Ashmani — I don’t know why I felt like I had to get this out as soon as possible, but… well, corrections are in bold. Most changes are to clarify, basic content is mostly the same.
For many people, getting HRT has always been difficult. New anti-trans laws in certain US states are trying to make it even more difficult – impossible, really. Many of those same folks have come up with ways to DIY HRT. Usually, that means grey or black market synthetic hormones. Which… I basically know it exists? But there’s another less well-known type of DIY HRT – herbal DIY HRT.
Now, I’m not an expert in this. Honestly, I’m not long past peak Dunning-Kruger territory. But I am fairly knowledgeable in herbal medicine in general and have some info on herbal HRT that most folks won’t have and won’t know where to find.
This, then, is a rough 101 guide. It’s not going to tell you everything you need. But it’s going to give you the basics, and some directions on where to get more info.
What Is Herbal DIY HRT (and how does it work)
Herbal hormone replacement therapy is just what it sounds like – using herbal medicine for hormone replacement. It works because life is interrelated – and weird as it sounds, plants are closely enough related to humans to use many of the same (or very similar) chemicals to what we need. (That is why plants are some of the best sources of major vitamins after all.)
In this case, certain plants use chemicals that scientists call ‘hormone analogs’. For HRT, we are looking specifically for estrogen- and testosterone analogs, as well as anti-androgens. These chemicals are not the same hormones our bodies make and use, but then, neither is much of the synthetic HRT (which needs to be shelf-stable). But plant hormone analogs are closely related to human hormones. Close enough that our bodies can process them and turn them into human hormones.
At least, that’s the theory.
Herbal DIY HRT may be real hormone therapy – the effects can be measured with exactly the same blood work used to monitor synthetic hormones. Unfortunately, all the info we have at this point is anecdotal.
Herbal HRT is going to have a lot more side effects and be a lot more idiosyncratic. When you take synthetic HRT you are taking a pure version of one or two (per pill/injection/etc) chemicals in measurable dosages. When you take herbal HRT, you are taking a heterogeneous mess of chemicals, which impact the body in a wide variety of ways. (Ginger, for instance, is a good source of herbal estrogen-analog. It also impacts the circulatory system, digestive system, and probably other things.) And the dosage per gram/microgram/mL varies based on the growing conditions of the individual plant, the parts of the plant, the preparation, and a few other things.
Now, ginger is obviously safe for most people, even at medicinal levels. But it’s not going to be safe for everyone, all the time. And stuff like St. John’s Wort… please don’t take St. John’s Wort for more than a week or two (or at all) without the advice and guidance of a trained herbalist (preferably in concert with a medical professional who can monitor med interactions). That shit can fuck you up.
The point here isn’t that herbal medicine isn’t safe. If you do it right it’s about as safe as allopathic medications. The point is that beyond a bit of ginger for an upset stomach and chamomile for relaxation, it isn’t simple. You can’t just go to the grocery store, buy a box of herbal tea, and be done with it. Doing it right takes time, research, and work.
Remember: If you are taking something in high enough doses it can affect your body you are taking it in high enough doses it can affect your body. And not always in the ways you intend.
Sourcing Your Herbs
The easiest and best source for herbs for most folks is the grocery store – and not the ‘natural medicines’ aisle.
Mass-produced herbal supplements are notorious for being adulterated, mislabeled, not shelf stable, unethically sourced, and a bunch of other shit. Just generally don’t.
The produce and spice rack on the other hand…
If you are comfortable making your own medicines from raw materials, those are your friends.
And the tea aisle? Not perfect, but way better than the supplement aisle. Teas (because they are classed as food and drink) need to have a label that lists all the ingredients. The good herbal medicine teas will include an ingredient list with specific measurements as well.
Personally, I prefer to go with single-ingredient teas if I’m going for a tea. I can combine Mint tea and Ginger tea and Rooibos tea at home and know exactly what I’m dealing with. Watch for certain tea companies cough
Bigelow Celestial Seasonings cough whose ‘Chamomile Lavander’ tea actually has a dozen herbs, with the first on the list being neither chamomile nor lavender, but rosehips.
(Note that tea and spices are often not ethically sourced and can be expensive in the quantities needed for herbal medicine. The older the tea or spice company, the more reliably it is an unethical shit stain, but newer names aren’t necessarily better.)
The local farmers market if you have one and can afford the higher prices can be another good source of herbal supplies. Sometimes you can find trained herbalists setting up stalls, which is even better.
Some folks can self-source, either growing or wild harvesting their own. This, combined with raiding the produce aisle, is my preferred, but one of the least accessible options for many people.
