosterone production as well as sperm counts, motility, and morphology (9).”
Breastfeeding support. For women fortunate enough to have a healthy pregnancy and delivery, breastfeeding may be an option. Sometimes, despite a new mom’s best efforts, she may not produce enough milk to satisfy her baby. Many women decide to stop breastfeeding because of this, but there may be another option.
There is anecdotal support for galactagogues (i.e., herbs that increase lactation), but not many studies have been undertaken to fully prove their effectiveness. That said, many nursing mothers have had positive results maintaining their milk supply with herbal supplements. Winston says such herbs include fennel seed, blessed thistle and milk thistle. To this list, Ormstein adds shatavari, fenugreek, oats and anise seed.
For women who suffer from frequent clogged milk ducts, Holtby suggests lecithin because it’s an anticoagulant. Frequent plugged ducts not only affect lactation, but it can also lead to mastitis, which causes pain, fever and also decreased milk supply.
Throughout the time a woman breastfeeds, keeping hydrated and consuming enough of the right vitamins and minerals is also important. “Most experts will agree that simply eating a well-balanced diet does not ensure nursing moms get all the nutrients they need to stay healthy and produce nutritious breast milk,” says Munson, who points out that doctors typically tell breastfeeding moms to continue taking their prenatals. “Most of these don’t meet the unique nutritional requirements of nursing women,” however, so she feels that taking a nursing postnatal is the best choice.
Closing One Door, Opening Another
After a couple decades of menstruation (if not more), entering perimenopause can be a bittersweet transition. Some women welcome the idea of not having to worry about a monthly cycle, but others aren’t thrilled about what can be an uncomfortable and long process to reach menopause (the one-year anniversary of a woman’s final period).
When a woman is in her mid-40s to mid-50s, her ovaries gradually begin to produce less estrogen and progesterone. As a result of these hormonal changes, 70% of women experience symptoms that can range from hot flashes to vaginal dryness to mood swings. While they are normal, these signs don’t mean women have to sit by idly and wait for it all to stop. Rather, there are numerous natural balancing creams and supplements that can help a woman to feel more like herself again. According to Steven Kravitz, president of Earth’s Bounty, Vancouver, WA, these options don’t stop or delay menopause. Rather, “they deal with the symptoms and lessen their severity and duration,” he states. “Irritability, mood swings, hot flashes, lack of libido…we can take the rough edges off them.”
Kravitz states that many of these products offer synergistic blends that work as a unit. His company’s product (Meno-Select), for instance, is based on traditional Chinese medicine and thus the “recipe” (and others in this category) should be seen as a whole as opposed to X, Y, Z ingredients working on their own.
Creams. Women going through perimenopause can choose natural creams, supplements or both during this time period. But first, encourage women to talk to a healthcare provider. “When using products that may affect your hormones, it is always best to work with a healthcare practitioner experienced in this area, as you run the risk of pushing your hormones into a more unbalanced state,” advises Eileen Sheets, managing director of Bioforce USA, Ghent, NY.
“Although both creams and supplements are available for the common purpose of providing support to help with menopausal symptoms, what they deliver is quite different,” explains Craig Klein, M.S., C.N.S., L.N., national educator at Michael’s Naturopathic Programs, San Antonio, TX.
Let’s talk about creams first, of which progesterone is one of the most common types. Amy Spreadborough, marketing manager for emerita, Portland, OR, says her company makes a natural progesterone cream that has been marketed since the mid-1990s. “Notable natural advocates, including Dr. John R. Lee, M.D., became early fans of the product,” she says, adding that this and other pioneering natural products essentially “kick-started the whole category of midlife women’s balance products at natural retail.”
Women have been embracing natural hormone products since synthetic hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was linked to serious health problems like heart disease and breast cancer. On her blog, Becoming a Menopause Goddess, author Lynette Sheppard explains that natural HRT alternatives include bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (BHRT) in topical creams. These plant-derived products are “exact replicas of the hormones your body already produces” so “the body can’t distinguish the supplemented hormones from the ones your body is producing naturally,” Sheppard states (10).
Stacey Rosen, president of At Last Naturals, Inc., Valhalla, NY, agrees with Sheppard. She states, “Our Wild Yam Cream is rich in Diosgenin, a plant compound structurally similar to those found in the body, which can naturally help support women gently and effectively during times of imbalance.” On the other hand, the body breaks down synthetic hormones differently.
