Back in the Middle Ages, monks used an herb called chasteberry to decrease their sexual desire. Now, chasteberry (or vitex, short for vitex agnus-castus) helps women all over the world solve hormone-related issues and other female reproductive problems, without losing their libido. In this article, we’ll dive into conditions that vitex might treat and discuss how to go about supplementing.
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What is Vitex?
Vitex is prepared from the berries of a small shrub or tree. It is native to the Mediterranean and western Asia, but it is now also cultivated in southern parts of the United States. It helps to naturally balance sex hormones by stimulating certain systems in the body.
Although it’s exact mechanisms are still being studied. Research has indicated that vitex binds to dopamine and opiate receptors, enabling it to exert a powerful effect on the body.
It can protect your hypothalamus (your master hormonal command center) from chronic stress. It can also help prevent your pituitary gland from making excess prolactin (the cause of many hormone-related issues), and calm your nervous system.
As a result, it can help women who suffer from hirsutism (excessive hair growth on the body and face), mastalgia (breast pain and tenderness), hyperprolactinaemia (high prolactin), and more. Vitex can also be very effective when used to treat many common hormone-related conditions..
Benefits of Vitex for Hormones
Here are a few of the specific ways to use vitex to help regulate your hormone levels:
Vitex for Estrogen Dominance
Estrogen dominance can occur when there’s insufficient progesterone relative to the amount of estrogen present in the body. Symptoms of high estrogen include heavy PMS, bloating, mood swings, headaches, anxiety, tender breasts, irregular menstrual cycle, and abnormal weight gain.
The best way to know if you have estrogen dominance related to low progesterone is to test (e.g. with DUTCH), don’t guess. Vitex can help raise progesterone by increasing luteinizing hormone (LH) and inhibiting follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). This naturally opposes estrogen, bringing levels back down into a normal range.
Vitex for High Testosterone Levels
High testosterone levels that are due to the combination of high estrogen and low progesterone may resolve with vitex for the reasons listed above. Excess testosterone may also be related to high prolactin, which vitex can suppress.
Symptoms of high testosterone in women include:
- Facial hair
- Abnormal body hair
- Random weight gain or trouble losing weight
- Aggression and anger
- Hair loss
- Deep voice
- Irregular or loss of menstrual cycle
Again, get proper testing if you suspect you might have a hormonal imbalance, don’t guess.
Vitex for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
PCOS is a common hormonal diagnosis in women having two of the three following symptoms:
(1) abnormal menstrual cycle or oligomenorrhea (long cycles or fewer than nine cycles per year)
(2) hyperandrogenism or excess testosterone (includes symptoms previously described)
(3) presence of polycystic ovaries confirmed on ultrasound.
Unfortunately, PCOS is often misdiagnosed due to the broadness of the criteria. It was previously believed that vitex could not be used for women with PCOS because it would raise their already often elevated LH levels.
However, new research suggests that vitex does not negatively impact LH levels for women with PCOS. It may help treat the condition by balancing progesterone and estrogen levels while lowering prolactin. However, be cautious when using vitex to treat PCOS, as it may drive down prolactin too much.
Vitex for Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)
PMS is the monthly emotional, behavioral, and physical changes that occur in the last 5–10 days of the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. Symptoms include mood swings, irritability, anxiety, confusion, breast tenderness, bloating, fatigue, headaches, food cravings, and more.
The cause of PMS is not fully understood, which is why it’s hard to treat. The first line of defense is lifestyle interventions such as increasing daily exercise, stress management, and decreasing alcohol and caffeine consumption. However, most people still experience symptoms and end up turning to ibuprofen, psychotropic drugs, or progesterone therapy. Luckily, many randomized control trials (alongside countless anecdotal reports) have indicated that Vitex is a promising treatment.
Vitex for Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (HA)
HA is the lack of period for at least six months when no medical diagnosis can be found (i.e. your doctor ruled out thyroid disease, celiac disease, PCOS, and other conditions). One cause of HA is post-pill amenorrhea; it may take your body some time to regain your period after coming off of hormonal birth control.
If this is you, wait until you have been off the pill for at least three months before trying vitex, or it may interfere with ovulation. The other two main causes are undereating and stress, which both give your hypothalamus reason not to ovulate. If you are not eating enough or managing your stress levels, then no supplement will save you.
Importantly, the majority of young women with amenorrhea go on to be diagnosed with an eating disorder. If you think that you might fall into this category, then please stop reading this article and focus on addressing your eating disorder with a professional.
How to Take Vitex Supplements
Supplements are taken by mouth as a tincture (liquid extract), tea, solid extract, or capsule. If using a standardized extract, take a low dose (200 to 250 mg). Dry herbs are less concentrated and will need to be taken at a higher dose (1000 to 2000 mg).
Take as a single dose first thing in the morning before breakfast, which is when your pituitary is most receptive. “Pulse” the dose by stopping it for a few days each month. If you have periods, pause it for five days from the start of each period.
For amenorrhea, do 25 days on and then five days off. If vitex is the right treatment for you, then it should work within three to four months. Do not take it for more than six months continuously because its effect may weaken over time.
Vitex appears to be generally well tolerated with few side effects. However, it is a strong herb, and you should always seek advice from a medical professional before starting any new supplement protocol. Here are a few precautions:
- Do not take during lactation, pregnancy, or if pregnancy is suspected.
- Do not take if you are on birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, or who have a hormone-sensitive condition (such as breast cancer).
- Do not take it if you are younger than 18 because your pituitary-ovarian communication is still developing.
- Do not take in combination with dopamine-related medications, such as certain antipsychotic drugs and Parkinson’s disease medications.
Vitex is a powerful and effective herb for hormonal imbalances that should be used under the supervision of a trained practitioner.
- Period Repair Manual: Natural Treatment for Better Hormones and Better Periods, Dr. Lara Briden
- Activation of the μ-opiate receptor by Vitex agnus-castus methanol extracts: Implication for its use in PMS
- Vitex for PMS and PMDD
- Vitex agnus-castus Extracts for Female Reproductive Disorders: A Systematic Review of Clinical Trials
- The Essential Guide to Vitex and the Chaste Tree