Chasteberry tree (Vitex agnus-castus) is a flowering shrub native to Europe and Asia known for its long history in balancing hormones. Already back in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome has the chaste tree berry been used to treat many gynecologic complaints. In medieval Europe, chaste berry was popular among monks for its alleged ability to reduce unwanted sexual desire. This led to the common names of monk's pepper and chaste tree, even though there is no scientific evidence to support this traditional application.
Over the past 50 years, chasteberry extract has been used widely in Europe for hormone-related gynecologic conditions like menstrual cycle problems, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), cyclical breast tenderness, as well as for menopause-related symptoms. Chasteberry is generally well-tolerated, with little adverse effects or side effects.
Nowadays, the Vitex tree has also become popular as an ornamental shrub or small tree and can be commonly found in the southeastern parts of North America.
Vitex is the largest genus in the mint family (Lamiaceae) and includes 250 species worldwide. Vitex agnus-castus is one of the few temperate-zone species. It grows as a shrub or small tree and comes from the Mediterranean and western Asia. For its fragrant flowers, it is also cultivated as an ornamental tree in the southeastern United States. This vitex tree is known by many different names. Commonly it is called vitex, chaste tree or chastetree, chasteberry, lilac chastetree, or monk’s pepper. Besides its use in basketry, it is the most common vitex used medicinally.
The fruit is the part of the plant that is important for Herbal Medicine. After the flowers bloomed in late summer to early fall, the ripe fruit is collected and dried. Prepared as an agnus-castus extract, chasteberry is available as a liquid extract, capsules, and tablets.
What does the plant look like?
Chaste tree is a tree or shrub that grows to a height of 1 to 5 meters. Its aromatic leaves are dark green on top and grey-green on the bottom. These compound leaves have 5 to 7 leaflets splayed out like an open hand. That is why they are sometimes confounded with cannabis plants. In late spring, the tree bears beautiful flowers that can be blue-violet, purple, or white. They bloom through summer and attract butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. The fragrant flowers are followed by dark-purple berries, about the size of a peppercorn.
Where the name comes from
Vitex is thought to come from the Latin word “vieo”, meaning to weave or to tie up, and refers to its use in basketry. The species name “agnus-castus” is the result of a historical misinterpretation of the original Greek name, “ágnos”, meaning holy, pure or chaste. At some point, the original Greek word “agnos” was replaced by “agnus”, the Latin word for lamb. The second part, castus, comes from the Latin word “castitas”, meaning chastity.
The common names chaste tree or monk’s pepper are thought to come from the Middle Ages when monks reportedly used the fruit to decrease men’s libido. This should help them to remain chaste. Although the use of chaste berry as an anaphrodisiac is not scientifically proven, it points to the potent effects of the herb on hormone levels.
Vitex has been recognized since ancient times and is presently used for the treatment of breast pain and menstrual irregularities.
A lot of research has been done mostly in Europe to study the effectiveness of chasteberry in treating these symptoms. In 2001, a multi-center, placebo-controlled clinical study involved 170 women with a diagnosis of PMS, participating over three menstrual cycles. The change of irritability, mood alteration, anger, headache, breast fullness, and other menstrual symptoms including bloating was measured in women's self-assessment. This randomized, double-blind clinical trial concluded that dry extract of agnus-castus fruit is an effective and well-tolerated treatment for the relief of symptoms of the premenstrual syndrome (PMS). In 2005, a systematic review was done to assess the safety of the herb. The conclusion of the review was that, although further rigorous studies are needed, the data available seem to indicate that Vitex agnus-castus extract is a safe herbal medicine.
The German Commission E approved the use of chasteberry for irregularities of the menstrual cycle, cyclical breast discomfort, and PMS. Health Canada approves its use in herbal medicine to help stabilize menstrual cycle irregularities and relieve premenstrual symptoms. Chaste tree is also approved to be used to help relieve menopausal symptoms, such as hot flushes.
