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 Herbal Medicine: Vitex: The Hormone Balancing Herb  
 
Vitex agnus-castus is a perfect example of a modern medicinal plant, with important clinical applications, validated by modern science, and known and used by the ancient Greeks. From the writings of three of the best-known herbalists and healers of 400 B.C. to 100 A.D., we know that chaste-tree, or agnus-castus was highly revered, especially for imbalances of the female reproductive tract, but also to facilitate birthing and milk-production. Hippocrates, esteemed as the "father of medicine", was really the first naturopathic doctor. He used herbs, the gentle medicines, to help restore health in many diseases. Vitex was one of his favorite herbs. Pliny, a naturalist and Dioscorides also writes of this ancient herb, and its ability to heal.

The names of plants can often reveal their original uses, or something about their appearance or nature. The Greek word for chaste tree was agnos, meaning chaste or pure. Castus comes from the habit of the Athenian matrons, who preserved their chastity at the Thesmophoria by casting the leaves upon their beds. The plants' ability to lessen the sexual desire of men is one of the most ancient legends about this plant. Thus, it was also called monk's pepper for it's small medicinal seeds, which were used by those well-meaning souls to keep their minds on holy matters. The word Vitex is thought to come from "vei", stem and "tex" or flexible stem. Agnus-castus was considered similar in habit and appearance to the willow, and the stems were used in much the same way for building furniture.

Throughout the time of Greek and Roman medicine, agnus-castus was famous for women's hormone imbalances, but also for reducing fevers, stimulating perspiration, the bites of snakes and other venomous creatures, to promote an abundant supply of mother's milk, and to "check violent sexual desire." Hippocrates recommended agnus-castus for injuries, inflammations, enlargement of the spleen and to promote the departure of the placenta. Pliny says that it tastes like wine, and was taken for the above-mentioned conditions as a drink after extracting or soaking the berries in wine. Today, the liquid extract is available in many health-food stores, called a tincture--both as a single herb and in combination with other herbs.

The medicine of the ancient Greeks stood as an absolute authority in the western world for nearly 1600 centuries, and for nearly 700 years, there was not much new. Agnus-castus, then, was continuously used and accepted as one of the most important medicines for probably 2,000 years! In the 9th century A.D., Arabian medicine developed into a high art, over a period of 400 years. One of the best of the surviving formularies, or recipe books of medicinal herbs that we have is that of Al-Kindi. In his book, he mentions that agnus-castus was currently sold in the bazaars and used in Arabic medicine to "expel menstrua, bring on lactation, aid inflammation of the uterus, and heal wounds. Further, the fruits were favored as a calming medicine for hysteria.

After the middle ages, the flowering of the arts ushered in the Renaissance, and the "age of the herbalists", from 1450 to 1650. One of the most famous herbalist, the Dutchman, Rembert Dodoens wrote about agnus-castus in his "A New Herbal, or Historie of Plants." In the energenic system of the day, the fruits were considered hot, dry and astringent. This corresponds closely with he Chinese view the energetic nature of herbs. In fact, if one takes one of the small reddish-grey fruits into the mouth, it does taste spicy and astringent. In many world systems of herbalism, the taste of an herb can indicate what kind of effect the herb will have in the body.

Dodoens, as well as most of the herbalists from the middle ages quote heavily from the ancients. Sometimes the words seem quaint, even humorous: "Angus castus is a singular remedy and medicine for such as would live chaste: for it withstandeth all uncleanenesse or the filthy desire to lechery." More practical for these times are the following indications: bloatings of the stomack, entrails, bowels and of the mother. The Chinese might say that the fruits, taken as a tea, remove wind. In western medicine, we refer to flatulence or gas. Further, Dodoens goes on to say that agnus-castus is a good liver remedy, and especially is good for "womens natural sickenesse, to be taken by itselfe, or with pennyriall--as a tea, or as a suppository." Women were also directed to sit in a tea of the fruits, for menstrual difficulties. Externally, a fomentation or ointment of the fruits or leaves were used to cure bites or swellings.

Agnus-castus was mentioned many times in the Bible, and was commonly seen growing on the banks of waterways throughout Egypt and Greece. Its natural range includes Italy and other parts of North Africa and southern Europe to parts of Asia, including Pakistan. The seeds, leaves, bark and roots of a close relative, Vitex negundo, are used in east Indian medicine for similar purposes. It is one of the most important Auyervedic remedies.

In England, where it is a popular remedy, and in the United States, it is a common garden plant, and can be purchased in many nurseries. It's bright purple, rose or white spires of flowers bloom late in the summer when few other plants have their flowers, and so make a good addition to any garden. They are easy to propagate, from seed or cuttings, and will stand a freeze.

Because of the intact herbal culture in Germany and other parts of Europe, agnus-castus has not lost its popularity, in fact it remains probably the most commonly used herb for regulating hormones and relieving menstrual difficulties and are the best herb for ailments such as fibroid cysts of the uterus and endometriosis. A tremendous amount of excellent scientific research is being carried on in many European countries, determining what the active constituents and pharmacological activity of these herbs are.

