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Herbalists traditionally have used Vitex, along with other herbs, for treatment of the symptoms of menopause, but it only recently has been studied in systematic clinical trials, including a large-scale German study in which more than 80% of both patients and physicians reported favorable impressions of Vitex.
In the current study, 170 women were randomly assigned to receive either Vitex or an identical-looking placebo. The pills were taken over three consecutive menstrual cycles. A little more than half of the women who received the real Vitex reported improvements in five of six symptoms, including irritability, mood alteration, anger, headache, and breast fullness. It didn't seem to work any better than the placebo at relieving bloating, however.
Side effects were few and minor, with only one woman stopping the drug (because of pregnancy). But although the herbal product appears to be generally safe, it is still a drug, albeit a "natural" one, Eagon cautions.
"One of the biggest things that people get into with herbals is that they think they're harmless. They're not harmless; these are very potent drugs," she tells WebMD.
"Vitex is quite potent," she says. "In fact, we've shown that Vitex probably enhances the action of one's own hormones. So if a woman has some estrogen on her own and she takes Vitex, it may actually enhance the [effects of natural estrogen], more than just herbs plus the extract."
Therefore, any woman tempted to try Vitex or other herbs should consult her physician, especially if she is taking hormones in birth control pills or is trying to become pregnant. And if she does opt to try Vitex, she should give it some time to work, Eagon says, just as with other drugs prescribed for PMS.
"Generally speaking, one needs to take them a month to see any kind 'oh yes, I feel better' effect," she says.