This great guest post was written by Dr. Serena Goldstein, a naturopathic doctor specializing in natural hormone balance! I encourage you to go check out her website!
In the early 1900’s, most diseases (e.g. syphilis, pneumonia, typhoid fever) could be eradicated by a single drug, versus present times where much of our high incidences of mortality resides in conditions that have taken decades to manifest with any combination of food, environment, lifestyle, and genetics. Hormonal concerns, for example, have multiple etiologies and risk factors that when not addressed can accumulate over the years, as painful periods can be an indication for a very symptomatic menopause. For those who decide to go the more natural way to mitigate symptoms and help balance hormones (best under guidance from a knowledgeable professional), a wonderful herb, Vitex Agnes Castus, has numerous mechanisms to help provide relief.
Vitex Agnes Castus (latin name), or Chastetree, native to Mediterranean Europe and Central Asia, has a long history of helping hormonal based concerns. It was used to decrease sexual desires in Medieval times, hence the name ‘chastetree’, or ‘monk’s pepper.’ Active ingredients are 2, ridoid glycosides-agnuside (0.6%) and aucubin (0.3%), flavonoids, and essential oils. It binds dopamine receptors in the anterior pituitary and decreases both the basal- and thyrotropin releasing hormone-stimulated secretion of prolactin (a hormone produced by pregnant women and post-partum women to develop mammary glands for breastfeeding). Further, a decrease in prolactin levels may inadvertently raise progesterone by inhibiting luteinizing hormone (LH) suppression (responsible for ovulation). Elevated prolactin levels, and decreased progesterone levels, are commonly found in women who suffer from symptoms related to premenstrual syndrome (PMS), especially in the second or third week (Wuttke, et. al, 2003). Chasteberry can also increase estrogen by acting like a phytoestrogen (like soy and flaxseed), a weaker version of our endogenous estrogen, but still, bind to our estrogen receptors.
Hormonal concerns don’t necessarily arrive as singular symptoms, as clinically many times I see painful menses and acne together, or menopausal symptoms like hot flashes and mood swings correlated to a long-standing history of long-standing birth control. Inadequate thyroid function, sleep problems, and high levels of stress are also common as part of their history, to varying degrees. However for men, low testosterone is common, but there are more appropriate herbs and therapies. Other symptoms related to hormonal imbalance, but not limited to, are infertility, early miscarriage, weight gain, anxiety, memory problems, migraines, excessive hair growth, fatigue, and food cravings.
Women have at least 4 hormones in flux at any given time, including LH and progesterone, and if she also experiences painful breasts before or during her period, she may have elevated prolactin. Further, ‘estrogen dominance’ is a common term associated with symptoms such as painful, heavy periods, shorter periods, mood swings, anxiety, and weight gain, and can make progesterone seem low even with a normal level. Stress, whether it’s emotional or physical, contributes to imbalance, as well as many hormone-disrupting ingredients found in beauty products, certain preservatives in foods, plastics, chemicals, and fragrances, tend to raise estrogen. Increasing progesterone helps offset estrogen’s deleterious effects when there’s too much. Interestingly, its effect to raise dopamine does not palliate women’s mood during PMS, rather, it’s more likely the rise of progesterone that supports GABA (a very calming neurotransmitter), which results ultimately in a proper balance of hormones (Yonkers, Shaughn O’Brien, Eriksson, 2008).
While vitex is an established wonderful herb to help alleviate many concerns, especially with its varying mechanisms of action, one should also take precaution that just because it’s natural, effects are not always benign. In the case of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, for example, vitex can have the ability to raise the already high LH level, which means she’s not ovulating and therefore not in her natural rhythm (a type of stress). Most dosages are at an equivalent of 120 mg per day, in either capsules or tincture (alcohol based preservation), and best taken at night. It should not be used in pregnant women, breastfeeding women, women undergoing in vitro fertilization or people with hormone sensitive cancers. It should also be cautioned with people who take dopamine antagonists or agonists (e.g. bromocriptine and metoclopramide) (Posadzki, Watson, & Ernst, 2013). Side effects can include headaches, upset stomach, menstrual disorders, acne, itching, and rash (Tesch, 2001).
Both a thorough understanding of the numerous ways a herb can affect someone, and the end goal, are important considerations. If foundations for good health are not in place, then the underlying mechanism as to WHY they may have developed their imbalance has not been addressed, and can potentially lead to other conditions later on. On the other hand, sometimes, for example, we live in the middle of a metropolis and need all the help we can get! As we as a society become more and more accepting of natural therapies, it’s imperative to not lose sight of the multiple reasons that contribute to disease and that much of it starts with healthy living.
Posadzki, P., Watson, L, & Ernst, E. (2013). Herb-drug interactions: an overview of systematic reviews. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. 75(3):603-618.
Tesch, B.J. (2001). Herbs commonly used by women: An evidence-based review. Clinical Journal of Women’s Health. 1:89-102.
Wuttke, W., Jarry, H., Christoffel, V., Spengler, B., & Seidlova-Wuttke, D. (2003). Chaste tree (vitex agnus-castus) – pharmacology and clinical indications. Phytomedicine. 10(4):348-357.
Yonkers, K., Shaughn O’Brien, P.M., Eriksson, E. (2008). Premenstrual syndrome. Lancet. 371(9619):1200-1210.