Neil E. Levin, CCN, DANLA, nutrition education manager at NOW Foods, Bloomingdale, IL, believes that phytoestrogens are safer than synthetic. He says they are found in nearly all legumes and are “about 1,000 times less intense than the usual circulating body-produced estrogen forms. That difference and the source make plant estrogens much safer.”
Cass adds, “The creams are generally wild yam to boost levels of DHEA, an adrenal hormone, or progesterone cream, since both these hormones diminish with age. In particular, progesterone can be useful to combat hot flashes and night sweats in perimenopause.”
Supporting supplements. Hot flashes. Like creams, some women’s supplements also work by supporting healthy hormone levels. One benefit is to those experiencing hot flashes. According to Sheets, the ovaries produce lower levels of hormones during menopause. “This appears to affect the hypothalamus, the region of the brain where the body’s temperature is regulated,” she explains. Even small temperature changes can trigger perimenopause’s telltale hot flashes, which affect some 85% of women and are often most severe during the first two years of onset (11).
Symptoms of menopause include sweating and vasomotor instability, which are the body’s attempts at regulating its temperature. Sheets explains the latter term: “Blood vessels in the skin dilate or constrict, allowing the heat of the blood (and thus the body) to dissipate and cool the body down. It can be felt as hot flashes, night sweats, even palpitations. The duration and frequency of hot flashes varies from woman to woman.”
One study on a branded supplement (A Vogel Sage Tablets) tested whether sage could help those with hot flashes. After giving the sage tablet to 71 perimenopausal women for eight weeks, researchers determined there was a decrease in intensity-rated hot flashes by 50% in a month and by 64% in two months. The total number of hot flashes steadily dropped, too, over the course of the study (12).
In countries where soy is a main component of the diet (such as in Japan), women tend to have less menopausal symptoms. According to the Mayo Clinic, “One reason might be related to ingestion of estrogen-like compounds in soy, red clover and many other plants” (13).
Some experts believe that genistein, the main isoflavone in soy, not only helps those with hot flashes, but also supports bone remodeling. Alexis Buntin, public relations and brand manager, Reserveage Organics, Gainesville, FL, speaks of a non-soy genistein (geniVida from DSM). This ingredient increased bone mineral density in clinical trials, and also “was shown in a human clinical to reduce hot flashes by 57% and help ease the intensity of hot flashes by 38%,” she states. This ingredient along with black cohosh, red clover, dong quai and Pro-Longevity Factor Resveratrol are combined in her company’s menopause support supplement (Menopause Advantage).
Many companies also offer blends with black cohosh, an herb that menopausal women have trusted for decades. Winston believes this herb is most effective when used in combination with chaste tree, “my #1 choice for reducing hot flashes.” Chaste tree, according to Jarrow’s Dadgostar, “stimulates the adrenals to regulate blood estrogen/progesterone ratios to produce progesterone-like effects for decreased menopausal conditions.”
In addition, many supplement companies offer lignans from flax in their women’s products. The reason why, says Dadgostar, is that “lignans are similar in structure to sex hormones and positively influence hormone metabolism.” She cites a study in which 28 postmenopausal women were given flaxseed, and the supplement “significantly reduced serum 17 beta-estradiol and estrone sulfate, but increased prolactin concentrations associated with decreased estrogen. Thus, flax lignans are a natural alternative to HRT and for reducing menopausal conditions,” she states.
Another interesting botanical is French maritime pine bark (Pycnogenol), which is said to relieve hot flashes without affecting women’s hormone levels. Schönlau says the extract was very recently studied in a population of European women and was “found to be particularly helpful for decreasing hot flushes” and also reduced other perimenopausal symptoms. The study will be published in this month’s issue of Panminerva Medica. Previously, the extract “significantly improved symptoms” compared with a placebo group in a study of 200 perimenopausal Asian women.
