Cycle Support: How Chaste Tree Promotes Reproductive Health
If you’re looking for support for your monthly hormonal cycle, your new best friend might be the herb, Chaste Tree. Also known as Vitex agnus-castus or just Vitex, Chaste Tree is one of the most important herbs to enhance reproductive health and regulate the menstrual cycle. It helps normalize a wide range of menstrual and reproductive issues from Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) and irregular cycles to infertility and perimenopausal symptoms, which we’ll discuss below.
First, to understand how and why Chaste Tree works, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of the menstrual cycle and the hormones responsible. This explanation is simplified but should give you enough information to understand how Chaste Tree helps normalize menstrual irregularities and enhance reproductive health.
Understanding Your Monthly Cycle
The monthly hormonal cycle starts in the brain. A small part of the brain known as the hypothalamus is constantly sending messages to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland responds to these messages by sending Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) to the ovaries. FSH tells the ovaries to begin creating a follicle near the surface that will enable an egg (or ovum) to develop to maturity. The follicle is home for the maturing egg and secretes the hormone estrogen. Rising levels of estrogen cause thickening of the lining of the uterus. Eventually, the follicle bursts releasing the egg to travel down the fallopian tubes toward the uterus.
All the activity up to this point in the cycle is referred to as the follicular phase. After the follicle bursts, it forms what is known as the corpus lutem. The corpus lutem then begins to secrete the hormone progesterone. Rising progesterone levels help maintain the thickening walls of the uterus and would eventually help establish a pregnancy should one occur. If the mature egg encounters sperm and is fertilized, an embryo is formed. The embryo then implants into the thickened wall of the uterus. If the egg is not fertilized, progesterone and estrogen levels decrease, and the wall of the uterus begins to shed. This is menstruation. The activities from the formation of the corpus lutem to menstruation are known as the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle.
As we age, fertility declines and there are fewer eggs available to ripen to maturity. In some months, no egg matures, the corpus lutem never forms and progesterone levels begin to drop as a result. This is common in perimenopause and often results in estrogen levels that are high in relation to progesterone. This is described as estrogen dominance. Eventually, with fewer ripening eggs, estrogen begins to decline, too. The lining of the uterus does not thicken, and menstruation comes to an end. Twelve months after the last episode of menstruation is considered menopause. After that, a person is considered post-menopausal.
Tracking your monthly cycle is an important way to attune to your body and its needs. It will also help you track changes, whether positive or negative. Consider using a calendar or smart phone app to record your cycle. Day 1 is the first day of menstruation. In a regular cycle, ovulation typically occurs around Day 14, though it can vary from month to month and from person to person. Some people may experience minor discomfort when they ovulate. If pregnancy has not occurred, menstruation typically begins around Day 28.
This exquisite dance of hormones can easily be thrown out of balance. Our hormonal cycles are influenced by the moon and tides, who we live and work with, culture, diet, stress, exercise, weight, emotions, family history, and genetic predisposition. Restoring balance requires a holistic approach that takes all the relevant factors in to consideration. Chaste Tree may be one of the most important herbs for reproductive health, but like all herbal remedies, it is best used in a holistic context.
Chaste Tree and Reproductive Health
Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus) is a large shrub or small deciduous tree native to the Mediterranean region and parts of Asia. The tree bears beautiful columns of purple-blue flowers that produce the spicy berries used to regulate the hormonal cycle. The tree is often planted as an ornamental in warm regions throughout the world and is much loved by bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Chaste Tree berry is considered warming and drying. It’s flavor is bitter, pungent and somewhat astringent. The berries can be prepared as tea, taken as a liquid extract (aka a tincture), or in capsules. For a tea, steep 1-2 teaspoons in a cup of boiled water for 20-30 minutes and drink 2-3 cups per day. The tincture will yield a more complete profile of the active ingredients. For the tincture take ½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) 2 -3 times per day. Chaste Tree takes time to work. If you decide to use Chaste Tree, commit to a minimum of three months and expect to see optimal results at about six months.
