Although chaste tree has been used since ancient times for menstrual complaints, European doctors first began prescribing it in the 1950s. Today, it has become the most commonly recommended herb in Europe to treat the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
What it is?
Also called Vitex agnus castus, the chaste tree is actually a small shrub with violet flower spikes and long, slender leaves. It's native to the Mediterranean region but grows in subtropical climates throughout the world. Its red berries are harvested in autumn and then dried. They resemble peppercorns in shape, and the taste they impart to a therapeutic cup of tea is distinctly peppery.
What it does?
The use of chaste tree for 'female complaints' dates back to the time of Hippocrates. Although the herb does not itself contain hormones or hormone-like substances, it does spark the pituitary gland (located at the base of the brain) to send a signal to the ovaries to increase production of the female hormone progesterone. Chaste tree also inhibits the excessive production of prolactin, a hormone that primarily regulates breast-milk production but also has other less well understood actions.
Some scientists believe that women who routinely suffer from PMS produce too little progesterone in the last two weeks of their menstrual cycle. This deficiency causes an imbalance in the body's natural oestrogen-progesterone ratio. Chaste tree helps to restore hormonal equilibrium, relieving such PMS-related complaints as irritability, bloating and depression. Studies in Germany indicate that the herb offers at least some relief for PMS symptoms in about 90% of women – and in one-third of them, the symptoms disappear. Chaste tree's prolactin-lowering action helps to reduce the breast pain and tenderness that some women experience before to menstruation, even if they have no other premenstrual symptoms.
Because high levels of prolactin and low levels of progesterone in the body can reduce fertility, chaste tree may be useful for women who are having trouble getting pregnant. The herb works best in women with mild or moderately low progesterone levels. When too much prolactin causes menstruation to stop (a condition called amenorrhoea), the herb can help to restore a normal monthly cycle.
Menopausal hot flushes are also the result of hormonal changes controlled by the pituitary gland, so women going through menopause may want to try chaste tree. Used either alone or in combination with other herbs such as dong quai or black cohosh, it can alleviate the periodic flushing or sweating that commonly occurs. Chaste tree is sometimes also recommended for menstrual-related acne.
- Dried herb/tea.
- Chaste tree affects hormone production, so it should not be used by women taking hormonal medications, including birth control pills and oestrogen, or by those who are pregnant.
- Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
Whether you are using chaste tree to treat PMS, breast tenderness, infertility, amenorrhoea, or other menstrual disorders, the does is the same. In tincture form, add 1/2 teaspoon twice a day to a glass of water. The equivalent dose for the powdered extract in tablet or capsule form is 225 mg, standardized to contain 0/5% agnoside (an active component in chaste tree). For menopausal hot flushes, take this same dosage (40 drops/225 mg) twice a day.
Guidelines for use:
Take chaste tree on an empty stomach to increase absorption, your first dose should always be taken in the morning. Even after just 10 days, a woman with PMS symptoms will probably notice at least some improvement during her next menstrual cycle. However, it may take three months of use to get the full benefits of this herb. Six months of treatment with chaste tree may be necessary to correct infertility or amenorrhoea.
Possible side effects
Most people will not have any adverse side effects from taking chaste tree, but studies have shown that stomach irritation or an itchy rash can occur in a small percentage of women. Stop using it if you develop any rash. In addition, some women may experience an increased menstrual flow after taking this herb.
Facts and Tips
- It may be difficult for you to take chaste tree tincture on an empty stomach, because the alcohol base of the solution can cause stomach irritation. Try dividing the dose and taking half before breakfast and the other half before lunch. Or switch to capsules or tablets.
- Women who are having trouble breast-feeding may want to try chaste tree, because it can increase milk production. Take 225 mg of chaste tree twice a day for as long as necessary. The herb doesn't change the composition of breast milk and thus appears safe to use.
Did you know?
Chaste tree is so named because it was believed to suppress the libido. In the Middle Ages, monks chewed on the dried berries to help them keep their vows of celibacy. (The herb is sometimes called monk's pepper.) But in the amounts now recommended for treating PMS or other menstrual problems, chaste tree does not seem to dampen sexual desire.