What Is It?
In medieval times, the chasteberry (botanically known as Vitex agnus-castus) was thought to suppress the libido of both males and females. Legend has it that monks once chewed on the dried berries in an effort to adhere to their vows of celibacy. Today, it’s clear that the herb does not affect sexual drive, but chasteberry does have an important role to play in treating women’s reproductive-tract disorders and menstrual-related complaints. In Europe, chasteberry is now recommended more often than any other herb for relieving the symptoms of PMS (premenstrual syndrome).
Indigenous to the Mediterranean region, the chaste tree–actually a small shrub that bears violet flowers and reddish black berries–is now found in subtropical climates around the globe. In the fall, its ripe berries are dried and used medicinally. Similar to peppercorns in shape, chasteberries also have a peppery taste. Other common names for this herb include vitex, monk’s pepper, and chaste tree berry.
Since the time of Hippocrates, chasteberry has been recommended for menstrual complaints. Although it contains no hormones or hormone-like substances, the herb influences hormonal activity by stimulating the pituitary gland at the base of the brain to produce more luteinizing hormone (LH). This, in turn, signals the ovaries to produce more of the hormone progesterone. Chasteberry also acts to lower elevated levels of a second pituitary hormone, prolactin, which is involved in breast-milk production.
Specifically, chasteberry may help to:
Reduce PMS symptoms. Before their periods, many women find themselves irritable, depressed, and bloated. These typical PMS symptoms may occur because of an insufficient production of progesterone in the two weeks prior to menstruation. Chasteberry helps to normalize the ratio of progesterone to estrogen, thus providing relief from these monthly discomforts. In a recent study of premenstrual women, 90% of those who took the herb reported that they experienced a reduction in PMS symptoms. Chasteberry may be as effective as another common PMS supplement–vitamin B6, which clears excess estrogen from the body–in controlling symptoms. While a German study actually found chasteberry to be superior to vitamin B6 for resolving PMS symptoms, it’s worth trying the two together for maximum relief.
Minimize fibrocystic breast symptoms. Many women suffer from the premenstrual breast tenderness and pain associated with fibrocystic breasts. Chasteberry’s ability to lower prolactin concentrations as well as to restore the estrogen-progesterone balance may offer significant relief.
Regulate ovulation and promote fertility. A woman with too much prolactin and too little progesterone in her body may not ovulate regularly. Obviously, it would be difficult to become pregnant under these conditions. Chasteberry can help to lower prolactin levels and aid in the normal functioning of the ovaries, thus providing opportunities for conception. The herb works best for women whose progesterone levels are mildly or moderately low. High prolactin levels can also cause amenorrhea (absent menstrual cycles). In such cases chasteberry may be useful in reestablishing a normal monthly cycle. Women suffering from infertility due to not only to an imbalance of estrogen and progesterone but also to high prolactin levels may benefit from chasteberry, too. In a 1988 study, 48 women (ages 23 to 39) with infertility and this type of condition–called a luteal phase defect–were given chasteberry once a day for three months. Of the 45 women who completed the study, seven became pregnant during the study. And in 25 of the women, progesterone levels returned to normal, a situation that improved the chances for future conception.
Treat menopausal difficulties. Declining hormone levels in the years up to and after menopause can cause hot flashes, sweating, vaginal dryness, and even mild depression. Chasteberry (alone or combined with herbs such as dong quai or black cohosh) works to stabilize these hormone levels and can be beneficial in controlling symptoms.
Relieve the pain of endometriosis. Chasteberry acts to restore hormonal imbalances responsible for endometriosis-related pain, which can be severe. It’s commonly taken in combination with the herb dong quai for this purpose. Both herbs help to relax the uterus.
Control menstrual-related acne. Monthly periods involve hormonal shifts that can lead to acne. By helping to stabilize hormone levels, chasteberry may help to keep skin clear. Note: Chasteberry has also been found to be useful for a number of other disorders. (For information on these additional ailments, see our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Chasteberry.
The ripe, dried fruit of the plant is used in medicinal preparations. It is frequently sold in combination with other hormone-regulating herbs.
Select a powdered extract standardized to contain 0.5% agnuside, the active ingredient in chasteberry.
Capsules are available in 225 mg and 400 mg dosage forms.
For PMS, menstrual disorders, and menstruation-related acne: Take 400 to 500 mg of standardized extract (containing 0.5% agnuside) once a day. In addition, consider taking chasteberry in a “women’s combination supplement” that also includes such herbs as dong quai, wild yam, and dandelion; follow the manufacturer’s dosage directions. There may be less chasteberry in these combination products, but you will have the advantage of several herbs in one capsule.
For fibrocystic breasts: Each morning, take 400 to 500 mg of standardized extract (containing 0.5% agnuside).
For female infertility: Try chasteberry alone at 400 to 500 mg a day, or in combination with false unicorn root, a native American herb with a long history of treating infertility. Take 1/2 teaspoon of chasteberry tincture and false unicorn root tincture twice a day.
For menopausal symptoms: Take either 400 to 500 mg of standardized extract (containing 0.5% agnuside) or 40 drops of a tincture added to an 8-ounce glass of water once a day.
For endometriosis: Take 400 to 500 mg of powdered extract (containing 0.5% agnuside) once a day. Alternatively, take 40 drops of the tincture daily. Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Chasteberry, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
Take the capsule or tablet form before meals to maximize absorption.
Chasteberry tincture may cause stomach irritation if taken on an empty stomach because of the solution’s alcohol content. This will probably not occur if you dilute the tincture in a glass of water, however. You can always split the dose, taking half after breakfast and half after lunch. Or try a capsule instead.
