Vitex is a large shrub or small tree that produces berries. These berries are often used as herbal supplements for hormonal symptoms.
What Is Vitex?
Vitex (Vitex agnus-castus) is a large shrub native to the Mediterranean and Asia. It can grow 10 to 15 feet tall and has lots of stems, so it’s actually more like a tree.
The trunk is grey and it grows purple flowers that attract butterflies and bees. It also grows black berries that have a peppery smell. Vitex is often planted near beehives to help with good honey production.
There are a few different species of vitex, but Vitex agnus-castus is most commonly used as a herbal supplement. This plant is sometimes also called chastetree, chasteberry, or monk’s pepper.
People have been using vitex for a very long time. Athenian women put vitex leaves in their beds to help them stay chaste. In Medieval Europe, monks took chasteberry because it was supposed to lower their sexual desire. This might be where the plant’s common name comes from.
Today, you can find many different vitex products available, usually made from the berries. They are dried and used in lots of ways:
- Soaked in alcohol to make a tincture
- Soaked in water, glycerine, vinegar, or other solvent to make an extract
- Ground into powder and added to a capsule or made into a tablet
- Ground like peppercorns and added to food
- Soaked in hot water as a tea
Some supplements are standardized. This means they are produced the same way with the same ingredients and a guaranteed amount of active components.
Benefits of Vitex
There are many claims about how vitex works and what it can do for your health. The research for most of these claims is limited. It does seem to help specific conditions, though. These include:
- Premenstrual syndrome, or PMS
- Sore breasts
- Swollen breasts
- Normalizing menstruation cycles
- Lowering prolactin levels
- Lowering estrogen levels
- Increasing progesterone levels
The berry seems to help these hormone conditions through the brain rather than the ovaries. The vitex berry has lots of active components, including:
These components are flavonoids, glycosides, and essential oils. They raise dopamine activity in the brain, which blocks the release of a hormone called prolactin. Higher prolactin levels cause breast swelling and tenderness.
Vitex also seems to lower estrogen levels and raise progesterone levels. It blocks the follicle stimulating hormone and raises the luteinizing hormone, which changes the estrogen and progesterone.
The effects are dose-dependent. This means how well it works might depend on how much you take.
Estrogen is naturally high in the first half of your cycle and then drops while progesterone levels rise in the second half during the ovulation phase. Progesterone is a calming hormone and if you have lower levels, this can cause premenstrual syndrome symptoms, breast swelling, breast tenderness, anger, depression, irritability.
Progesterone levels stay high during pregnancy, too, and low progesterone might cause infertility problems.
Vitex can help raise your progesterone levels and lower your prolactin levels. It can help your premenstrual symptoms and ease breast pain and tenderness. The evidence isn’t clear whether it helps fertility or other period and hormone problems, though.
Risks of Vitex
Not all herbs are a good idea for everyone. Herbs can interact with your medication and might not be best for some health problems. Vitex doesn’t have any confirmed interactions, but based on its effects on hormones and the brain, there are probably some people who shouldn’t use it.
Hormone sensitive cancers. Because vitex affects your estrogen and other hormones, you shouldn’t take vitex if you have hormone sensitive cancer.
Parkinson’s disease. Vitex affects dopamine activity. In theory, this might stop medication for Parkinson’s disease from working.
Breastfeeding. Vitex lowers prolactin levels. This is the hormone that is partly responsible for milk production. In large amounts it doesn’t seem to change milk production, but does seem to have an impact in low doses. Because of its hormone effects, you shouldn’t take vitex if you’re breastfeeding.
Pregnancy. If you are pregnant, you shouldn’t take vitex. Influencing your hormones during pregnancy can be dangerous.
Birth control pills. Vitex can stop your birth control medication from working. If you take oral contraceptives, don’t use vitex.
Antipsychotic medications. In theory, since vitex affects dopamine activity, it might raise the effects of these medications or stop them from working.
Vitex is usually well-tolerated, but it can have some common side effects. If you take vitex you might have:
- Itching skin
- Extra period bleeding
If you have hormone, fertility, or period problems, make sure to talk to your doctor before taking vitex.