Chaste Tree’s ability to balance menstrual cycle irregularities is indirect but profound. It appears to act on dopamine receptors in the brain through the hypothalamus and in the pituitary gland to inhibit follicle stimulating hormone and promote luteinizing hormone. The overall effect is a shift in the ratio of estrogen to progesterone, in favor of progesterone. This “progesterone-like” effect is beneficial for the full scope of menstrual disorders and life cycle changes. Chaste Tree also appears to inhibit a pituitary hormone called prolactin. One of the most important roles for prolactin is supporting milk production in breastfeeding. However, prolactin levels can become elevated in people who are not breastfeeding. Elevated prolactin can inhibit ovulation leading to infrequent or irregular cycles, low progesterone, a uterine lining that cannot support an embryo, and infertility. Elevated prolactin levels are also implicated in PMS.
Though it may seem paradoxical, Chaste Tree has long been used to promote breast milk and its effects as a galactgogue have been scientifically validated. Like many of our plant allies, Chaste Tree appears to have a normalizing or amphoteric effect, lowering prolactin levels that are abnormally high and supporting prolactin levels associated with normal lactation. So, yes, Chaste Tree is safe during breast feeding and is even beneficial.
Chaste Tree works well on its own, but also combines well with other herbs that help balance hormones, regulate liver function, and tone the reproductive organs. For other herbs that support hormonal balance visit this blog, Three Herbs to Unleash Feminine Power. A holistic approach may also include diet and lifestyle changes.
Chaste Tree for PMS & Menstrual Irregularity
During the reproductive years, Chaste Tree can help relieve the varied emotional and physical symptoms of PMS. These symptoms can range from mood swings with anxiety, irritability and anger, to bloating, breast tenderness, food cravings, headaches and low back pain. Several studies have shown Chaste Tree to be especially effective in relieving PMS accompanied by breast tenderness, as well as fibrocystic breast disease, which may be an indication of elevated prolactin levels. Irregular cycles, both infrequent and too frequent can benefit from Chaste Tree, whether caused by elevated prolactin levels and the lack of ovulation or inadequate progesterone leading to frequent menstruation. Chaste Tree can also help reduce excessive menstrual bleeding, which can be related to excess estrogen and excessive thickening of the uterine lining. Chaste Tree has also been used in conjunction with other herbs for endometriosis, a common but complex condition that is often difficult to treat. It’s effect on endometriosis may be due to its ability to reduce the estrogen available to stimulate endometrial tissue.
Chaste Tree for Infertility
Many of these menstrual irregularities can also lead to infertility, including elevated prolactin levels that inhibit ovulation. In one study, the use of a Chaste Tree extract significantly reduced prolactin levels, and normalized progesterone and luteal phase deficits that cause irregular cycles leading to infertility. While Chaste Tree is not recommended during pregnancy, Dr. Tori Hudson, ND advises that there is no need for worry for someone who becomes pregnant while taking Chaste Tree in the first trimester.
Chaste Tree for Perimenopause and Estrogen Dominance
During the approach to menopause when progesterone levels begin to decline, Chaste Tree can be especially helpful in easing the symptoms caused by estrogen dominance. These symptoms can include reduced libido, mood swings, including irritability and depression, irregular or abnormal menstruation, bloating, fatigue, insomnia and mental fog. Keep in mind that though menopause results in estrogen deficiency, progesterone deficiency normally occurs first. Some people can suffer from estrogen dominance for 10 – 15 years before menopause. Before looking for ways to increase estrogen levels, if you are approaching menopause and experiencing mood swings, irritability, or menstrual irregularities, it may be the result of decreased progesterone.
Have you had success with Chaste Tree or other herbs or other strategies for menstrual irregularities? Share your insights in the comments. I’d love to hear your story and I’m sure other readers would too. And, if you have questions about Chaste Tree or other herbs for hormone balancing or reproductive health you are welcome to ask a question in the comments section below.
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