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| What is it?
In herbal medicine we use the berries of Vitex; a small, long-lived shrub with densely packed branches that produce whorls of violet flowers followed by the fruits, which are then dried and used in medicine.
How has it been used?
Vitex has a rich and colourful history in herbal medicine and is no less a subject of interest and widespread use today. The old names Monk’s Pepper and Chasteberry instantly give you some appreciate of at least part of how it was understood to work. The Monks of the middle ages would liberally use ground Vitex as a pepper on their food (it has a distinct but not unpleasant peppery taste) they were using it partly for the taste but mostly because it significantly decreased their sexual urges!
Vitex is nearly always used for women today though it can be very helpful to men with cystic acne or as a novel treatment for insomnia. Numerous clinical studies (mostly in Germany) have shown that is has complex, notable and reproducible hormonal actions, I will not attempt to describe these hormonal effects in detail here but for practical purposes will simply say that this is a herb that, when taken correctly, definitely causes hormonal balances to change.
When it is the right herb for the right woman, Vitex can be remarkable at helping with pre-menstrual tension, reducing the risk of miscarriage, improving fertility, improving the production of breast milk, helping with menopausal symptoms, helping with severe and cystic acne, helping withdraw from the contraceptive pill, reducing mid-cycle bleeding and helping to re-establish a healthy cycle in general.
You can see from the above short list of what it can do why Vitex has become so hugely popular with women around the world. But, sadly it is not so simple, there are also women for whom taking Vitex makes them worse, not better -- there is an art to using it wisely!
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Science on Vitex
~ 93% of 1634 patients with PMS reported a decrease in, or cessation of, symptoms of PMS from using Vitex extracts over a period of three menstrual cycles (Loch EG, Selle H, Boblitz N: J Women's Health Gend Based Med 9(3):315-320,2000)
~ Observation by 153 gynaecologists of 551 patients with symptoms of cyclic disorders or PMS using Vitex over several menstrual cycles showed that over 80% were relieved of symptoms or stated that their condition had improved (Peters-Welte C, Albrecht M. TW Gynakol 1994;7(1):49-52)
~ Vitex extract improved PMS symptoms of irritability, mood alteration, anger, headache, breast fullness and bloating in a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial (Schellenberg R: BMJ 322:134-137,2001)
~ A favourable action of milk production in nursing mothers was observed in an early controlled study using a low dose (40mg daily) of Vitex. Milk production was approximately three times higher in the group using Vitex compared to the control group after 20 days of treatment (Mohr W. Hippokrates 1957;28:586-591)
~ A controlled trial of 161 male and female patients with acne for at least 3 months using Vitex extract resulted in an improvement in 70% of cases. The mechanism for this action is not clear but is thought to be due to a mild anti-androgen effect (Giss G. Rothenburg W. Z Haut Geschlechtskr 1968;43(15):645-647)
~ Vitex has been particularly indicated for patients with a deficient corpus luteum function. In two studies women who had pathologically low levels of progesterone at day 20 of their cycle were shown to have normalised in 39 out of 45 cases after three months of treatment with a daily low dose of Vitex (36mg). 7 women became pregnant, 25 had normal progesterone levels at day 20 and another 7 women were tending back towards normal levels (Propping D, Karzorke T, Belkien L. Therapiewoche 1988;38(41):2992-3001)
Safety of Vitex
Generally Vitex is a very safe herb but there are some precautions to its safe use. It may help women who get painful periods and symptoms of the premenstrual syndrome but it might make things worse for a woman who gets a painful period but does not get PMS.
Vitex is thought to be beneficial in low doses during breastfeeding and will likely aid milk production but, at least in theory, this might turn the other way with higher doses so it needs to be used moderately at this time. Vitex is certainly considered safe in the early stages of pregnancy (myself and others believe it to help prevent miscarriage) but it is not advised to take it after the first trimester. As mentioned below, Vitex is not the right herb for everyone but it may take some time to be sure if it is right for you.
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Vitex has been a tremendously important herb in my work from the very beginning. I could not imagine practicing herbal medicine without it and it has been an absolute god-send to a great many women (and their partners!) in how often it has relieved PMS, hormonal swings, painful periods, bad acne and infertility.
I see Vitex as being a herb that can bring balance to many women with many different kinds of hormonally related symptoms and, whilst it certainly isn't the right herb for everyone, it almost always should be at least considered when a significant part of the problem is related to hormonal imbalance.
How to be sure Vitex is the right herb can be tricky. Sometimes you just have to try it and see but the perplexing aspect of this is that problems may temporarily worsen in the first month of using it. Many women do feel a relief from it from their very first cycle but it is also clear that for some women, when they first start using Vitex the next period is heavier than usual, or later than usual, or the PMS is different with some new symptoms or a different timing of the old ones. These are not to be taken as signs that it is the wrong herb and you really have to go through to the next cycle to see what happens because, in a great many cases in my own experience, the next period and the time leading up to it can be much better, often marvellously so!
That said there have also been times when that 2nd cycle gives us the red light to stop -- wrong herb! Having a profound respect for just how powerful this herb is to affect change in a woman's hormones I have developed the practice to listen to her body by giving a drop or two of Vitex on the tongue and feeling her pulse before, during and after (in effect you are listening to their 'heart') I would never pretend that this is a fail-safe method but there really is a kind of body 'intelligence' that talks back to you when you do this (in essence the pulse gets palpably stronger or weaker) and, at time of writing having done this many hundreds of times now, it has reduced the times I appear to have given it to the wrong person to pretty much zero; make of that what you will...
Dosage is always such a critical factor to get right in herbal medicine and in the case of Vitex we have clear research showing just what a difference a low or a high dose can make to the outcome. That said I cannot say that I have found any certain rules about this and in my own practice I use quite a range from very low to rather high! What I can say is that, aside from instinct and experience, the very best way to find out is to try and see. If I couldn't see someone in person to ask their 'body' about it I would suggest starting low, in most cases that will be around 15 or 20 drops of the tincture once a day -- and go from there...
Vitex seems to combine particularly well with Raspberry leaf for heavy bleeds and spotting, Cramp bark for painful or excessive periods and Licorice and Paeony root for premenstrual tension.
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Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Vitex is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person does less for another -- why is this?
The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are more hot or cool and at the same time more dry or damp; more info about this here.
There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Vitex can particularly offer its benefits when an activation is needed in the 'cycle of healing' - something that is discussed here and shown in a chart here.
Historical notes on Vitex from herbalist Christopher Hobbs
| The ancients valued Vitex highly for many health problems, Pliny, the great writer and compiler on natural history, said the seeds taste like wine when a drink is made of them, and were taken to reduce fevers and stimulate perspiration. The drink was used in similar ways common today in European herbalism: to promote menstruation, "to purge the uterus" and to promote the free flow of milk in new mothers.
According to Pliny, Vitex was highly revered as one of the most useful medicines of the times. Because of their hot nature, the seeds of Vitex were taken to dispel "wind" or flatulence from the bowels, to promote urine, check diarrhoea and greatly benefit dropsy and splenic diseases.
A tincture of fruits, or an herbal wine seem to be an effective way of taking Vitex, as the oldest and best-studied Vitex product is a liquid tincture.
Please understand that I cannot personally advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in my clinic but ideas
on how you might find a good herbalist in your area are here.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!
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