Growing along the banks of the southern Europe and the Mediterranean regions, is a shrub called the chaste tree. Blooming with either purple, pink or white flowers in summer months, the chaste tree’s dark brown or black peppercorn-sized fruit is collected in autumn. Why is the chaste tree important you ask?
Historically the chaste tree, thought to reduce the male libido, was used to curb the sexual appetite of monks; hence being known in the Middle Ages as Monk’s Pepper. Also called vitex, chasteberry, Indian spice, sage tree hemp and wild pepper; chaste tree is said to help women manage PMS symptoms and cyclic breast pain. Just to keep things simple, we will use the chemical name vitex as we learn of its many benefits.
When it comes to helping women with problematic menstrual cycles, vitex is said to be a powerful medicine that should be taken with care. It works by preventing the pituitary gland from producing too much prolactin (prolactin inhibits ovulation). So, by promoting progesterone, vitex thus encourages ovulation. Not only does it help to regulate a woman’s monthly cycle, it is said to have opiate-properties that are calming to the nervous system and can help with premenstrual anxiety and sleep problems.
There is information that boasts the positive impact of vitex for those with PCOS – Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. According to one source, vitex offers a natural solution to women’s infertility issues. That makes sense, given it is said to promote ovulation by balancing out estrogen with increased progesterone. However, others like Dr. Lara Briden mentioned below, warn that not all with the same diagnoses will respond the same way to vitex. To know more about your specific hormonal needs, seek the advice of a medical or healthcare provider.
Here are some Do’s and Don’ts naturopathic doctor and “Period Revolutionary”, Lara Briden lists:
- Do use for PMS
It helps to relieve PMS symptoms such as irritability and fluid retention.
- Do use for breast pain
Particularly helpful for premenstrual breast pain and can reduce lumpiness and pain within just two cycles. Briden recommends using it alongside other natural treatments for breast pain like Iodine.
- Do take in the morning
The pituitary is most receptive first thing in the morning before breakfast.
- Do consider for irregular periods but use caution with a PCOS diagnosis
For most women, vitex promotes ovulation and can bring on a period within two to three months. However, if you have PCOS, it may actually make things worse due to raising the LH (luteinizing hormone), which is already too high in some types of PCOS.
- Do take in your follicular phase
Because it works to promote ovulation, take vitex in the first part of your cycle before ovulation and continue until the first day of your period. For irregular periods, then just “pulse the dose” as given below.
- Do take a five-day break every month
If you have regular periods, then take five days off from the first day of your period. If you don’t have regular periods, then take 25 days on and 5 days off, then take five more days off from the first day of your period. This “pulsed-dosing” prevents the reduction of the herb’s impact on the pituitary.
- Don’t take too soon after stopping the birth control pill
When first stopping the Pill, “your pituitary and your ovaries must communicate with each other for the first time in years (maybe decades).” Briden suggests the two be reintroduced slowly, gently.
- Don’t combine with fertility drugs or IVF
Combining vitex with ovulation-stimulating drugs may result in a condition called ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome.
- Don’t take for too long
Vitex is most effective in the first three to six months of use; if taken longer than that, it may lose its effectiveness. Improvement can then be maintained with diet and other supplements.
- Don’t give to teenagers
Unless the “pituitary-ovarian communication” in girls 18 and younger has already been disturbed by taking birth control pills, it is best to not interfere with normal development with an herb like vitex.
Other cautions regarding taking vitex are like that of many herbal medicines. This includes women who are pregnant or who are breast-feeding avoiding its use. Sources also say that side effects such as rash, headache, nausea, fatigue and menstrual disruptions have occurred in some, but appear to be reversible. As mentioned above, it is not recommended that children consume chaste tree/vitex.
You can purchase vitex from your neighborhood natural and whole food grocers and from many online resources. While prices are comparable, the names for the herbal medicine will vary (Vitex Fruit, Vitex Extract, Chaste Berry, Chaste Tree); as will the ailment it is said to treat. There are capsules, essential oils and a roll-on that is said to assist with menopausal issues.
You may not be a monk wanting to remain “chaste,” but depending on your specific need, it would be worth your while to research the many benefits vitex can deliver.