QUESTION: I’m a 36-year-old woman and I’ve been suffering with acne for the past 16 years. I had no such problems as a teenager; it suddenly started after I turned 20. I’ve been repeatedly prescribed courses of antibiotics, which seem to suppress the acne, but it just returns as soon as I stop taking them, no matter what I do with my diet.
Also, I have a younger sister who suffers from painful periods and PMS [premenstrual syndrome], and another sister 12 years older than me who is having a terrible time going through menopause.
Can you suggest anything to help us please?
ANSWER: I’ll start with the bad news. Long-term use of antibiotics can cause a number of side-effects and has even been linked to breast cancer.1 This may be because the drugs have “effects on immune function, inflammation, and metabolism of estrogen and phytochemicals.” They also cause changes to the bacterial flora that live in the gut, which can affect your immune system and how your body metabolizes foods that might protect against cancer.
The good news is that there’s a better way to treat acne – and that’s by looking at what’s causing it in the
The most common reason for adult women to suffer from acne is that they have ovarian cysts, when fluid-filled sacs develop all over the outside or inside of the ovaries. This can be diagnosed by an ultrasound scan, preferably done transvaginally, coupled with laboratory blood tests.
A herbal helper
If ovarian cysts are indeed diagnosed, there’s a tried-and-tested alternative herbal therapy that can help: Vitex agnus-castus. Also called the ‘lilac chastetree’, this shrub grows around the Mediterranean region. It’s been traditionally used to correct disorders of the female reproductive system, and its use for this is mentioned as far back as in the Ancient Greek medical writings of Hippocrates, and
later by Dioscorides, Pliny the Elder and Galen.
An extract made from the plant’s fruit (EAC = extract of agnus castus) reduces the production of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) in the pituitary gland, while gently increasing the secretion of luteinizing hormone (LH) and prolactin. These effects have been confirmed in experiments using therapeutic doses of EAC, and may be beneficial against ovarian cysts. By acting through central nervous system pathways, EAC can regulate the production of ovarian hormones.
Also, in my experience as well as that of Australian practitioners, polycystic ovarian syndrome – where small cysts develop in both ovaries and cause a range of symptoms, including menstrual problems and acne – can be brought under control by the daily use of EAC for three to six months.2 Similarly, PMS can also be improved from the very next cycle with the use of EAC.2
In addition, EAC is useful for treating endometriosis, and my own experience has shown that uterine fibroids cease to grow, and actually shrink (this can be monitored by ultrasound scans), during treatment with EAC for at least six months.
What to use
A tincture made from the berries (‘chasteberries’), rather than the leaves, stems and roots, is especially effective. The one I use is a German product called Agnolyt Madaus (100 mL), made by MEDA Pharma GmbH and available online at www.versandapo.de. Within a month of starting this treatment – 30 or 40 drops in water taken once daily – acne visibly begins to subside in most cases. I usually recommend six months of treatment, and the acne tends not to return after that.
EAC and acne: a case study
A 29-year-old woman had suffered from exfoliative dermatitis (red, peeling skin over large areas of the body) and occasional nettle rash (urticaria) for two years. Prior to that she had suffered from acne from the age of 20.
The acne got better when her primary care doctor put her on 100 mg/day of doxycycline (an antibiotic in the tetracycline family), but the dermatitis started soon after that. I told her it was likely that her current problems were a reaction to the doxycycline she was taking and that it was possible she also had undiagnosed ovarian cysts.
After she had an ultrasound scan, it was confirmed that she had ovarian cysts. She stopped taking the doxycycline and instead took EAC drops every day. Within a month she had no skin problems whatsoever and now, 18 months later and after taking nothing for 10 months, she has no acne either. Another ultrasound showed that her cysts had indeed disappeared.
Rooting for rhubarb
For women suffering with painful periods and premenstrual syndrome (PMS), rhubarb may be the answer. While the plant’s leaves are known to be poisonous, the stems can be used to make rhubarb crumble and other delicious desserts, while its roots have a tremendous number of uses in botanical medicine.
Rhubarb root contains a compound called ‘rhaponticin,’ which is one of the most effective agents for putting an end to PMS and painful periods. In Germany the compound has been widely used in a standardized form since the 1950s – yet, surprisingly, it is hardly known beyond that country’s borders.
Rhaponticin (also known as da huang in traditional Chinese medicine) has also proved effective in studies for treating menopausal symptoms with no side-effects, such as the stimulation of abnormal endometrial or uterine growth and proliferation.3 I’ve also found the herb to be effective and reliable for women suffering from hot flashes and sudden sweats.
I usually recommend a product (ERr 731®) made by German pharmaceutical company Chemisch-Pharmazeutische Fabrik Carl Müller Apotheker GmbH & Co KG, but there’s now a product called Estrovera, which contains rhaponticin and is available online on various websites, including Amazon and www.clevelandclinicwellness.com.
The usual dose of the German product I suggest for painful periods and PMS is one tablet after breakfast and one after the evening meal, but taken only from day 7 to day 21 of the menstrual cycle (when the period starts is, of course, day 1 of the cycle) – in other words, for only 14 days each month. For women who are menopausal, I suggest taking one tablet in the morning and one after the evening meal every day.
For Estrovera and alternative products, be sure to check the manufacturer’s guidelines, as doses may vary.
And if you’re worried that rhaponticin may have estrogenic or cancer-inducing effects, there are several good studies to put your mind at ease. In fact, it has been shown to have potent antitumor, antithrombotic (preventing blood clots), blood vessel-relaxing and antioxidant effects, although so far only in lab and animal studies.4
Harald Gaier, one of the UK’s leading experts on alternative medicine and a registered naturopath, osteopath, acupuncturist, homeopath and herbalist, practices at The Allergy and Nutrition Clinic, 22 Harley Street, London. Visit his website at www.drgaier.com.
If you have a question for our Medical Detective, email: email@example.com
JAMA, 2004, 291: 827–35; Pharmacoepidemiol Drug Saf, 2008, 17: 144–50
Burgoyne B. ‘Survey of Chaste Tree Use and Dosage by Australian Practitioners’, 2011; www.mediherb.com/media/776086/pp-no-144.pdf
Chin Med, 2010, 5: 7; doi: 10.1186/1749-8546-5-7
Spectrochim Acta A Mol Biomol Spectrosc, 2012; 87: 171–8; Bioanalysis, 2012; 4: 713–23