Your local new age or natural medicine shop is a hit-or-miss option. Some of them really know their stuff. Some of them are too caught up in the ‘wonders’ of natural medicine to recognize that it’s still medicine, with all the need for care that entails. But they’ll usually know who the local herbalists are.
Avoid mail sourcing unless you have really good information on the source and are sure you can trust them. Even then, order single herbs, not mixed. Better than supplements in that if you know your herbs, you can usually tell if they’ve been adulterated. Mail order herbal DIY HRT ‘supplements’ have a long history of being scams.
Types of Medicines
The goal of herbal medicines is to take the helpful chemicals out of a plant, concentrate them into an effective dosage, and take them regularly enough to have an impact. Teas are the least concentrated form of herbal medicine, and you’re usually advised to drink 3-5 cups per day if you want them to have a real effect.
Herbal medicines can also come in the form of oxymels (vinegar/honey base, can mix with water or tea or taken straight), extracts (alcohol base), syrups (sugar base), or powders that can be made into teas or capsules. (That’s stuff for internal use. External use is another topic for another day.)
My preferred are tea and oxymels, which are the easiest to make at home. Extracts and syrups absolutely can be made at home, but I don’t keep alcohol around the house, and syrups have some of the same issues as home candy making – anytime you are dealing with concentrated sugar, you’d better have good control of your temperature and concentrations if you don’t want a bottle of crystal.
Extracts have the longest shelf life and seem to be preferred by most herbalists.
Whichever option you go with, start small (one tablespoon of oxymel, a few drops of extract, 1 cup of tea, etc) and increase until you reach the recommended dose/start seeing adverse effects.
5. How to Herbal DIY HRT
Okay, down to brass tacks.
The first thing to do is identify the herbs that are most likely to help you and figure out which ones you can get reliably in sufficient quantities. (I can get more ginger root than I’d ever need at the grocery store at prices I can afford most months. Black cohosh would take more work and money/time.) Also, do what you can to check for medical interactions with anything else you take.
Based on what’s available, decide what form you want to take them in. (Teas and extracts are easiest to buy/find ready-made. Syrups and oxymels you likely need to make yourself unless you can find a local herbalist who offers them.)
Start with a low dosage and increase gradually until you reach recommended dosage. Stop if you notice any bad reactions.
If you are new to herbal medicine, start with one herb at a time and add others in gradually.
I needed something for energy and circulation. After researching a bit, I decided my best bets were ginger and cayenne pepper. (both are available in my local grocery store in several forms, both with reliable and well-documented effects, neither with known drug interactions with anything I was taking)
I decided I wanted an oxymel if possible. I didn’t think I could drink ginger/cayenne tea several times a day (I like my hot food ‘mild’ unless we are talking cumin, in which case add it by the cupful please), and didn’t have a good source for extracts, and was intimidated by the instructions for syrups.
Oxymel required honey and apple cider vinegar. The honey adds to the expense, but one cup of honey per month isn’t going to break my bank.
I started with a teaspoon in a cup of water, once a day. That’s well below recommended dosage. I got to a tablespoon per cup comfortably, but when I went up from there the impact of the cayenne got uncomfortable and I got lightheaded a time or two. So. 1 tablespoon at a time.
I ended up with my sweet spot being 1 tablespoon in a cup of water, 3 times per day. The main adverse effect (as long as I stay within comfortable-for-me dosage) is that it can increase the risk of hypothermia. So I need to either cut back on winter days outside or bundle up a bit more.
5.2. What to Expect
HRT effects from herbs, unlike my oxymel, will be gradual. Folks who went with herbal HRT from the beginning have reported it taking 6 months to start noticing a real change. That’s in contrast with synthetics, which can start creating visible changes in 3 months for most folks. Again, this is anecdotal. Other folks have reported no changes or only minor changes.
The time to experiment and find the right combination of herbs for you can extend that lead time.
If you are already on synthetic hormones, you may see a drop in hormone levels when you first switch to herbal HRT. (If you have a supportive medical professional and aren’t losing access immediately, consider adding herbal HRT to your existing regimen and gradually reducing synthetic HRT as you find the herbal mix that works for you.) If you can get your herbal regimen up and running it may be as effective as the synthetics, though you will likely notice differences.
Not everyone has success with herbal HRT. At its best, DIY HRT is always risky because you usually don’t have access to the knowledge base or tools (like bloodwork) that a medical doctor would use to ensure you get the right meds, the right times, and the right dosages. Herbal HRT is complicated by an even greater lack of knowledge of the medications themselves, and the relative lack of available guidance from a wider community.
Okay, the part you came here for.
Ashmani – folks who know me may know I tend to be a bear about getting the scientific names for herbs. Common names just cause way too much confusion. Unfortunately, I am both out of spoons and lost a bunch of my files. So you are mostly getting common names.
