Health Benefits of Vitex

Also, Known As:

  • Chaste Tree
  • Chaste Berry

Vitex agnus-castus

Family: Lamiaceae

Even though it’s sometimes considered a classic “women’s herb,” the Renaissance name for vitex fruits was “monk’s pepper,” so called for their ability to decrease the libido of the abbey’s residents when sprinkled on their food. Since they probably needed it often, the monks no doubt had the “habit” of carrying it, well, in their habits! Herbalists and medical researchers alike now believe that Vitex has the ability to regulate the reproductive hormones, so it has acquired a reputation as a true hormonal tonic.

Description:

This lovely deciduous shrub, which has been known since ancient times, can grow to be a small tree in hot climates. It is cultivated as an ornamental in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Vitex has distinctive, aromatic leaves that are divided into lance-shaped leaflets, and in summer, it bears abundant purple or lavender flowers on spikes. The flowers are followed by small reddish to brownish burgundy berries in the fall, but these only develop where the growing season is long and warm.

Tincture:

Make a tincture of the aromatic fruits {the berries} in strong alcohol {150-proof or stronger vodka}. Take 1 to 2 droppers in the morning around breakfast, or for a stronger effect, try 1 to 2 droppers at night. Avoid taking more than 4 to 5 droppers a day. We recommend only making and using tinctures of vitex: Teas are not the best way to prepare this herb because the active compounds are not particularly water soluble, and the tea is not delicious by any means. For commercial products, including standard extracts, follow the label instructions.

Healing Properties:

Aside from the Chinese herb dang qui {Angelica sinensis}, vitex is the classic female herb and is often recommended by herbalists for relieving unpleasant symptoms of PMS. Clinical studies verify its ability to relieve cramps, breast tenderness, and mood swings associated with the menstrual cycle, even when compared with conventional pharmaceuticals. In addition, vitex is certainly worth a try as a first treatment before taking one of the SSRIs {selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, primarily known as antidepressant medications, such as Paxil, Prozac, and Zolof} or other drugs, because the side effects are minimal.

Vitex extracts are known to act through the stimulation of the pituitary gland to regulate a number of important sex hormones, including progesterone, which it increases. Imbalances of these hormones have been clinically associated with symptoms of PMS, such as breast tenderness. Other symptoms for which vitex is recommended include irregular or excessive menstruation, late periods, spotting, uterine fibroids, and even hot flashes, though studies are not very conclusive in regard to the latter. The tincture is also recommended for relieving acne in teenagers, with variable success.

Safety:

The side effects of vitex are minimal, based on a number of clinical trials and long traditional use. Both research and clinical experience show that regular use of vitex might interfere with the effectiveness of birth control pills. Don’t take it if you are using a progesterone supplement, and avoid its use during pregnancy.

In the Garden:

This Mediterranean plant needs full sun and well-drained soil. It tolerates both drought and heat, but it’s also hardy to -10 degrees F and can withstand windy locations. However, if you’re in a four-season climate, it may not flower or bear fruit. Try to give it the sunniest, warmest site you can. And don’t fertilize this one: Rich soil results in pale flowers. If you want to keep the plant small and bushy, prune it back in late winter. It’s a great deer-resistant addition to your garden.

You can start vitex from seed if you scarify, stratify, and/or soak it in warm water and then sow it on the surface of the soil without covering it. But taking cuttings from spring and early summer growth is the easiest way to propagate this plant.

Harvesting Vitex:

You can use the leaves in cooking and in spice blends, and some people use them medicinally, as well. But we recommend harvesting the berries for your herbal remedies. Pick them in the fall, when they turn from tan to a purplish color and separate easily from the stems. Make sure you harvest them before autumn rains and cold weather cause them to mold or blacken on the tree. Separate the berries from the stems before you dry them rather than after.

A Women’s Natural Choice; PMS Relief with Herbs

Irritability, depression, cramping, and fatigue – your monthly cycle can present a host of challenges. Thankfully, Mother Nature offers welcome relief with some effective botanicals.