Soothing and calming. Many women going through menopause experience nervousness, jitters and insomnia, but supplements can help. NutraGenesis, the maker of an ashwagandha/Indian gooseberry ingredient (Sensara), for instance, says the ashwagandha in its product helps “inhibit the negative effects of elevated cortisol.” This hormone is secreted in response to stress, as well as during menopause and at certain times of the monthly cycle. It is believed to cause irritability and fatigue, among other problems. According to NutraGenesis, “in a double-blind, placebo-controlled human clinical trial, the amount of Ashwagandha extract found in a daily dose of Sensara resulted in a significant reduction in cortisol (–24.2%) in subjects. This was associated with significant improvements in stress and irritability, mood, fatigue reduction, sleep, memory and mental focus, as well as metabolic wellness factors.”
Jose Luiz “J.L.” Paes-Leme, founder and CEO of NaturaNectar LLC, Sunrise, FL, says his company’s menopause-support supplement (EaseFemin) offers two sources of aglycone isoflavones to help reduce irritability, hot flashes and night sweats. The blend includes the trademarked Isofactor extract (a flavonoid-rich extract from Red Bee Propolis) and a high-quality non-GMO fermented soy. “Most supplements for menopause available today use the common glucoside form of isoflavones,” says Paes-Leme. “Aglycone isoflavones lack a ring of glucose around their molecule and this important difference has been scientifically studied to make them absorbed by the women’s cell receptors faster and more efficiently.” Such receptors typically receive hormones, but are deprived of estrogen and progesterone during menopause. Thus, plant-based phytoestrogens such as those described by Paes-Leme can help.
In addition, supplements may also contain calming agents to help take the edge off during the time leading up to menopause. Beneficial herbs, says Pase-Leme, include chamomile, passion flower and valerian root. “These herbs have been used for centuries to help alleviate irritability and also have a synergistic effect on other menopausal symptoms,” he states.
Levin adds some information about a branded ingredient from SunBio (Estro-G 100). This extract combines Phlomis umbrosa, Cynanchum wilfordii and Angelica gigas and has demonstrated benefits for addressing common symptoms of menopause and perimenopause such as hot flashes, night sweats, poor sleep, nervousness, and difficulty in maintaining a positive outlook. This ingredient is used in NOW Foods’ new Herbal Pause supplement.
Vaginal dryness. Another unpleasant side effect of menopause is vaginal dryness. When estrogen levels drop during this time, the vagina and surrounding tissues lose elasticity, become thinner and become more fragile. This can cause pain and bleeding during intercourse, plus it increases the likelihood of infection.
Supplements can help. For instance, Winston speaks of an herbal blend from his company (Replenish Compound) that combines moistening herbs like Chinese asparagus, milky oat, licorice and white pond lily which help restore moisture to mucus membranes.
Also available are natural lubricants that can moisturize and help protect against vaginal dryness.
Overall support. Retailers can also stock combination products that are intended for overall support throughout perimenopause.
Supplements from Klein’s firm (Women’s Changes and Menopause Factors) blend together “magnesium to relax muscles; wild yam root to tonify the reproductive system; and dong quai & red clover, both long used for menopause support.”
And Ormstein says a brand from Himalaya Herbal Healthcare (MenoCare) offers asoka tree (which soothes the nervous system), heart-leaf sida (for urinary and heart health) and gotu kola (which supports the nervous system, mental alertness and skin health). The formula also offers shatavari. “Any Ayurvedic practitioner working with women wouldn’t dream of being without shatavari,” she states, since it supports “normal hormone utilization and hormone blood levels, the body’s natural production of estrogen, and is considered a soothing, cooling, tonic plant.”
Cass speaks of another combination product (MenoSense by WomenSense from Natural Factors) that offers “excellent well-researched herbs that help balance hormones during perimenopause and menopause.” These include black cohosh and dong quai for balancing estrogen, vitex for balancing progesterone, and gamma oryzanol and hesperidin “that are useful in handling hot flashes.”
Though not every formula may include them, don’t forget to remind women to support bone health with calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin K2, vitamin D and other important nutrients. When women lack estrogen, osteoclasts are better able to absorb bone and osteoblasts produce less bone. Over time, this makes women more prone to osteoporosis. Says Whittekin, “Building strong bones has to start in youth because maximum bone strength must be achieved by the mid-thirties when peri-menopause may start.”
Together or separate? Retailers may want to ask their manufacturers (and shoppers their doctors) before recommending taking creams and supplements together. There are numerous opinions on the matter.