Medicinal Properties of Vitex agnus-castus
- Hormone "normalizer" that helps to restore hormonal balance in the body (especially prolactin and progesterone)
How or what it is used for
Chasteberry has been traditionally used to help with a variety of conditions and purposes, including:
- Symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
- Menstrual cycle irregularities
- Cyclic mastalgia (breast pain linked to menstruation)
- Symptoms of menopause
- Infertility due to elevated prolactin or inadequate progesterone (luteal phase disorder)
- Reducing sexual desire
Its traditional use as a galactagogue, a substance that enhances breast milk production, is scientifically not well supported and should be discouraged.
Other potential benefits of Vitex might be reduced migraines during menstrual cycles, epilepsy prevention, and anti-inflammatory properties of the herb. But more studies are needed to support these claims.
Essential oils from chasteberry fruits and leaves have been used as an insect repellent and might also have antibacterial and antifungal effects.
Vitex agnus-castus is generally well tolerated with very few and mild side effects. The herbal extract is available in different formulations, including tinctures, capsules, and tablets.
The chasteberry fruits contain flavonoids, a group of plant metabolites. These are believed to be the primary active components of the Vitex agnus-castus extract. They include the major flavonoid casticin, as well as orientin, quercetagetin, and isovitexin. The berries of the vitex tree also contain several other active constituents: iridoid glycosides like agnuside and aucubin, and essential oils, like limonene, cineol, pinene, and sabinene. Prolactin, the milk-producing hormone, is released by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain.
The exact mechanism of Vitex’s action is only partially understood. Researchers believe that agnus-castus extract has indirect, regulatory effects on various hormones, especially prolactin and progesterone. This hormonal effect appears to be dose-dependent: low doses of extract have resulted in decreased estrogen levels and increased prolactin and progesterone levels. This is possibly caused by an inhibition of the release of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and stimulation of luteinizing hormone (LH) levels. At higher doses, vitex showed to decrease prolactin secretion.
Patients with premenstrual syndrome (PMS) hypersecrete prolactin in response to the pressures of daily life. These excessive prolactin levels can cause some of the discomforts, like breast tenderness or breast pain (mastodynia), and failure to ovulate. Vitex-containing herbal medicine helps to re-establish normal hormonal balance during the menstrual cycle. It has shown positive effects in improving PMS symptoms and luteal phase defects caused by latent hyperprolactinemia.
What makes Vitex agnus-castus different?
Vitex agnus-castus is considered safe for most people. Side effects are usually mild. They can include nausea, stomach issues, headache, and skin rash.
However, vitex can alter progesterone and estrogen levels in the body. Therefore, a healthcare provider should be consulted prior to use if you are taking hormone-containing medications. This includes progesterone preparations, oral contraceptives, and hormone replacement therapy. The effectiveness of the birth control pill may be decreased by the herb. Women with hormone-sensitive cancer, such as breast cancer, should not use chasteberry. Also, it should be avoided by pregnant or breastfeeding women. V. agnus-castus may interfere with drugs that affect levels of a brain substance called dopamine. Thus, people who are taking medication to treat Parkinson’s disease or certain antipsychotic drugs should not take chasteberry.
Remember to speak to your healthcare provider before taking any new medications, including natural health products.
Pascoe Canada does not offer health or medical advice as we are not a healthcare practitioner. Please speak with your healthcare practitioner before beginning any program related to nutrition, diet, exercise, fitness, medical, and/or wellness. All content published by Pascoe Canada is developed through collaborating with licensed medical professionals and contributors. This includes text, graphics, images, and other material on the website, newsletter, and products (“Content”). This content is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The content does not substitute professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please always do your own research on whether this is for you along with your healthcare practitioner advice. Always consult your healthcare practitioner prior to use specific herbs because you might have underlined conditions needs professional care. The content is general in nature and are subject to change. It is not intended to cover all possible uses, directions, precautions, warnings, drug interactions, allergic reactions, or adverse effects.