For some women, the days just before and at the start of the menstrual cycle can be miserable. Rapid mood swings, migraines, bloating, sore breasts, and potentially debilitating menstrual cramps can put a damper on the world and may interfere with your ability to function, work, and play. You may also notice that you’re more prone to digestive upset, infections, and rashes. In the waxing/waning cycle of hormones, those critical days tend to be “weakest” in terms of system support, acting as a loudspeaker for whatever may be out of balance in the body. Although hormones are tricky and every woman has individual symptoms, herbs often offer tremendous support in nudging a cacophony of hormones into a more harmonious chorus.

The Cycle of Hormones

In the typical female cycle, where we consider the first day of your period as day one, you’ll spend the first half under the influence of estrogen. This hormone, produced by follicles {eggs-to-be} in the ovary, helps rebuild the uterine lining as well as stabilize mood, protect bones, keep the reproductive tissue moist, and bolster the immune system.

Once you ovulate mid-cycle {usually between days 12 through 17} – if you ovulate – the corpus luteum makes progesterone. The corpus luteum is essentially the “empty throne” vacated by that cycle’s egg during ovulation, so if you don’t ovulate, no progesterone is produced. Progesterone helps thicken the uterine lining to better carry a baby if you get pregnant, or slough if off during menstruation if you don’t. It also boosts mood, helps you respond to stress, strengthens the immune system, and increases your basal body temperature a bit. Even though you still have estrogen circulating during the second half of the cycle, progesterone keeps it in check.

Although many more hormones play a role in a woman’s cycle, to simplify it here, we can think of most PMS and female hormonal issues resulting from a lack of {or insufficient} progesterone, estrogen dominance, or estrogen deficiency. We will start with progesterone because that has the greatest impact on everything else.

Running Out of Progesterone

Let’s say your cycle works out as it should. You ovulate mid-cycle, and the corpus luteum pumps out progesterone. Your body can convert progesterone into other hormones, including the stress hormone cortisol, making it valuable for stress support. Stress always wins in the hierarchy of your body’s systems – it’s part of our evolution. Reproduction, however, generally ranks last in importance, since it’s not essential to preserving your life. However, as your body begins converting progesterone to cortisol, you can “run out” of progesterone before the second half of your cycle is up, and you may also have less progesterone floating around to do its job. You’re normally low on estrogen as you approach the end of your cycle, so if progesterone also drops out, you’ve lost some serious mood, hormone, and immune support. If everything seems to fall apart every month {raging mood swings, getting sick} before your period and the start of a new cycle – chances are, you need to support progesterone and get your stress in check.

Also, take extra care of yourself as you approach the end of your cycle; make sure you go to bed early, eat well, take your vitamins, go for regular walks, use your favorite herbs, and so on. Vitex, also called chaste tree berry, can help strengthen and lengthen progesterone’s influence, while maca, damiana, and stress-busting adaptogens with an affinity for the reproductive system, such as ashwagandha, maca, and Shatavari, provide additional support. You can take them all cycle long or simply during the last half.

No Ovulation, No Progesterone

Some women don’t ovulate mid-cycle, which can happen due to perimenopause {when eggs diminish}; ovarian cysts, including polycystic ovary syndrome {PCOS}, which gums up the works; rapid weight loss and over-exercising {stress and lack of fat stores reduce estrogen}; and random, weird cycle wobbles.

If this happens, there’s no corpus luteum to produce progesterone, and you may notice symptoms kick in mid-cycle, worsening as you approach your period. You may or may not get your period – some women still bleed on a regular or irregular cycle, but if you haven’t ovulated, it’s technically called “anovulatory bleeding” not menses. You’ll remain in a state of estrogen dominance {more on that below} and won’t have access to progesterone benefits. Symptoms might look similar to running out of progesterone, except they’ll begin earlier and may be more pronounced. Your cycle may also be less regular. When you eventually do ovulate, your flow might be intense {with lots of building tissue}.

