Vitex agnus-castus is commonly known as Vitex, Chasteberry or Monk’s pepper. Its name stems from its use to lower libido in monks to help them stay chaste. Although few men would use vitex for this use nowadays, many women benefit from its ability to regulate hormones.
It originates from the Mediterranean but now grows throughout North America and is regarded as an ornamental shrub for its beautiful lilac coloured flowers. The berries that are used for medicine are similar in size to peppercorn and even have a slightly peppery taste.
Vitex’s reputation as a women’s hormone supporting has grown in popularity, coming close to being touted as a hormone cure-all. Hormones however are never quite this simple. It can help in many circumstances, but its important to understand each person’s unique needs along with exactly how the herb works in order to understand if those needs match its specific actions.
Research supports the use of vitex for a variety of women’s health concerns including PMS, PMDD, fertility, painful cramps, heavy bleeding, breast pain, hormonal migraines and headaches, mood swings, irregular cycles and other pain.
How it works: mechanism of action
Vitex’s main mechanism of action works by binding to dopamine receptor sites. Binding essentially stimulates dopamine. The dopamine then helps by reducing levels of prolactin. Prolactin is the hormone that is produced when lactating. Its great to have high levels of if you are pregnant or lactating, but troublesome if you want to maintain fertility.
Whether you want to conceive or not, you most likely want to be fertile. Fertility is a sign of good health and hormone balance. When you are not fertile its a sign something is out of balance and you are more likely to experience unpleasant side effects such as irregular periods, PMS, period pain and more.
High levels of prolactin are exactly why breastfeeding women usually cannot get pregnant. It’s like built-in birth control for pregnant and nursing mothers, as its not a good time to get pregnant just yet!
Prolactin is problematic because it inhibits the production of a hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone, otherwise known as GnRH. This hormone is produced by the hypothalamus and tells the pituitary to regulate follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). By regulating these hormones, it also balances reproductive hormones including progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone. Most notably it increases the production of progesterone – the pregnancy hormone!
It’s also said to reduce testosterone – this is likely why it was used to reduce libido in monks. Although testosterone is a male sex hormone it is produced in small amounts in women and is important to the growth, maintenance, and repair of a woman’s reproductive tissues, bone mass and effects mood. Too much testosterone in women can cause issues such as balding, a deeper voice, lack of fertility and more.
Vitex has also been shown to bind opiate receptors which can reduce pain. This may be why it helps with symptoms PMS of menstrual pain such as cramping and migraine, although more research is needed on this.
One of vitex’s most well-supported uses is in cases of infertility. A randomized control trial conducted by Stanford University’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology compared the use of Vitex and other supportive nutrients to placebo in 93 women with infertility. After 3 months the progesterone levels in the women increased compared to those receiving the placebo. 13 of the 53 women who were taking vitex became pregnant, compared to none in the placebo group.
It not only promotes pregnancy but also helps to prevent miscarriage by increasing progesterone. Progesterone is essential to a healthy pregnancy. For example, it allows the fertilized egg to be implanted in the uterus. Although it won’t help with other causes of miscarriage such as a fall or uterine scarring, it can help in many cases of miscarriage related to hormone balance.
When not to take vitex
Depression and PMDD
Vitex may not be appropriate if you’ve had a history of depression. There are some instances when women experience PMS related depression just before their cycle when taking vitex. This can be due to the effects of increased progesterone. Progesterone and estrogen are kind of like a scale, if one is high the other is low and vice versa. The ideal scenario is to have them in balance. As progesterone increases most often estrogen decreases. Low levels of estrogen and high level of progesterone can lead to symptoms of depression during PMS.
Some sources credit its ability to improve menopause symptoms, but this use is less common. Menopause symptoms most often benefit more from estrogenic & serotonergic herbs such as black cohosh. However, because vitex does promote hormone balance and has estrogenic compounds in it, it could provide some relief of menopause symptoms. Some menopausal women may also benefit from increasing dopamine and subsequent progesterone.
If the cause of your hormone imbalance has not been remedied then there is a chance your hormone imbalance could return once you stop taking vitex. For example, stress can throw many hormones out of balance as stress uses up many of the nutrients we need to make neurochemicals. B6, zinc, copper, tyrosine and iron are all needed to make dopamine. Stress and poor diet can deplete these nutrients and lead to a dopamine deficiency. Which, if you’ve read the above information you’ll understand that can have huge consequences on your hormones not to mention many other bodily functions.
These are just a few examples of why it is so important to support hormone health with stress management, a healthy diet full of healthy fats, and nutrients, exercise and quality sleep as well as to avoid toxins such as xenoestrogens.
How best to take it
You’ll want to take vitex for at least 3-6 months to see the full effects of the herb. Some herbalists suggest taking vitex cyclically starting at ovulation until your menstrual cycle starts. While taking more estrogenic or serotonergic herbs like black cohosh during the first half of your cycle. This strategy mimics the natural fluctuations of these two hormones in the body for improved hormone balance. We always recommend seeking the help of a professional herbalist, naturopathic doctor or another trained medical professional before starting any herbs, especially if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant.
Master Formulae Botanicals Vitex is a high quality, professional-grade tincture for superior bioavailability.