For instance, Paes-Leme says his company’s product works best on its own. On the other hand, Buntin believes a progesterone cream could work well with supplements that boost low estrogen levels so as to create a healthy balance of the two. But, they are not compatible with chaste tree, says Winston, who believes the combination can elevate levels of progesterone in some women.
Rosen agrees that some formulas work very well together, noting that her firm’s Wild Yam Cream combined with its plant-based menopause supplements (Meno Herbs or Meno 2) help women experiencing hormonal-related menopausal symptoms.
But, Dadgostar believes while some combinations can be beneficial, others may contain substances that are contraindicated when mixed. This could even be the case with a low-quality combination supplement. “Therefore, it is recommended to make sure that supplements are made with quality materials and by validated companies, and that these ingredients remain safe and efficacious when taken together,” she states.
It’s best to test. Experts say that once a woman decides she wants to try natural menopause-relief products, it may be useful to get her hormone levels tested via saliva and blood tests. Says Ormstein, “Once that’s done, the practitioner can then confidently guide her to the most appropriate supplement for her unique situation, without all the hit and miss guesswork.”
The reason why is simple: every woman is different. Levin makes the point that “Everyone’s hormone levels are unique and complicated, as every woman knows, so not every product will work for every person.” Getting tested can help women narrow down the search for an effective product, though some trial and error may be needed.
Menstruation supplies. Since it can take years of perimenopause before a woman experiences her last period, it’s smart to remind women of the importance of choosing natural/organic tampons and pads. “Conventional tampons contain chemicals such as chlorine and pesticide residues as well as synthetic materials such as rayon and plastics,” says Buntin. “Consumers should choose a tampon that is made from certified organic cotton to avoid unnecessary exposure to these dangerous substances.”
Mainstream tampons and pads contain estrogen “mimickers” that can be absorbed by the vaginal mucus, says Cass. “We know that these chemicals are carcinogenic, so it is important to help the liver metabolize these toxins as well as avoid exposure,” she states. Natural detoxifiers include DIM (di-indole-methane), indole-3 carbinole, sulforaphane and calcium-d-glucarate derived from vegetables like broccoli, plus herbs like milk thistle, turmeric and rosemary, she says.
Susie Hewson, founder and director of Natracare LLC, Greeley, CO, reminds us that decreasing estrogen levels during perimenopause make women more prone to infection and irritation, since the lining of the uterus and vagina becomes more fragile. “For this reason, the choice of feminine hygiene is even more about the types of materials and construction of the sanitary pads and tampons than just their performance,” she states.
Hewson suggests women avoid sanitary pads that use plastic materials in their covers or their backings. Women may be fooled into thinking these products are gentle with marketing language like “cotton-soft” or “cotton-like.” She states, “Be aware. They contain no cotton materials at all.” Instead, they are made with materials that a woman doesn’t need, least of all during this time when she’s likely to experience vaginal sensitivity: irritating chemical residuals leftover from chlorine-bleached cotton and crude oil-derived polyacrylate super absorbents. Adds Hewson, “That stuff that allows you to wear a sanitary pad for hour upon hour comes at a cost!”
Another problem is that mainstream tampons are made from chlorine-bleached rayon and sometimes with genetically modified, pesticide-ridden cotton added for the lower absorbencies. This exposes women to dioxin residuals and is terrible for the environment. Hewson makes the point that a tampon’s rayon isn’t stable and comes apart very easily in the body. “Rayon fibers easily shed in the vagina and can become lodged high up against the cervix becoming a breeding ground for bacteria and possible future infections,” she states. “Your exposure to these types of products may further contribute to intimate irritation.”
Other alternatives are organic and natural sanitary pads, tampons and liners made from chlorine-, chemical- and plastic-free materials. Says Hewson, “Because we use certified organic cotton and plant starches, the risk for irritation is greatly reduced which is why Natracare is recommended by many gynecologists and dermatologists.”
Another option is reusable menstrual cups (like the Diva Cup from Diva International), which are made from materials like soft silicone. Many women find this type of product less irritating than tampons or pads. It can handle heavy or light flow.
Younger women who have monthly periods can consider taking PMS support products. One brand (Women’s Select from Earth’s Bounty) is intended to be taken throughout a woman’s cycle. “Usually within 60 days of nurturing the body, you see a decline in all PMS symptoms,” says Kravitz. He compares it with a popular mainstream PMS drug, which combines aspirin and caffeine; this product masks symptoms. “We’re the exact opposite,” he says.