Alongside the typical regimen of a healthy diet, regular exercise, and a good lifestyle, try a combination of progesterone support {see above}, estrogen dominance support {see below}, and, if needed for an extra boost, 1 milliliter {30 drops} of organic cotton root bark tincture from days 12 through 15 of your cycle. Cotton root bark helps increase the effects of oxytocin, the hormone that helps trigger ovulation. It just might be enough to nudge things back into balance.

Estrogen Dominance

Estrogen dominance may involve an excess of estrogen influence or simply a normal amount of estrogen that’s unchecked by progesterone. Besides a lack of ovulation, other common aggravators can lead to estrogen dominance, including insulin resistance or being overweight {your body makes another form of estrogen in fat tissues – some is good, too much is not} and overexposure to “xenoestrogens.” These are estrogens that your body doesn’t produce itself {the body produces “endogenous” estrogen}. You’ll find potent, problematic xenoestrogen in plastics and other petroleum products, and in parabens, phthalates, synthetic fragrances, PCBs, insecticides, foam mattresses, and factory-farmed animal products. Excessive phytoestrogens {plant estrogens that in moderation can provide support}, particularly refined soy, may also be problematic. Estrogen dominance can mess with mood, causes migraines, and increase inflammation, cramps, endometriosis, fibroids, cysts, PCOS, a risk for autoimmune disease {including thyroid issues}, and your risk of endocrine-dependent cancers.

Supporting progesterone helps. Modest amounts of phytoestrogens in diet or supplement form may also help – they bind preferentially to estrogen receptor sites but exert a weal effect {around one percent}, bumping out your body’s own estrogen and possibly also providing some protection from xenoestrogens. Favorites include flaxseeds, cooked beans {properly soaked}, red clover, Shatavari, and fenugreek. Most phytoestrogenic foods are also rich in fiber, which helps eliminate excess estrogen. In addition, fenugreek balances blood sugar and helps address insulin resistance and PCOS. Black cohosh is a complicated herb with medicinal action that’s not fully understood, but it may help by balancing brain-ovary hormone communication.

Adding in liver supportive herbs may help this organ process and eliminate excess estrogen as well. These include artichoke leaf, artichokes, schizandra berry, and dandelion root. And, of course, aim for a healthy diet, particularly plant-based or at least plant-focused, yet still low to moderate on the glycemic index. Get regular exercise and limit exposure to xenoestrogens where possible.

Estrogen Deficiency

Although it’s less common, some women suffer from “estrogen deficiency.” This may not necessarily correlate with a blood test; rather, it provides more of a symptom picture. In estrogen deficiency, there will be anemia, anxiety, light and spotty periods, and perhaps a thin body frame. Black cohosh may be a help here, but the big player is dong quai, a classic building, nourishing tonic, and estrogen synergist. It doesn’t contain estrogen but works like a megaphone to encourage and increase the activity of your own natural estrogen. Shatavari, as well as nourishing adaptogens, such as codonopsis maca, ashwagandha, and organic Asian or American ginseng, can also provide support.

It’s also important to test for an address anemia if it’s present. Regardless, consider nourishing herbs, including nettle leaf, violet leaf, and yellow dock, for general support. Estrogen-deficient women may feel better with richer food, red meat, liver, shellfish, and cooked foods.

Symptom Support

With a few exceptions {such as relief for symptomatic cramping or bloating}, most of these herbs are slow-acting and should be taken daily for at least three months to gauge their effectiveness.

