If you're a woman, your hormones are probably pretty darn important to you. And if you've ever experienced any kind of hormonal imbalance, you know how it can affect your day-to-day life.
Vitex is also known as chasteberry or monk's pepper. It grows in the Mediterranean region and other parts of the world, and it has a long history of use in traditional medicine.
Vitex supplements are now popular among women hoping to regulate their hormones naturally, especially women with hormonal imbalances including irregular periods, endometriosis, PMS and acne. Vitex can be used for both short term symptoms or long term hormone regulation. It's well known as an endocrine-supporting herb that has been used for hundreds of years to help women with a wide range of hormonal issues. Vitex works by supporting the hypothalamus and pituitary glands to promote a healthier balance through the release of luteinizing hormone (LH) in the body. This helps to regulate ovulation, support progesterone levels and balance estrogen levels.
What is Vitex?
Vitex, also known as Chasteberry or Monk’s pepper, is a flowering shrub native to the Mediterranean. It was used by monks to lower libido, but nowadays it’s used mostly by women to support hormone balance.
Research supports the use of vitex for a variety of women’s health concerns including PMS, PMDD, fertility, painful cramps, heavy bleeding, breast pain, hormonal migraines and headaches, mood swings, irregular cycles and other pain. Some women also report it helps with acne. Most often, these are issues which are caused by low progesterone levels relative to estrogen levels. These include:
- PMS (premenstrual syndrome) symptoms including cramping, headaches and breast tenderness
- Irregular periods including amenorrhea (lack of menstrual flow) and oligomenorrhea (light menstrual flow)
- Infertility due to luteal phase defect (shortened second half of the cycle)
Mechanism of Action
There are many reasons why someone would want to regulate their fertility, from the desire to conceive to a desire to prevent conception. Either way, it's important to be aware of how fertility works and how you can best support your body if you do want to conceive or maintain fertility.
Vitex works by regulating prolactin levels and supporting healthy hormone balance. It does this by binding to dopamine receptor sites, which stimulates the brain's release of dopamine; as dopamine reduces prolactin levels, Vitex helps increase fertility and reduce PMS symptoms such as period pain.
Prolactin is the hormone that allows you to produce milk when you're breastfeeding. When it's functioning normally, it helps ensure that you're able to provide for your baby's nutritional needs. However, when it's overproduced, it can prevent ovulation and lower your fertility. You need a certain minimum level of prolactin to be fertile, so when your prolactin levels are out of whack due to too much or too little production, this can disrupt your menstrual cycle and prevent ovulation from occurring. For example, breastfeeding women often have low-to-no periods due to high prolactin levels that suppress ovulation.
Men and women alike suffer when too much prolactin is produced in the body. And too much prolactin can lead to a number of issues.
Prolactin inhibits the production of a hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). Without GnRH, other hormones are thrown off balance: follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) are regulated by GnRH. These hormones in turn regulate progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone.
Most notably, when these reproductive hormones are out of whack, it can reduce progesterone – the pregnancy hormone! – which can make it more difficult to get pregnant.
It’s also said to reduce testosterone – this is likely why it was used to reduce libido in monks. Although testosterone is a male sex hormone it is produced in small amounts in women and is important to the growth, maintenance, and repair of a woman’s reproductive tissues, bone mass and emotional well-being.
Pregnancy and Vitex
Infertility is one of vitex's most well-supported applications. In 93 women with infertility, a randomised control trial conducted by Stanford University's Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology compared the use of Vitex and other supportive nutrients to placebo.
After three months, the women's progesterone levels increased when compared to those who received a placebo. Thirteen of the 53 women taking vitex became pregnant, whereas none of the women in the placebo group did.
Miscarriage and Vitex
By increasing progesterone, it not only promotes pregnancy but also helps to prevent miscarriage. Progesterone is required for a healthy pregnancy. It enables the fertilised egg, for example, to be implanted in the uterus.
Although it will not help with other causes of miscarriage, such as a fall or uterine scarring, it can help in many cases of miscarriage caused by hormonal imbalance.
When not to use Vitex
Depression and PMDD
If you have a history of depression, you should avoid taking Vitex. When women take vitex, they may experience PMS-related depression just before their cycle. This could be due to the effects of higher progesterone levels. Progesterone and estrogen are like a scale; when one is high, the other is low, and vice versa.
The ideal situation is for them to be in balance. When progesterone levels rise, estrogen levels fall. Depression symptoms can occur during PMS when estrogen levels are low and progesterone levels are high.
Some sources attribute its ability to alleviate menopausal symptoms, but this is a less common application. Menopause symptoms are often improved by estrogenic and serotonergic herbs such as black cohosh.
However, because vitex benefits promote hormone balance and contains estrogenic compounds, it may provide some relief from menopausal symptoms. Some menopausal women may benefit from an increase in dopamine and, as a result, progesterone.
Benefits of a healthy lifestyle
If the cause of your hormone imbalance has not been remedied then there is a chance your hormone imbalance could return once you stop taking vitex. For example, stress can throw many hormones out of balance as stress uses up many of the nutrients we need to make neurochemicals. B6, zinc, copper, tyrosine and iron are all needed to make dopamine. Stress and poor diet can deplete these nutrients and lead to a dopamine deficiency.
Which, after reading the above information, you’ll appreciate that can have huge consequences on your hormones not to mention many other bodily functions. To take added care of yourself during periods when stress is high we suggest supplementing with a good multivitamin and mineral supplement as well as increasing your intake of wholefoods (such as fruit and vegetables).
If you feel like your life is quite stressful or that you don’t cope with stress well I would suggest seeking professional help in order to learn how to better manage it.
To take added care of yourself during periods when stress is high we suggest supplementing with a good multivitamin and mineral supplement as well as increasing your intake of wholefoods (such as fruit and vegetables).
Best way to take Vitex
To see the full effects of vitex, you should take it for at least 3-6 months. Some herbalists recommend taking vitex cyclically, beginning with ovulation and continuing until your menstrual cycle begins.
During the first half of your cycle, take more estrogenic or serotonergic herbs like black cohosh. For improved hormone balance, this strategy mimics the natural fluctuations of these two hormones in the body.
Before beginning any herbs, we always recommend consulting with a professional herbalist, naturopathic doctor, or another trained medical professional, especially if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant.
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