Discovering Herbs: Black Cohosh
This is a perennial herb that belongs to the buttercup family. It grows in shady hardwood forests in the south of the USA, and its roots, which are used medicinally, may take up to three years to mature.
The Native Americans were using this herb long before European settlers appeared, finding it an excellent remedy for joint, nerve and muscle pain, and valuing it for its effect on gynaecological problems. In fact, it was sometimes known as ‘Squaw-weed’. The Cherokees used it to stimulate menstrual flow and lessen menstrual pain, whilst the Iroquois (whose name for it translates as ‘smells like horse’) used it for rheumatic type pain.
The early American pioneers in herbal medicine also used it for ‘female’ conditions, and it is increasingly the subject of modern day research by those wanting to find safe, natural alternatives to HRT.
The modern indications for this versatile herb centre on hot flushes, hormonally linked depression and sleep disturbance, making it a favoured choice for menopausal women.
It may be the salicylic acid content of Black Cohosh that contributes to its effects on menstrual pain and the arthritic type aches and pains that can come on during the menopause. Those who are allergic to salicylic acid (e.g. Aspirin) should therefore avoid this herb. Some women find that it eases migraine headaches that suddenly appear or begin to worsen during the menopause.
Used during the menopause, it is being studied in clinical trials for hormonal symptoms and although there are many theories as to how it does what it does, there are no cut and dried answers as yet. It is thought to act as a phytoestrogen, which means a plant that looks sufficiently like oestrogen to attach to oestrogen receptors in the body. This is not, however, the full story, as it only seems to attach to certain receptor sites and doesn’t just affect oestrogen levels. In fact, some studies don’t show it affecting oestrogen levels at all!
All in all, it is another example of a herb that has proven, traditional uses, but whose exact mode of action has not yet been pinned down, maybe because it is a multi-factorial action, i.e. it does several things at once and they have an overall effect on the body. That effect, however, can be just what women are looking for!