Vitex agnus castus: Chaste tree
by Paul Bergner
Medical Herbalism 2(5):1,6
Vitex Agnus-castus is an indispensable herb for the treatment of PMS, according to Dr. Roger Newman Turner, a leading physician of the complementary medicine movement in Great Britain. Speaking at a recent naturopathic medical convention about the methods he has found most useful in his thirty years of practice, Turner named two herbal medicines—echinacea and chaste-tree berry—which he could not do without in his daily practice. Vitex has come into wide use in the U.S. in the last few years, and now ranks on many herbalists’ “top ten” lists.
For such a consistently useful herb, it is poorly represented in herbal literature. It is not mentioned in such contemporary classics as Grieve’s Modern Herbal, Potter’s Encyclopedia, or The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia and was unknown in Eclectic medical practice from earlier in U.S. history. The most thorough information about it is in the German literature (Weiss; Madaus). Even if a recent generation of medical herbalists has overlooked it, vitex was held in high esteem in ancient times. It was mentioned in the writings of Hippocrates, Pliny, Dioscorides, and Galen (Madaus). The ancients considered the fruit warming and astringent, and used it for many of the same purposes that it is used today. They noted its anaphrodisiac, emmenagogue, and galactagogue properties, and also used it for enlarged spleen, and liver complaints. For some conditions, the ancients used the leaf or seed of the plant. Today chaste-tree preparations are made from the berries.
Useful for both male and female disorders.
Vitex is commonly known as Chaste-tree, and its fruit “monk’s pepper” for its reputed action of lessening the sexual desire. It is used today in menstrual disturbances, premenstrual complaints, menopausal complaints, infertility in women, and low breast milk production. It is used in either excessive bleeding or extra periods (Weiss), or lack of menstruation with uterine congestion (Madaus). It should be considered in any kind of symptoms with premenstrual aggravation, including acne, herpes, or other conditions (Weiss). Vitex has also been used in Germany for such male complaints as spermatorrhea, prostatitis, orchitis, and sexual neurasthenia (Madaus).
Its biochemical mechanism of action is supposed
to be through stimulating
the production of luteinizing hormone, and
inhibition of follicle stimulating
hormone, resulting in a higher progesterone
levels in the progesterone:estrogen
balance in women (Weiss). This same pathway will
directly lower testosterone
levels in males (Guyton), perhaps the cause of
the herb’s reputed anti-aphrodisiac
properties, and its effects in prostatitis.
Chaste-tree or aphrodisiac?
Vitex is reputed by different sources either to lower sexual desire or to raise it (Hoffmann; Madaus). Madaus clarifies the contradiction, pointing out that in large doses vitex depresses the sexual appetite, but in homeopathic doses raises the desire if it is already depressed. Thus the differences are not due to a mysterious or inconsistent action of the herb, but to homeopathic principles of treating like with like.
Sexual Desire in Women
At the recent Professional Herbalist’s Retreat in Oregon, one herbalist offered four cases in which women reported a lessening of sexual desire after taking vitex. Herbalist Michael Tierra writes that it was used in ancient Greece and Rome by temple priestesses to lessen sexual desire (Tierra). And finally, homeopathic literature says that it “lowers sexual vitality … (and) shows this distinctive influence in both sexes, but is more pronounced in men” (Boericke). This property, although considered beneficial to monks or ancient priestesses, might be considered a negative side effect by some patients. The only other side effect observed, even after long-term use, is occasional rash in allergic individuals.
The most important clinical point for vitex is that it must be taken for a long time (Weiss, Madaus). Weiss says to expect weeks to months for results. Various authors recommend tea or tincture, and the leading product in Germany (Agnolyt) is a water extract.
Vitex agnus castus
German monograph (Commission E.)
Iridoid glycosides (aucubin and agnoside); flavonoids, etheric oil, “fatty oil”, and bitter principles.
Forms of Administration
Alcoholic extract of the ground fruit. (A proprietary water extract “Agnolyt” is also mentioned)
Inhibits the release of follicle stimulating
hormone, stimulating the production
of luteinizing hormone and prolactin. This has a
beneficial influence on
problems of the menstrual cycle associated with
corpus luteum insufficiency.
In rare cases may cause an urticarial rash.
Interactions with other drugs.
None yet known.
Menstrual disturbances (with corpus luteum insufficiency).
Stimulate milk production.
Boericke, Wm., Materia Medica with Repertory. Jain Publishers. India.
Guyton, A.C. Textbook of Medical Physiology. 1986. WB Saunders.
Hoffmann, D. The Holistic Herbal 1983. Findhorn Press. Scotland.
Madaus, G. Lerbuch der Biologischen Heilmittel. 1976 Hildesheim, New York. Georg Olms Verlag.
Tierra, M. Planetary Herbology. 1988. Lotus Press. Santa Fe, NM.Weiss, R.F. Herbal Medicine. 1988 Beaconsfield Publishers, Beaconsfield, England.