Botanical: Vitex agnus castus
Family: Verbenaceae (verbena)
Other common names: Chasteberry, Chaste Tree, Monk's Pepper, Cloister Pepper, Indian Spice
Vitex (often called Chasteberry) is an old and trusted "woman's herb" that is great for easing the discomforts of menstruation and premenstrual syndrome (PMS), including water retention, mood swings, pain and nervous tension. Long used to regulate female hormone levels, menopausal women rely on it as well for alleviating their hormone-related discomforts, and it is also used to enhance fertility.
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Vitex is the fruit of the Chaste Tree (or Chasteberry Tree), which is a deciduous and fairly hardy tree or shrub that thrives in well-drained, acidic soil in full sun. The tree benefits when protected by a wall and may reach a height of twenty feet. The Chaste tree is native to western Asia and southwestern Europe and is now common in much of the southeastern United States. It is free-spreading with fragrant flowers and dark purple berries (somewhat like peppercorns) that exude an aromatic odor (somewhat like peppermint); and aside from its medicinal use, Vitex is also used as a peppery condiment. Vitex has been used for almost three thousand years to treat various conditions. In ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, the herb was used for a variety of gynecologic conditions. The seeds were once thought to safeguard chastity as an "anaphrodisiac," and wives of traveling Roman soldiers spread the herb around them to decrease their interest in sex, thus giving rise to the name Chasteberry Tree. In the Middle Ages, monks relied on the herb for the very same purpose of suppressing the libido, and thus Vitex also acquired the name of Monk's Pepper and Cloister Pepper. In herbal medicine, Vitex has been used since ancient times to control and regulate the female reproductive system and is still thought to be a wonderful friend to women's health, mainly because of its ability to normalize the activity of female sex hormones. Over the past fifty years, Chasteberry has been used widely in Europe for gynecologic conditions such as premenstrual syndrome (PMS), cyclical breast discomfort, menstrual cycle irregularities and dysfunctional uterine bleeding. The German Commission E approves the use of Vitex-Chasteberry for irregularities of the menstrual cycle, cyclical breast discomfort and PMS, and the herb is widely prescribed by family physicians and gynecologists in Germany. Some of the constituents included in Vitex include flavonoids (i.e., casticin, kaempferol, orientin, quercetagetin and isovitexin), iridoid glycosides (i.e., agnuside and aucubin) and essential oils (i.e., limonene, cineol, pinene, linalool and sabinene), as well as myrcene, progesterone and testosterone. Vitex shows central dopaminergic activity in vitro and in vivo, and this dopaminergic effect inhibits basal- and thyrotropin-releasing hormone-stimulated prolactin release.
Vitex has been used for centuries to control and regulate the female reproductive system. The herb appears to show the presence of compounds that are able to adjust the production of female hormones. It normalizes hormone levels and helps to regulate menstrual cycles, helping to regulate monthly periods and treating amenorrhea (absence of menstruation) and dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation) and endometriosis. Vitex is believed to promote fertility in women by stimulating growth of the uterine lining, which increases the chances that a fertilized egg will attach to the uterus. Because of its ability to help normalize hormone function, Vitex has been used to aid the body in regaining a natural balance after the prolonged use of birth control pills.
In the treatment of menopausal discomforts, the hormone-regulating properties of Vitex have been very helpful in easing mood swings and hot flashes, etc., and managing the physical problems associated with hormone deficiency.
Natural plant compounds help to stimulate estrogen and progesterone production, while inhibiting the production of excessive amounts of testosterone by providing compounds that are very similar to it. Moreover,
there have been some reports from the American Academy of Family Physicians in New Brunswick, New Jersey, that Vitex's therapeutic effects in low doses may result in decreased estrogen levels and increased progesterone levels.
Vitex also helps to relieve the discomforts of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), including water retention, anxiety, nervous tension, insomnia and mood changes. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 178 women found that treatment with Vitex significantly reduced PMS symptoms. Women in the treatment group experienced significant improvements in symptoms, including irritability, depression, headache menstrual pain and breast tenderness. The German Commission E approves the use of Vitex for irregularities of the menstrual cycle, cyclical breast tenderness and PMS.
For a healthy pituitary gland, Vitex is said to contain hormonal constituents that normalize gland function in both men and women.
Men with prostate cancer may find hope, because of laboratory studies indicating the use of Vitex. Early lab research claims that the herb may reduce the production of prolactin, a hormone responsible for converting testosterone to dihydrostestosterone, which in turn stimulates the growth of malignant prostatate cells. Reducing the production of prolactin, theoretically, should slow the growth of malignant cells, but at this time there have been no clinical trials to prove such claims.
Vitex is said to have a calming and soothing effect on the body and has been used to relieve pains in the limbs, muscle cramps, spasms and weakness.
Pregnant and nursing women should not use Vitex, nor should it be given to children. The herb should not be taken in excess amounts. Vitex should not be used concurrently with HRT (hormone replacement therapy). Women with estrogen-sensitive cancers originating in the breast, cervix or uterus should avoid this herb. Vitex could conceivably interact with bromocriptine or other drugs intended to affect prolactin levels (it tends to suppress prolactin, which is the hormone needed for breast milk).