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Black Cohosh for Female Health

Updated on December 22, 2012

Black Cohosh in Flower

Black Cohosh - What Is It and what is it for?

Black cohosh (botanical name Actea racemosa, previously Cimicifuga racemosa) is also known as black bugbane, black snakeroot, or fairy candle. It is a flowering plant native to woodland areas in the eastern half of the United States (also southeast Canada). Native Americans traditionally used it for gynaecological problems, sore throats, kidney problems, and depression. Nowadays it is almost exclusively used for female problems including PMT, menopausal symptoms and irregularity in the monthly cycle. In long-term use, it is used to help prevent osteoporosis.

The main active principles of black cohosh are phyto-oestrogens. Phyto-oestrogens are compounds found in plants which mimic the physiological effects of oestrogen. These compounds found in different plants are not necessarily chemically similar at all; it is theorised that the oestrogen-mimicking effects are due to a similarity in shape between such compounds and oestrogen.

Of the various phyto-oestrogenic plants, black cohosh is probably the one with most oestrogenic activity; hence it is most often used for problems involving insufficient oestrogen, which means mostly menopausal problems and osteoporosis. However, it can also sometimes be useful pre-menopause for such problems as PMT and irregular periods, because black cohosh in particular has a regulating effect on the level of lutenising hormone (LH) which in turn smooths out variations in the level of progesterone.

Unfortunately, finding the right herbal remedy for this sort of hormonal problem can be a little hit-and-miss, but as a rule of thumb black cohosh is probably the herb of first choice for menopausal problems; not so much for PMT.

Side effects and cautions

Some of the possible side effects of black cohosh are an inevitable result of its mode of action. In particular, black cohosh (and other phyto-oestrogens) should not be used at all (except possibly with professional oversight) by women who are taking drugs such as tamoxifen for prevention of the reappearance of breast cancer. (Tamoxifen works by blocking oestrogen receptors in the body particularly in the breast; it therefore makes sense that fighting the drug by taking oestrogens is probably a poor idea.) For similar reasons, it is probably a very good idea to be careful about the use of black cohosh if you have a family history of breast cancer.

Liver damage has been reported in users of black cohosh. However, one possible reason for this is accidental (or maybe deliberate) mis-identification of black cohosh during harvesting. This is a common problem with herbs generally. The best defense against this problem is to use a trustworthy, reputable brand of black cohosh supplement.

Low blood pressure and dizziness have also been reported. This is probably because black cohosh contains a compound (Nω-methylserotonin) which can mimic the effect of serotonin in the body.

Like any other natural medicine, ideally black cohosh should be used only after consulting a professional.

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