Balancing your hormones can sometimes feel like spinning plates. Virtually every aspect of your life has a hormonal effect of some kind, and trying to keep track of it all can be daunting to say the least.
You want to get better.
You want to do it naturally.
You want to find the root cause of your issues and restore your feminine vitality….
But oh how you wish there was just one silver bullet, one pill, one quick-fix that would resolve your issues and give you a fresh start!
Vitex agnus-castus, also called Chaste Tree or Chaste Berry, is often touted as one of these “silver bullets.” I’d even go so far as to say that it is the #1 remedy I’m asked about on my website, in my programs and in my Facebook groups.
While I’ve had excellent feedback over the years from MANY women on the wonders of Vitex, I am not totally convinced that it is the right solution for everyone. This is based on my own experience with the herb and that of others. In fact, I’ve seen it do quite a bit of harm and have asked women to stop taking it on many occasions.
That’s why I am taking a closer look at this natural remedy to see if it lives up to the hype!
What is Vitex?
Vitex is a shrub that grows in the Mediterranean region. It was once called “monk’s pepper” because it was believed to lower libido, so chefs at monasteries used to grind it up as a replacement for pepper and serve it to the monks to help them stay true to their vows of chastity.
Only anecdotal evidence exists as to the effectiveness of this on men seeking to lower their sex drives, which is fine because they account for zero of you reading here today! 🙂
Monks aside, vitex has traditionally been used to help women normalize their menstrual cycles. In particular, it has been shown to increase progesterone during the second half of the cycle (which is the “silver bullet” that many women are looking for).
What is Vitex used for?
Everything and the kitchen sink it seems! Vitex has been used to lengthen a short luteal phase, improve corpus luteum formation, relieve PMS, regulate an irregular cycle, address infertility and even bring back a missing period.
How does Vitex work?
How does this 2,000 year old remedy do all those magical things, and is it right for you.
Numerous studies have shown that vitex does indeed raise progesterone levels, but Vitex itself contains no hormones so it’s not simply boosting progesterone levels by adding more to the body. Nor does it interact directly with the ovaries to stimulate them into producing more progesterone.
The connection between Vitex, Prolactin, Dopamine, Progesterone & Estrogen
Instead, vitex has an effect on the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis (a feedback loop) where it interacts with the anterior pituitary gland and reduces its secretion of prolactin.
FYI – Prolactin helps produce breast milk and prevents ovulation after a woman gives birth. So, if it’s levels go down, a woman is much more likely to ovulate.
This is because prolactin inhibits the development of the corpus luteum by blocking the release of luteinizing hormone (LH) during the luteal phase of the cycle. This is why it can sometimes take well over a year before a woman’s period returns after giving birth.
If she is still breastfeeding (particularly at night when most prolactin is produced) then her body will disrupt the development of a new corpus luteum thinking that the mother already has her hands full and doesn’t need another baby just yet!
Pretty cool how our bodies are always trying to look out for us, isn’t it?
Now, I know you might be saying, “That’s great Nicole, but I haven’t just given birth and I’m not breastfeeding, so what possible impact could prolactin have on me and my cycle?”
Potentially a huge impact!
Excess excretion of prolactin, known as hyperprolactinemia, is actually more common than people think. In fact, 40% of women who suffer from amenorrhea or hypothyroidism have hyperprolactinemia.
So what’s going on here? Why are our bodies excreting large amounts of a hormone responsible for milk production when there’s no baby to feed??
The answer lies with yet another hormone which is at the center of this discussion; Dopamine. We all know dopamine. It’s our favorite huggable lovable hormone which brings us so much pleasure. In addition to it making us feel great, dopamine inhibits the secretion of prolactin. The more dopamine we have in our system, the less prolactin. And if we are dopamine deficient, then our prolactin levels will rise (sometimes high enough to impair our fertility).
What lowers dopamine you ask?
Free radicals and inflammation people! I feel like a broken record because I use the word “inflammation” so much these days. I explain it here. Oh, and alcohol and drug addiction cause dopamine levels to drop too. Also, when your life lacks pleasure, dopamine goes down. Yup, if you’re not having any fun, then you best make time to incorporate play.
Bottom line: You have got to handle your stress (add in some fun) and take back control of your diet/lifestyle in order to fully address a hormonal imbalance, infertility, and period problems. I’ve got done-for-you solutions in my Fix Your Period programs. 🙂
Back to Vitex and how it can influence dopamine levels
Let’s do a little recap here: Low levels of dopamine lead to high levels of prolactin which in turn lead to reduced levels of LH and ultimately lowered progesterone. Say it again. Got it? 🙂
We know that vitex reduces prolactin levels and thus raises progesterone. The way it does this is by binding with dopamine-2 receptors causing a dopaminergic effect. Vitex basically pumps up the effects of your dopamine. Higher dopamine leads to lower prolactin, and potentially higher LH, which then raises your chance of ovulating and thus raises progesterone levels!
BUT, there’s more to the story…obviously it can’t be that easy! 😉
It is more complicated than just raising LH, which is why newer studies explain things a bit better.
As you know, Vitex acts on the brain. Newer research shows that it binds to certain opioid receptors in the brain, as well as the dopamine receptors I mentioned above.
This opioid system in the brain actually slows down the HPA axis, which reduces the production of stress hormones and the negative impact they have on the brain hormones that trigger our reproductive function – think LH, FSH and GnRH.
