What is Vitex
Vitex agnus-castus, also known as Chaste berry, is an aromatic shrub in the Lamiacae (mint family) formerly of the Verbanacae (vervain family) and is native to the dry, rocky slopes of the Mediterranean. It has been used as a medicinal plant for over 2000 years and traditional indications of Chaste berry include promoting menstruation and increasing milk flow in new mothers, for which it is still used today. The parts we use medicinally are the fruits, sometimes called berries, which can be taken in tea, tincture, or capsule form.
Vitex as an aphrodisiac
One of the traditional uses of Vitex is as an anaphrodisiac. It became known as Monk’s pepper as it was used by medieval monks as food condiment for this purpose. However, there is debate as to whether vitex actually decreases or increases libido. One theory is that it has a normalizing or balancing effect on hormone production and therefore will either stimulate or suppress libido depending on the individual. Another theory that was published in the Pharmacopeia Universalis in 1747 is that vitex is classed as ‘hot and drying’ energetically and therefore repressed (essentially dried up) sexual desire in people who were hot natured but in people with cold constitutions the heat of the fruit stimulated libido and acted as an aphrodisiac. However, Paul Bergner writes that this contradiction is simply down to dosage and that larger doses of the fruit will suppress libido but homeopathic doses of the fruit will stimulate libido in those where sexual appetite is already depressed due to the principal of similars in homeopathic medicine.
Vitex as a hormone balancer
Vitex has a long history of use as an ally for the female reproductive system. Vitex is often used as a tonic herbal hormone balancer, to promote a regular cycle and to relieve symptoms of PMS. PMS occurs during last few days of the luteal phase of a woman’s cycle and includes symptoms such as tension, anxiety, depressed mood, irritability, and fatigue as well as physical symptoms such as bloating and breast tenderness. It is said to occur in up to 75% of females during their menstruating years and can symptoms can vary from mild to severe. Several studies suggest that vitex is an effective treatment for mild to moderate symptoms of PMS with few, if any, side effects. This is believed to be because vitex supports and stimulates the pituitary gland and increases the luteinizing hormone, which has a progesteronic effect and decreases the follicle stimulating hormone thereby helping to create regular cycles and balancing excess estrogen in the body.
Vitex use in pre-conception
It is this increase in progesterone in the body may also help in pre-conception and early pregnancy. For those who are not up to speed on the female reproductive cycle, here is an excellent rundown. Vitex appears to not only regulate menstrual cycles but also help those with a short luteal phase. A short luteal phase can result in progesterone levels decreasing in the body before the fertilized egg can implant in the lining of the uterus. By helping to regulate the length of this phase, taking vitex may help the fertilized egg implant and the increase in progesterone can help sustain early pregnancy.
For vitex to be effective it should be taken for a minimum of three months on a daily basis with 1-2ml of the tincture taken twice a day or 2 cups of vitex infusion per day using 1 teaspoon of berries for each cup of water.
Avoid use with hormonal birth control, as it may become ineffective. Vitex may cause changes in the length of the menstrual cycle and may cause changes in libido. Other less common side effects include headaches, nausea and skin reactions. Do not use in pregnancy unless working with a healthcare specialist. Vitex use should be tapered off by the second trimester of pregnancy as it could cause a woman’s breastmilk to come in early.
When working with the female reproductive system it is also important to work with the liver to aid hormone excretion. Helpful herbs in this case include alteratives, such as dandelion root, burdock root and nettles. Lifestyle changes are also important and those hoping to conceive and/or reduce PMS symptoms should research and consider supplements such as Vitamin C, Magnesium, Vitamin B-6, Zinc, Iron and Essential Fatty Acids along with regular exercise and rest.