HORMONE BALANCER — CHASTEBERRY (VITEX AGNUS CASTUS)
POWER BENEFIT: Relieves symptoms of PMS and peri-menopause and may be helpful for some kinds of infertility.
THE SCIENCE: A shrub in the verbena family, chasteberry bears a fruit that has been used medicinally for centuries. As the name suggests, it was once thought to dampen sexual desire; its also called monks pepper, since brothers in orders reportedly chewed the dried berries to decrease libido. Contemporary studies have found that the herb can help regulate hormones, and it has become a standard European treatment for premenstrual syndromeits especially effective in helping decrease symptoms of cyclic breast tenderness and fibrocystic breast disease.
Chasteberry can be particularly helpful during peri-menopause, when the hormones can go completely crazy, explains Edwards. During this time, progesterone levels often start to decline before estrogen levels fall, which can lead to depression, headache, bloating, fatigue, irritability, and breast tenderness. Unlike creams that introduce progesterone from an outside source, chasteberry helps the body increase its own natural levels of progesterone, notes Edwards. It may also be helpful for infertility caused by high levels of prolactin, since chasteberry can suppress the release of this hormone from the pituitary gland.
HOW TO TAKE IT: One 400-milligram capsule daily.
CAVEATS: Discontinue if nausea, rash, headache, or agitation occurs. Chasteberrys influence on hormones can interfere with the effectiveness of oral contraceptives, and its effect on prolactin makes it inadvisable for women who are pregnant or nursing.
HEART HELPER — INOSITOL HEXANIACINATE
POWER BENEFIT: Improves cholesterol profile.
THE SCIENCE: A compound made of two vitamins in the B family (niacin and inositol), this is considered the best-tolerated form of niacin supplement. Also known as vitamin B3, niacin is a natural agent for lowering cholesterol levels. But at the high doses necessary for effectiveness, other available formsnicotinic acid and nicotinamideoften cause unpleasant side effects. People can experience flushing, like a massive hot flash, or liver problems, advises J. David Forbes, M.D., founder and director of Nashville Integrated Medicine in Tennessee and a board member of the American Holistic Medical Association. Inositol hexaniacinate is better on both counts, with fewer people experiencing flushing and liver toxicity. Sometimes marketed as no-flush niacin, the compound can have comparable benefits to statin drugs, lowering LDL cholesterol by 5 percent to 25 percent and triglycerides by 25 percent to 50 percent, and raising HDL by 15 percent to 35 percent.
HOW TO TAKE IT: Start with 500 mg twice a day, and gradually increase over two weeks to 1,000 mg three times a day.
CAVEATS: Skin flushing is less likely but still possible. Taking inositol hexaniacinate with meals reduces the chance of stomach upset. At the high doses needed to lower cholesterol, there is a risk of serious side effects, including liver damage and stomach ulcers. Any niacin product should be taken under the supervision of a health-care provider, who can check your liver function periodically. Niacin is inappropriate for people with liver disease, gout, peptic ulcers, glaucoma, or a bleeding disorder. Check with your physician if you're already on cholesterol medication, since combining niacin with a statin could increase the risk of side effects.