Two years into medical school, Laurie Steelsmith needed something for pain in her hands and arms. It wasnt clear what was wrong, but it was a struggle just to braid her hair, take notes in class, and even drive a car. When high doses of ibuprofen prescribed by her doctors only made her ears ring, Steelsmith turned elsewhereto all-natural medicine. Using herbs and other supplements, she says, her pain slowly but surely disappeared.
Seventeen pain-free years later, Steelsmith, 44, a doctor of Chinese and naturopathic medicine and author of Natural Choices for Womens Health, is one of 90 million American women who regularly use supplements. “I really believe in this medicine,” she says. “Its what my body needs.”
Which all-natural remedies are best for you? Health asked Steelsmith and other natural-medicine experts to identify safe and effective choices for women. Of course, as the word implies, any supplement is an add-on to a healthy lifestyle, not a substitute for eating well, exercising, or keeping your doctors appointments. Supplements are not cure-alls.
Best for pain:
This enzyme, found in pineapple, helped Steelsmith resume her daily tasks with a lot less pain. Scientists think bromelain may actually break down protein in the blood, which explains its ability to curb pain-causing inflammation (and why its used as a meat tenderizer). Unlike over-the-counter and prescription pain drugs that come with stomach and heart risks, bromelain is considered safe. Take 200 to 400 milligrams a day when youre hurting.
An herb long used in traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine, boswellia may be more effective than drugs like ibuprofen for reducing inflammation. The acid in the herb seems to block an enzyme that generates inflammatory chemicals. Biochemist Holly Phaneuf, PhD, formerly of the University of Utah and author of Herbs Demystified, says the herb may be useful for pain associated with osteoarthritis, a common disorder among people over 40 that destroys the cushioning in joints. Another target: asthma, which is often linked to inflammation. A typical dose is 450 to 1,200 mg a day.
Best for PMS:
Compounds in the fruit of this tall, blue-violet plant appear to increase the production (or block the breakdown) of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate the hormone prolactin. Elevated levels of prolactin can lead to irritability, painful periods, and breast soreness. Two German studies confirm the effectiveness of chasteberry tree supplements. “Its my favorite herb hands-down for PMS,” says Tieraona Low Dog, MD, director of education at the University of Arizonas Program in Integrative Medicine. She recommends that you take 250 to 500 mg daily for three months. If your next period approaches with a vengeance once you quit, start taking it again.
Best for “the blues”:
A natural compound that your body makes by itself, SAMe (S-adenosyl-L-methionine) helps you produce feel-good brain chemicals. In supplement form, it works as well as antidepressants, according to a recent government report. “As soon as you get SAMe, your body just slurps it up,” says Hyla Cass, MD, author of Supplement Your Prescription: What Your Doctor Doesnt Know About Nutrition. Start with 400 mg a day, and build up to 800 to 1,200 mg until you start feeling better.
Best for tummy woes:
Dr. Low Dog highly recommends this age-old remedy for stomachaches and gas because it relaxes the muscles in your digestive tract, which reduces cramping and also helps expel gas. A research review found that peppermint-oil tablets may work as well as muscle-relaxing drugs in relieving the cramps and diarrhea linked to irritable bowel syndrome, a common problem for women. Take one tablet two to three times a day. Constipated? Dont use peppermint; it might make the problem worse. Try adding more fiber to your diet and drinking more water.
When youre feeling green in the gills, this root-derived supplement can relieve nausea. Experts say it may block stomach-emptying signals and slow the production of a compound that makes you feel queasy. In several studies, ginger worked just as well on morning sickness as the motion sickness drug marketed as Dramaminewithout the drowsiness. Take 1,000 mg daily for a few days.
Best for better sleep:
Two-thirds of American women complain of frequent sleep problems; this herb may be just what many of them need. No one knows exactly how it works, but some studies show valerian helps to bring on sleep with no side effects. It isnt addictive, either. Take 400 to 600 mg 45 minutes before bedtime, and make sure you dont mix it with other sedatives like muscle relaxants or antihistamines.
Your body makes this hormone at nightfalland makes less of it as you get older, which is one reason seniors often sleep less. Melatonin supplements are often suggested for re-establishing your sleep-wake cycle when you travel east across several time zones. And if you need to fall asleep faster, it may help; try taking 3 mg at bedtime.