Everything you need to know about the traditional herbal supplement for women.
By Abigail Malbon
If you’ve ever struggled with PMS and the barrage of symptoms that accompany it, you might be at your wits’ end and praying for a miracle. But while we can’t promise a cure-all, a traditional herbal remedy that’s been around for a millennia might just be the answer you’ve been looking for.
Vitex agnus-castus – also known as Vitex, monk’s pepper or chaste tree – is a herbal supplement that reportedly supports a number of women’s health concerns including PMS, menstrual pain and fertility.
Traditional herbal remedies are considered by some to be preferential, as they don’t tend to come with as many side-effects. But does Vitex agnus-castus really work or is the herbal tincture an old wives’ tale? We speak to medical herbalist Pamela Spence and NHS GP Dr Sonal Shah about the health benefits of the herbal supplement:
What is Vitex agnus-castus?
Vitex agnus-castus is a herbal supplement traditionally used to treat a variety of women’s health problems. ‘It’s most commonly used to relieve the symptoms of a number of different female conditions such as premenstrual syndrome, breast pain, menopause and fertility,’ says Dr Shah.
How does Vitex agnus-castus work?
Vitex is said to affect the reproductive hormones. ‘It normalises hormones via the pituitary gland – the gland that simulates hormone production,’ explains Spence. ‘Via this gland it can increase production of progesterone. Lack of progesterone can cause women to have hormone related symptoms. Think of it like a hormone balancer.’
Does Vitex help with PMS symptoms?
If you feel tired, bloated and short-tempered for a few days every month, you will be pleased to hear studies have found that Vitex comes with health benefits for PMS sufferers.
‘Vitex agnus-castus can help with PMS symptoms caused by low progesterone,’ explains Spence. ‘Many women find that taking the tincture can help to shorten a long cycle or lengthen a short one as well as reducing most of the symptoms associated with PMS like tender breasts, mood swings and bloating. It can also be helpful where women experience heavy or clotty bleeding.’
Studies showed improvement in mood, irritability and headaches.
‘A number of studies have been conducted to look at the efficacy of taking the Vitex agnus-castus on PMS symptoms, some of which have shown promising results,’ says Dr Shah. ‘Some studies showed that breast pain was improved compared to placebo and other treatments, others have shown improvement in mood, irritability and headaches.’
But before you head for the herbal shop, proceed with caution. ‘Many of these trials are on small groups of patients and recent reviews of these studies concluded the results are overestimated, which makes it difficult for doctors to recommend this as a reliable treatment for PMS,’ warns Dr Shah. ‘Given the small nature of these trials it is also difficult to know what dose would be most effective.’
Can Vitex agnus-castus help with fertility?
Some studies have shown the traditional herb can boost fertility. ‘Any herb that improves the function of the reproductive cycle will have a positive effect on fertility,’ explains Spence.
‘Vitex is a very important herb for bringing reproductive hormones into balance and has a key part to play in any fertility strategy,’ she adds. ‘Vitex is particularly useful for anyone having problems conceiving due to low progesterone levels.’
Vitex is a very important herb for bringing reproductive hormones into balance.
But Dr Shah recommends you proceed with caution. ‘As infertility is very complex with multiple causes contributing to it, it is really difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from the studies,’ Dr Shah explains.
‘One concern I would have as a doctor, is if a woman was taking Vitex agnus-castus while trying to conceive and she fell pregnant, what affect would this have on her unborn baby,’ adds Dr Shah. ‘It may be safe but at present there are no studies to confirm or disprove this.’
What do doctors recommend?
Dr Shah recommends you conduct a study of your own to determine the efficacy of Vitex. ‘Our usual treatment options for managing the symptoms of PMS include eating plenty of colourful fruits and vegetables in their diet, regular exercise, managing stress and simple analgesia,’ says Dr Shah. ‘If these management options are ineffective, you may want to consider trying a supplement and seeing how your symptoms respond.
‘My advice would be keep a detailed symptom diary, recording the severity of symptoms either on an app or written down for at least 3 cycles, then take the supplement (if there are no contraindications) and see how your symptoms compare. If you see some benefit then continue taking; if not then you can stop.’
Can Vitex agnus-castus ease menopause symptoms?
Similarly, Vitex may help with menopause symptoms. ‘It is often used by medical herbalists in the early peri-menopausal phase when symptoms first begin to show,’ explains Spence. ‘It can be helpful to keep the cycle regular and help to reduce hot flushes. Once a woman is further into her menopause journey it is less useful.’
‘There is a suggestion that the hormone balancing properties of Vitex agnus-castus may help relieve some of these symptoms,’ agrees Dr Shah. ‘Again, trials looking to see how effective a treatment option this is are very limited, often restricted to only small groups of patients, with significant variation in the dose and preparations of the supplement given.’
Does Vitex agnus-castus have any side effects?
As clinical trials are limited, it is difficult to know what the common side effects are, however, ‘rash, headache, gastrointestinal upset, inter-menstrual bleeding and changes to menstrual flow have been reported,’ says Dr Shah. ‘Any new symptoms that occur after taking it should be discussed with your doctor.’
Who is Vitex agnus-castus not suitable for?
‘Women who have had a history of breast, ovarian or endometrial cancer should not take this supplement,’ warns Dr Shah.
‘Similarly women who have hormone sensitive conditions, endometriosis, uterine fibroids or are taking anti-psychotic medication for a mental health disorder or HRT should avoid it or discuss with their doctor before starting. Also women who are breastfeeding should avoid taking the herb.’
What’s the recommended dosage?
As with any new medication, it is recommended that you check with your doctor before taking Vitex agnus-castus.
‘It needs to be taken for several months to get the full benefit,’ advises Spence. ‘Some herbalists recommend taking it before 11am when the pituitary gland is most active. If that is not possible then just taking it daily is important.’
‘The suggested dose is 20 drops daily of a 1:5 tincture,’ she adds. ‘However if you are buying an over-the-counter product, follow the instructions on the label or see a medical herbalist for a more bespoke prescription.’