Consider this an incentive to do your research – there are multiple types of ginseng, at least two of which have been cited as increasing testosterone levels. Sometimes the category works. (The active ingredient in cayenne peppers is capsaicin, so if my local is out of cayenne, any hot pepper can do – especially since my dosages aren’t too tricky). But sometimes you need a specific herb.
MTF Herbal HRT
I know more about options for MTF HRT – partly because that was my initial reason for learning about herbal HRT, but also because more is just known generally about estrogen and anti-androgen analogs. Thousands of years of looking for herbs to help with menstrual cycles, lactation, and menopause resulted in a solid collection of herbs to work off of.
You’ll want to do your own research, but these are the ones that I would try first.
In no particular order:
- Black Cohosh Root
- Licorice root
- White Peone
All of these herbs contain hormone analogs and have at least some studies showing an impact on hormone levels. They also tend to be relatively widely available, either in grocery stories or as something you can order the plant and grow it yourself.
Pueraria Mirifica is often recommended, and I initially included it in this list. However, in most English speaking countries it is only available through mail order and is the basis of the most common HRT scams. Unless you or someone you personally know is sourcing it, best not. I’ve replaced it with kudzu which is also member of the Puerairia genus, is far to easy for many folks to self-source, and according to WebMD “Kudzu might act like estrogen.” I’ve never seen anyone else recommending kudzu, but I’ve found WebMD to be a trustworthy source for ‘side effects’.
FTM Herbal HRT
I started digging into FTM options for myself, looking for stuff that would let me do an herbal equivalent of micro-dosing. The good news is, there are options. The bad news is, there aren’t many.
Almost all the info on herbs for FTM transition so far comes from research into
erectile dysfunction. Erectile dysfunction treatments often rely on increasing testosterone levels, so an herb that effectively treats ED can be worth trying.
The well for FTM herbal transition really got poisoned a while back by a couple of assholes who tried to make money off a completely unscientific thing they called ‘Natural Transition’. Most of the search results for FTM herbal transition will return info on how it’s ineffective at best, and a scam at worst. Which these folks absolutely were.
Short version: no, following a body-building regimen will NOT help you transition, and can do a fair bit of harm.
This gets back to ‘be very careful where you source from and do your research.’ Unfortunately, the notoriety of those assholes makes the research harder here.
Okay, that out of the way… there isn’t as much evidence for these as there is for the MTF stuff. Basically, few or no studies on how they impact hormone levels. TBH, while herbs may work for FTM HRT, you basically running science experiments with your body here. We just don’t know enough for anyone to say what (if anything) will work.
But if you want to try, here are the six herbs I think are most worth trying:
- Saw palmetto (you’ll sometimes see this recommended as an anti-androgen. But it’s effective at treating erectile dysfunction. So… possibly an idiosyncratic thing, different effects on different people?)
- Stinging nettle root
Again, mostly stuff you can get that the grocery store or source yourself. Just be damn careful collecting the stinging nettle.
I lost a few links, and some sites are down, but I’ve at least a few things to help you from here. Again, please consider this your basic introduction, and don’t jump into herbal transition just from what I’ve shared here.
r/TransDIY https://www.reddit.com/r/TransDIY/ – mostly focused on grey/black market synthetics, but you can find some folks who have experience with herbs and are willing to answer questions
An Anarchist Free Herbal https://ia903104.us.archive.org/24/items/ZineArchive/An_anarchist_free_herbal-2nd_edition-screen.pdf – does a really good job explaining the basics of herbal medicine that many herbals skip or assume you already know
Herbal Hormone Supplements Can Change the Meaning of Trans Embodiment https://catapult.co/stories/clarence-harlan-orsi-herbal-hormone-supplements-gender-transition-trans-embodiment – mostly a think piece but with stories from some trans women who’ve gone the herbal DIY route and has some success
WebMD Vitamins & Supplements Center https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/index ALWAYS check here or another reliable source for side effects and drug interactions before use. (Don’t trust them on uses. They’ll tell you a thing doesn’t work to lower blood pressure, and then tell you it’s dangerous to take if you have low blood pressure bc it can lower your blood pressure.)
Stuff I Can’t Cover
I’m out of spoons, and this is already one of my longest essays ever. But collective action is your friend, herbalists are everywhere, and don’t be afraid to reach out to local LGBT groups.
If your friend can source the raw materials but can’t make anything with them, and you can’t source but can make syrups and teas and whatnot, and the guy down the street has lots of old pickle jars to share… much better than doing it all your own, yah?
One Last Thought
Please, for the love of God and little green apples – stay the fuck away from St. John’s Wort