  • Menstrual Cramps: Cramp bark tincture works well for most people {2 ml or 60 drops every 15 minutes as needed}. Other antispasmodic herbs include wild yam and angelica root. Studies have found that both ginger and cinnamon capsules are highly effective for cramps as well, and best started one to three days prior to the beginning of the cycle. Daily magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids may gradually relieve pain, inflammation, and muscle tension, including that caused by endometriosis {which, is more difficult to manage}. For pain related to cysts and fibroids, black cohosh and fenugreek may help.
  • Moodiness: Studies support vitex’s use for PMS mood swings, but occasionally it worsens depression and mood, so be on the watch for irritability and melancholy. Black cohosh also supports hormone balance while lifting dark-cloud depression. It’s particularly useful for women who don’t respond well to vitex. In studies, black cohosh worked well for perimenopausal mood swings when combined with St. John’s wort. {Note; black cohosh is often adulterated and overharvested; seek trustworthy organic sources, preferably grown in the United States. Be careful with St. John’s wort, as it interacts with many medications.} Other direct mood support herbs include damiana, albizia, motherwort, holy basil, maca, ashwagandha, and lemon balm.
  • Breast Tenderness: Vitex and ground flaxseeds reduce breast tenderness when consumed regularly, and studies support this use. Also, consider liver-supportive herbs like artichoke leaf and switching to a plant-focused diet with regular exercise.
  • Heavy Periods: At the moment, support nutrient intake with strong nettle infusions, yellow dock tincture or syrup, and iron-rich foods like liver, shellfish, and cooked dark, leafy greens. Staunch excessive bleeding by drinking cinnamon, rose petals, nettle, and/or red raspberry leaf tea.
  • Bloating: Watch your salt intake, especially as you get closer to your period. Focus on plant foods, particularly vegetables. Diuretic herbs and foods help you release some of the water retentions. These include parsley leaf, dandelion leaf, dandelion root, burdock root, and celery stalks.

Putting It Together

Hormones can be complicated. How do you combine all these tips into a comprehensive plan? If you have the time, you can create a tincture blend that includes the best hormone-balancing herbs for you, as well as supportive herbs like adaptogens, mood, and/or liver herbs. Aim for 50 percent hormone-focused herbs with 50 percent support herbs.

If you don’t have the ability to make your own custom blend, you can find something on the market that most closely fits your needs, or choose one to three single herbs. For example, if you have mood swings, you might try vitex and St. John’s wort tinctures or a women’s hormone blend alongside another product geared toward mood support. Some of my favorite herb brands include Gaia Herbs, Herb Pharm, Wise Woman Herbals, Mountain Meadow Herbs, Mountain Rose Herbs, MegaFood, and {for herbals, not vitamins} New Chapter. Also, consider your local herbalist, who may sell a symptom-specific blend.

Typically, you would take the same herbs all month long, but for women who seem to need stronger, more specific assistance, consider a biphasic approach. For days 1 through 14, choose a formula or herbs geared more towards estrogen support {black cohosh, Shatavari, dong quai}. Then, use different herbs to support progesterone {vitex, damiana, maca} from days 15 through 28. To each blend, you can add herbs that help with the specific challenges faced during each half of the cycle. For example, if you feel really sluggish early in the cycle, you may add something for energy like ashwagandha or codonopsis. If brain fog is an issue later on, then lemon balm, bacopa, Rhodiola, and rosemary might be in order.

You might follow that up with a more symptom-focused remedy like cramp bark, ginger, or diuretic herbs, as well as supportive supplements like magnesium, ground flaxseed, or omega-3 fish oil.

herbal tea cup

Herbal Lady Tea

This tasty tea blend offers general support to the uterus. Raspberry leaf, lady’s mantle, and rose petals are gentle rose-family astringents that help tighten and tone. Adding red clover boosts nutrition and detoxification while also serving as a source of phytoestrogens. For general nutrition, feel free to add a teaspoon or two of nutritive herbs such as nettle, oat straw, or violet leaf.

1 heaping tsp raspberry leaf

1 heaping tsp red clover blossoms {optional}

1 tsp lady’s mantle leaf and flower

Sprinkle of rose petals

Honey to taste

Steep the herbs in 16 ounces of water for 10 minutes or longer. {It actually tastes best if steeped in not-yet-boiling water for 30 minutes.} Sweeten to taste and enjoy hot or cold.