Rosen adds that a woman can also use wild yam cream to help balance her monthly cycle. But Whittekin says significant menstrual irregularities or PMS should be seen as an “early clue of the need to improve the nutritional support of her hormonal system.”
Extra Prevention for Breast Care
They say early detection is the best way to fight cancer. Women seem to be heeding this advice as 68% of women over 40 had a mammogram from 2006 to 2008. Millions of women also conduct monthly self-breast exams and see their doctors at the first sign of an abnormality. But, how many women realize the role nutrition plays in supporting breast health before problems start? This, too, is an important aspect of preventative care.
In addition, Ormstein says there are several environmental factors (like PCBs, DDT, and PBDEs) that compromise breast health. “It all goes back to healthy lifestyle and understanding the destructive impact of toxins on the human body,” she states. “Take all the supplements you want, but if you’re not facing the realities of lifestyle and toxins burdens first, you’re lessening their value and doing yourself a disservice.”
Dadgostar offers an example: women who gain more than 20 pounds after they turn 18 are more likely to develop breast cancer (14).
Holtby offers the following advice for a diet that supports breast health:
• Eat a very low-fat diet with about 15 to 20% of calories from fat.
• Increase fiber-containing foods to 20 to 35 grams a day.
• Eat more than nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
• Consume more cruciferous and carotenoid vegetables and fruits.
• Cut out meat or only eat organic,
hormone-free beef and poultry.
Dadgostar says that foods rich in phytoestrogens (like soy, flax seed, red clover, kudzu and legumes) could help modulate circulating estrogen levels. Also “antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, carotene and alpha lipoic acid are also known to reduce the oxidative damage that can harm the structure and function of breasts,” she says, adding, “Selenium can indirectly provide antioxidant activity by potentiating the effects of vitamin E. Additional sources of antioxidants include epigallocatechin-3-gallate found in green tea and oligomeric proanthocyanidins found in grape seeds. These two antioxidants can maintain healthy cell proliferation and differentiation. Garlic, zinc and echinacea are great immune boosters, helping prevent breast cancer and other related diseases.”
Given how many families are affected by breast cancer, it’s not surprising that research continues on whether supplements can support breast health. Some of the most interesting new research on the subject follows:
• Women who were diagnosed and treated for early-stage breast cancer and who consumed the most EPA and DHA had about a 25% reduced risk of additional breast cancer events and also all-cause mortality (15).
• Current use of fish oil was linked with reduced risk of breast cancer in a 10-year study. States Cass, “During the six-month follow-up, 880 cases of breast cancer were reported. Researchers discovered that women taking fish oil, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, significantly reduced their risk of breast cancer” (16).
• During a 10-year trial involving 67,721 postmenopausal women, those with the highest UV exposure and highest dietary or supplemental vitamin D intake had a significantly lower breast cancer risk than women with the lowest vitamin D intake (17). Says Whittekin, “That benefit appears to come from its ability to help us make melatonin and vitamin D. For those in northern locations and those who avoid the sun for fear of skin cancer, supplements make sense.”
• Taking vitamins (especially E, C and multis) in the six months after being diagnosed with breast cancer reduced mortality risk and recurrence (18). “Similarly, intake of beta-carotene and vitamin E has been reported to provide beneficial effects on lobular breast cancer and ER + PGR + breast cancer, respectively,” says Dadgostar citing a 2010 study (19).
• A proprietary extract from Mushroom Wisdom (Maitake D-Fraction) was found in a very recently published article to induce the natural death of human breast cancer cells (20). The Meshima mushroom is also said to support healthy breasts. According to Kaylor, the mushroom "has demonstrated a range of benefit for the prevention of breast cancer as well as a possible adjunct therapy." He adds that research conducted here and in Asia show meshima "to increase activity of the immune system, like many other mushrooms, and to work on several other levels and mechanisms to help promote breast health. Some of the actions effect various enzymatic pathways that cancer needs to thrive as well as inducing apoptosis and preventing angiogenesis." Kaylor notes that the must mushroom may be so beneficial when used with conventional therapy that it may even be able to lower its dose while achieving the same benefits when given in combination. WF
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Published in WholeFoods Magazine, October 2011