The chasteberry tree, whose botanical name is Vitex agnus castus, belongs to the Verbenaceae family. The fruit is also called chasteberry, vitex, or monk's pepper. The terms "chasteberry" and "vitex" are used interchangeably below.
The chasteberry tree can grow to a height of 22 ft (6.71 m) and can be found on wet banks of rivers in southern Europe and the Mediterranean area. It is also grown as an ornamental plant in the United States. Although the red-black berry is the most used part, according to Joe and Terry Graedon, the leaves contain the highest amount of flavonoids—up to 2.7%, with the blue-violet flowers a close second at 1.5%. The berries contain nearly 1% flavonoids, including casticin, kaempferol, isovitexin, orientin and quercatagetin.
The Graedons also list the other components of chasteberry. Surprisingly, in spite of chasteberry's use for hormonal problems, it does not contain plant estrogen. Instead, the chasteberry tree contains:
- androstenedione, epitestosterone, hydroxyprogesterone, progesterone and testosterone in the flowers and leaves
- iridoid glycosides, such as aucubin and agnuside, in the berries
- essential oil, which includes cineol and pinene monoterpenes, as well as castine, citronellol, eucalptol, limonene, linalool and sesquiterpenes (Chasteberry's spicy aroma is derived from its essential oil.)
- vitricine, an alkaloid
Chasteberry was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans as well as by medieval monks to lower sexual desire. The Greeks and Romans also used it to keep away evil. Hippocrates used chasteberry to treat injuries. Dioscorides advised its application for inflamed wombs, diseases of the spleen and lactation. European nuns used chasteberry for women's hormonal problems, and this latter application is chasteberry's main function today. It is considered a uterine tonic.
Chasteberry acts as a balancer, not only in female hormonal problems, but also with regard to libido. Therefore, chasteberry can act as both an aphrodisiac and an anaphrodisiac. It can normalize hormonal imbalances; treat amenorrhea or dysmenorrhoea; and act to increase or suppress lactation.
According to Robin Landis and Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, chasteberry works by helping the pituitary gland to raise progesterone levels. Chasteberry induces the pituitary gland to free a luteinizing hormone and stop a follicle-stimulating one. Landis and Singh Khalsa call chasteberry a support for female hormones from menstruation to menopause .
PMS problems are usually caused by low progesterone levels in relation to the estrogen level. Taking the progesterone-laden vitex can relieve many PMS symptoms, as was shown in a 1997 double-blind clinical study. One hundred and seventy-five women randomly received daily doses of a standard vitex capsule (3.5–4.2 mg), a placebo, or two pyridoxine capsules (100 mg each) to measure the alleviation of such PMS symptoms as bloating, irritability, depression , breast tenderness, weight gain, skin problems, and digestive problems. In the efficacy part of the study, 77.1% of subjects taking vitex reported improvement in their symptoms, as against only 60.6% in the pyridoxine group.
Some studies show that chasteberry can both increase and decrease prolactin levels in the body. Too much prolactin is related to amenorrhea (no menstrual periods) and breast tenderness associated with PMS; too little prolactin can mean reduced milk production. In one study featuring 100 nursing mothers, those who took chasteberry had more milk than those who took a placebo. In another clinical study of PMS associated with high prolactin levels, vitex balanced not only prolactin levels but the menstrual cycle itself. According to David L. Hoffman, taking vitex after stopping birth control pills can regulate cycles and therefore increase the likelihood of pregnancy . Another writer has described her own situation of stopping birth control pills and having no periods for two and a half years until she started taking chasteberry. German studies also show that vitex may also help prevent a miscarriage.
Chasteberry is also used to treat fibroid cysts, especially cysts in smooth muscle. Vitex has been said to be effective in stopping the heavy bleeding of perimenopause and reduce the hot flashes in menopause itself. It is used extensively in England for this purpose. Also, chasteberry's antiandrogenic influence can help to reduce acne in teenagers of either sex.
Chasteberry may be taken as a tincture, an extract, a tea or in capsules. The usual dosage is 200 mg of the berry, with a standardized amount (0.5%) of the active ingredient agnuside. The recommended dosage varies with the ailment being treated, and should be decided upon in conjunction with a health care practitioner.
Tincture and extracts of chasteberry are mixed with water or juice, 10–30 drops per drink. They should be taken up to three times daily.
Chasteberry tea is made from 1 tsp of ripe berries to 1 cup (250 ml) of boiling water. The tea must be steeped for 10–15 min and should be drunk three times daily.
According to one naturopathic physician, the usual dosage of extract of chasteberry is 175–225 mg on a daily basis. Capsules are available in doses from 40–400 mg. The capsules are usually taken one to three a day about one hour before breakfast to increase their absorption. If taken before bedtime, chasteberry may aid in sleeping as well as increasing the secretion of melatonin in the early morning. Because chasteberry acts slowly in the body, it can take from one to six months to see permanent results. These results should continue even after discontinuing taking chasteberry. To increase milk production, women are advised to take chasteberry the first 10 days after giving birth.
Chasteberry may be taken in conjunction with Vitamin B6 for PMS.
Some practitioners of alternative medicine recommend that pregnant women should abstain from taking chasteberry. German research indicates that chasteberry is safe for the first three months of pregnancy, but is unsafe after that time as it might start the flow of milk too early.
Herbal experts may also advise patients with breast cancer, uterine cancer , or pituitary tumors not to take chasteberry. It is always best to check with your health care provider first.
Because chasteberry does not contain plant estrogens, it should not be used as a substitute for hormonal replacement therapy, or HRT. Women who are concerned about the possible side effects of HRT should consider fo-ti or other herbs shown to have measurable estrogen-like activity, such as licorice and hops .
Chasteberry rarely has side effects but a few have been reported: allergic rashes ; minor headaches and nausea when first taking chasteberry; changes in the length of the menstrual period; and increased bleeding. The alcohol in chasteberry tinctures may cause some gastric irritation if taken on an empty stomach. This situation can be avoided by mixing the tincture in water; or by taking half the tincture before breakfast and half after lunch; or by taking capsules.
Chasteberry should not be combined with such synthetic hormones as those contained in birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy. The latter includes Premarin and Provera.
Drugs that act on a neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine may either affect or be affected by vitex. These include medications for Parkinson's disease (L-dopa, Parlodel); psychosis (Haldol); smoking cessation (Zyban); and depression (Wellbutrin).
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Rebecca J. Frey, PhD