PMS can respond quickly to chasteberry; you may notice a reduction in symptoms during your next menstrual cycle, even if you’ve taken it for only 10 days. However, it usually takes three months for the herb’s benefits to become apparent.
To initiate ovulation or menstruation, you will need to use chasteberry for at least six months for the herb’s benefits to become apparent.
Avoid taking chasteberry with hormone replacement medications and oral contraceptives; it will interfere with hormone production.
Avoid taking chasteberry with bromocriptine, a drug in the dopamine-receptor antagonist category, also used to reduce prolactin levels. Chasteberry may interfere with the way the bromocriptine works. For information on interactions with specific generic drugs, see our WholeHealth Chicago Drug/Nutrient Interactions Chart.
Possible Side Effects
In general, chasteberry does not cause adverse reactions.
In rare cases, women develop an itchy skin rash or complain of stomach discomfort.
Chasteberry may increase menstrual flow.
Some herbalists suggest that a woman taking chasteberry to promote fertility should stop taking the herb during her menstrual period to generate as normal a hormonal pattern as possible. Others contend that there’s no problem in taking chasteberry continuously for infertility or any other condition.
Because of its effect on hormones and the uterus, never take chasteberry during pregnancy. And if you’re taking chasteberry for infertility, stop immediately after your first missed period.
Don’t take chasteberry indefinitely (for more than four to six months for PMS or for longer than a year for infertility); you need to give your ovaries a rest and avoid overstimulating them.
Don’t take chasteberry if you breast-feed.
Stop taking chasteberry if a rash appears.
Acne 400-500 mg standardized extract a day
Endometriosis 200-225 mg of the crushed fruit, standardized to contain 0.5% to 1.1% agnusides, or 1/2 tsp. liquid extract three times a day
Fibrocystic Breast Changes 200-225 of the crushed fruit, standardized to contain 0.5% to 1.1% agnusides, each morning when not menstruating; or 1/2 tsp. liquid extract daily when not menstruating
Infertility, Female 200-225 mg of the crushed fruit, standardized to contain 0.5% to 1.1% agnusides, once or twice a day; or 40 drops liquid extract added to one glass of water once a day
Menopause 200-225 mg of the crushed fruit, standardized to contain 0.5% to 1.1% agnusides, once or twice a day; or 40 drops liquid extract added to one glass of water once a day
Migraine 200-225 mg of the crushed fruit, standardized to contain 0.5% to 1.1% agnusides, a day or one teaspoonful of liquid extract added to one glass of water once a day
Perimenopause 200-225 mg of the crushed fruit, standardized to contain 0.5% to 1.1% agnusides, once or twice a day; or 40 drops liquid extract added to one glass of water once a day
PMS 200-225 mg of the crushed fruit, standardized to contain 0.5% to 1.1% agnusides, twice a day; or 40 drops liquid extract added to one glass of water twice a day
David Edelberg, M.D.
Don’t let the name mislead you: Chasteberry won’t put a lock on your libido in any way. But, as medieval folk healers suspected centuries ago, the black-red berries from the European chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) do have hormone-balancing compounds powerful enough to ease menstrual complaints, fertility problems, and menopausal discomforts. Countless European women rely on this herbal remedy, also widely known by its ancient Latin name, Vitex.
HOW IT HELPS PERIMENOPAUSE
Some of the discomforts of perimenopause are probably caused by an excessive amount of the milk-producing hormone, prolactin, released by the pituitary gland at the base of your brain. The best way to understand how chasteberry works is to think of it as a stabilizer of your body’s delicate balance of hormones, including prolactin. Specifically, chasteberry suppresses the excessive prolactin, readjusting the level of your two sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone. The end result? If perimenopause is making things uncomfortable–drenching you with sweat, making you feel moody, causing vaginal dryness–this herb will usually make you feel better.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Chasteberry is available either singly or in combination with other female-oriented herbs. Just find a reliable manufacturer, and don’t get lured into purchasing the cheapest product you can find.
Any of the following–all made from the ripe, dried fruits–will probably work well. Capsules containing dried chasteberry fruit alone are by far the most convenient and popular form. Liquid extracts and tinctures of chasteberry are also available, although some women find that the tincture in particular can cause stomach irritation (due to the alcohol content) unless it’s diluted in plenty of water or taken with food.
These make a lot of sense because the hormonal imbalance involved in perimenopause is just one part of the natural shift that takes place in the course of a woman’s life during her forties and fifties. The additional herbs in combination products may ease other symptoms you’re experiencing. Look for blends containing such herbs as dong quai, black cohosh, or Siberian ginseng. (These are often billed as “Women’s Formulas” and contain relatively smaller doses of chasteberry.) These may also contain additional herbs such as kava, dandelion root, and burdock that can help with additional symptoms Another benefit from combination products is that you get to reduce the number of bottles you need to open and the number of pills you have to swallow.
Regardless of the form you choose, be sure to look for a product that contains a standardized extract of agnuside (0.5%), the active ingredient in chasteberry.
Chasteberry doesn’t actually contain hormones or hormonelike substances, but it does prompt the body to produce more of its own hormones. So while it’s a safe herb and few women develop side effects, respect its power and use it with care. Don’t take chasteberry with hormone replacement medications and oral contraceptives without discussing it with your physician. For obvious reasons, never take this hormone-altering herb during pregnancy. The long-term effects of using chasteberry are not known. You might want to ease off the chasteberry after a few months and see if your symptoms have improved on their own.
David Edelberg, MD