Agnus-castus has been especially studied in Germany. Because of this, little of this new work, showing how the herb works on the hormones has been available, until now. The following pharmacology and clinical applications are drawn from German texts and journals, and include the author's personal experience with agnus-castus.

It is the seeds that are mainly used for medicine in European, and in this country. Consequently, most of the chemical and pharmacological testing has been done on them. To date, essential oils, several flavonoids and other glycosides (agnuside, aucubin, luteolin, casticin and isoorientin) have been isolated from the seeds.

According to the many pharmacological tests that have been done--mostly with animals, but also with humans, Vitex works mainly through the pituitary gland. This is the master gland, regulating all the other glands of the body, including the sexual hormones. This may be why Vitex is able to help with so many different ailments due to hormonal imbalance--it starts at the top, and perhaps helps all the different glands to work more efficiently together. It is also known that Vitex can decrease the estrogen to gestagen (progesterone effect) balance in the body. The practical applications of this seems to be a beneficial effect in PMS, often due to excess estrogen, and perhaps an increased fertility, when there is an imbalance of these hormones. For this reason, this may be good news for many people who cannot conceive.

One of the best-known European extracts of Vitex is from the Madaus company, called Agnolyt. This preparation remains the best-studied of the Vitex preparations. This liquid extract has shown a stimulation and balancing of progesterone, an effect on the cervix and vagina, and a galactagogue effect (stimulates milk production). In one double-blind test with 100 women, the Vitex group had higher milk production, and easier secretion (Bautze).

One illustration shows agnolyt decreasing FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) production and increasing LH (lutenizing hormone), two important female sexual hormones. Although the tests that have been done on Vitex demonstrate a clear hormonal activity, more work needs to be done to clarify all of the effects and the way they produce these effects in the body. This information may lead to better ways to extract the herb, and new ways to use it.

Personally, I have had clinical experience with this herb, and can add my own recommendation, although anecdotal, to those of other herbalists both past and present. I have seen excellent results with Vitex for many of the symptoms of PMS, including depression, low energy, cramps and excessive bleeding. Two people, that I know of, taking therapeutic quantities of Vitex have gotten rid of uterine fibroids. One in a most dramatic fashion, by expelling it as a bloody mass. After this incident, the woman had much improved overall menstrual cycles, with less bleeding, cramping, pain and mental and emotional problems. This does not mean that Vitex will work for everybody under all circumstances, but it is certainly worth a try. The fruits are not known to be toxic, and will likely have much less of a chance to create future imbalances and disease than with powerful synthetic hormones.

To summarize, Vitex agnus-castus, or chaste-tree is the small pepper-like fruits of a mediterranean shrub, and can be used as a powder, powdered extract, tea, or especially as a tincture, for many ailments resulting from hormonal imbalances. The two most important areas of application may be as a galactagogue, to stimulate mother's milk, and as a remedy in PMS, other menstrual disorders and fibroid cysts of the uterus. For milk stimulation, and for speeding the healing of the uterus after childbirth, take Vitex, starting on the first day of confinement, and continue for up to two months, if necessary. The dose of the liquid is 40 drops a day, to twice a day. Vitex can be taken in moderate doses (40 drops 2-3 X/day) for easing certain symptoms of both puberty and menopause. Good results have been reported for boys in early puberty for acne. Additionally, the herb preparation may help moderate some of the excess desire, if it is a problem--it has been known to. Though this is an ancient application for Vitex, modern science has not yet demonstrated an anaphrodisiacal activity.

In fact, Vitex does have an application for men, besides the one mentioned above. For prostate hypertrophy (enlargement of the prostate gland), take a strong dose of Vitex (40 drops, 3 X/day).

For menopausal virilization, the growth of hair and lowering of the voice in women after menopause, take Vitex in a moderate dose, as indicated above. Finally, results have been seen for menstrual water retention and for starting the menstrual flow, after it has been absent, even for some time.

Vitex takes time to work, and should be taken for at least a month. Most authorities and researchers recommend a 4-month course, up to a 6 or even 8-month course. As always, start taking an herb in a low dose, and slowly increase to the full dose, over a week. This prevents the body from being too disturbed by any changes that the herb might be stimulating, and checks for individual sensitivities. Also, take a break of a day or two after 10 days of taking an herbal preparation. This gives the body a rest, and is a program that can be repeated many times--this seems to work well.

REFERENCES
Levey, M. 1966. The Medical Formulary or Aqrabadhin of Al-Kindi (800-870 A.D.). Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Jones, W.H.S. 1980. Pliny--Natural History (23-79 A.D.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Dodoens, R. 1586. A New Herball, or Historie of Plants. London: Ninian Newton.

Council of Industrial and Scientific Research (CSIR). 1955-1987. The Wealth of India, 11 vol.'s. New Delhi: Publications & Information Directorate.

Bautze, H.J. 1953. Medizinische, p. 189.
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 About The Author
Christopher Hobbs LAc, AHG Christopher Hobbs is a fourth generation herbalist and botanist with over 30 years experience with herbs. Founder of Native Herb Custom Extracts (now Rainbow Light Custom Extracts) and the Institute for Natural Products......more
 
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