FYI – women with PCOS tend to have too much GnRH being produced in the brain in addition to too much LH. They also have problems with this opioid system in the brain.
Vitex‘s stimulation of the opioid system actually slows GnRH down. And this triggers more FSH to be produced, and less LH. More FSH grows a follicle, which then produces estrogen, and that estrogen signals the brain to produce LH (which will rise and trigger ovulation).
As you can see, it isn’t as simple as “vitex raises or lowers LH”! Hopefully this explains things a bit better for any of you who have PCOS and have found vitex to be helpful.
NOTE: I think we must always keep in mind that we’re not treating the study, we’re treating the individual so it’s important to go with what is working for you. I pretty much always defer to trained herbalists for these kinds of recommendations, and suggest you do too.
Now that we know what vitex does, we can return to our original question…
Is Vitex a good natural solution for women looking to boost their progesterone and lengthen their luteal phases?
My answer is yes…and no.
There is no doubt that vitex is a unique natural substance that has the ability to raise progesterone levels and help normalize a woman’s cycle amongst other things. But natural or not, vitex is still a form of medication that might help decrease your symptoms but will never address the underlying causes of the issues you’re facing, without simultaneously making changes to your diet and lifestyle.
(If you think you might be suffering from low progesterone you can take this at home Progesterone Test to confirm if your levels are off. Use code Hormones20 at checkout to get 20% off the test.)
If vitex works for you, this most likely means that you’re suffering from a dopamine deficiency and/or some other kind of hormonal imbalance. This should not be ignored in the long-run, even if the vitex helps in short-term.
Chronically low dopamine, in many cases, leads to depression and vitex has been shown to often make this worse. The reason for this is, progesterone is a calming hormone so when vitex causes progesterone levels to rise in people who are already depressed it can push them down to even deeper depths of despair.
This is especially true for women with PCOS, who are at greater risk for depression and anxiety .
Here’s a firsthand account from a client (if anything like this happens to you while taking Vitex, please discontinue it immediately):
I had heard miracles about vitex and had even prescribed it to several clients who had amazing results within 1-2 months of taking the herb. A naturopath recommended vitex, at no surprise to me, along with several other supplements (DIM, milk thistle and some B vitamins). I bought the tincture and started it, doing 3 weeks on/1 week off. My first cycle was horrendous. My PMS felt longer than ever and my period itself was not any better.
This continued for 3 months. Right after ovulation, I would start to feel depressed and lethargic and by the time I got to right before bleeding, I felt like the world was ending and I was an awful human/girlfriend/business woman etc in a way I never felt without it. It always made my cycle longer – and I was already at 30-32 days.
At first I attributed it to “adjusting” but by the end of three cycles, I had a hunch that this wasn’t right for me. I started reading about how it wasn’t for everyone with PCOS and the voice obviously grew stronger when it got validated. It was when my boyfriend eventually was like PLEASE GET OFF VITEX YOU ARE MISERABLE – that I finally thought, you know, he’s right this phase doesn’t feel like a transition and so I did. I instantly felt less depressed my next luteal phase.
Instead, my very first step for women with PCOS related to genetics, insulin sensitivity, obesity and/or diabetes is to regulate blood sugar levels with my Fix Your Blood Sugar Protocol.
Women love my straightforward approach that makes this seemingly huge problem very manageable!
Who should use Vitex and when?
I understand what it’s like to be a modern woman, spinning countless plates and trying to keep everything from crashing down. We just don’t have enough hands and arms or hours in the day to handle all the challenges that our fast paced lives throw at us. For this reason, I often recommend vitex to women who need a boost to get their menstrual health back on track.
Vitex works well for:
- PMS symptoms like breast pain and sensitivity, irritability, headaches, acne and bloating 
- Irregular periods – it can help regulate an irregular menstrual cycle.
- Amenorrhea, especially related to hyperprolactinemia – I don’t recommend it immediately after stopping hormonal birth control because you want to give your pituitary gland a chance to start communicating with your ovaries. If after six months your period still hasn’t returned, then you can try it.
- Raising progesterone, which can lengthen the luteal phase, help with mild endometriosis, help reduce heavy periods, and prevent miscarriage due to low levels of progesterone. 
As I said above, vitex may raise LH levels, which can be problematic for women with PCOS who already tend to have high levels of LH. If LH is high, then there is typically no LH surge, and thus no ovulation. So I don’t really recommend vitex for women with PCOS who have high LH levels in my practice. That is just my experience though. You should absolutely consult with a trained herbalist to figure out the best herbal treatment for you (which may include vitex!).
How to take Vitex
If possible, see a herbalist who can prescribe vitex based on the symptoms you are currently experiencing. If not, then I recommend taking vitex for 3-6 months. You should see an effect within that time frame, but if you don’t, then I recommend stopping it and moving onto another treatment option.
Vitex is most commonly found in tincture, capsules and loose herbs. It’s pretty bitter so capsules and tinctures are often best, and the dosage can be controlled better this way. Take it in the morning on an empty stomach. I recommend taking vitex throughout your cycle and stopping for the days you have your period.
My clients have had great results with Gaia Herbs Vitex Tincture and the Gaia Herbs Vitex Liquid Capsules, which are like a combination of the capsules and the tincture 😉 The standard recommended dose is 60 drops for the tincture which is equivalent to 500mg, and for the capsules it’s 500-1000mg a day.
Additional study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12809367