Chasteberry

Can It Improve the Quality of Life for Women?

Most women suffer premenstrual syndrome (PMS) to some degree during their life. At times the quality of life that they enjoy can be negatively influenced by PMS symptoms. Up to 10 percent of women may experience complaints severe enough to interfere with normal functioning and coping with life.

PMS can express itself in many ways, including psychological symptoms such as mood changes, irritability, anxiety, anger, and depression. Physical symptoms may include physical and mental fatigue, headache, breast soreness, and abdominal bloating.

A variety of theories have been advanced to explain these monthly symptoms, including hormone changes and nutrient deficiencies. Cravings for chocolate and other sweets are not an uncommon phenomenon during this time.

Seeking Relief

Throughout history women have attempted various things to relieve the discomfort of PMS. Today many women are looking for relief without the side effects associated with the use of conventional medications. They are turning to nondrug treatments such as exercise programs and dietary and herbal supplements to find relief.

One of the herbal products gaining popularity is the aromatic fruit of the chaste tree, Vitex agnus castus, also known as chasteberry. The chaste tree is a small deciduous shrub belonging to the verbena family. It is native to the Mediterranean region and is now naturalized in much of the warm, humid southeastern United States.

The fruit of the chaste tree, which contains four seeds, appears as hard, black, round berries about a fifth of an inch in diameter. The fruit has an aromatic odor and an acrid, slightly peppery taste. Chasteberry has been used for about 2,500 years for the treatment of menstrual difficulties. The use of Vitex is referred to in the early writings of Hippocrates and Pliny.

How Chasteberry Works

Today women find that chasteberry is effective for premenstrual complaints, as well as for breast swelling and pain and to control irregularities of the menstrual cycle.

Chasteberry appears to inhibit prolactin secretion from the pituitary gland. Irregular menses and symptoms of PMS have been associated with elevated blood levels of prolactin. The active components of chasteberry that provide relief from PMS symptoms are thought to be the iridoid glycosides, aucubin and agnoside.

Clinical Trials

In a recent German study, an extract of chaste tree berries was found to be an effective and well-tolerated treatment for the relief of symptoms of PMS. The study investigated 170 women, with a mean age of 36 years, over the time period of three menstrual cycles. There were significant improvements observed in their irritability, moods, headaches, breast tenderness, bloating, and other symptoms.

In another study of 43 patients, a tablet containing a 20-millgram extract of chasteberry was given for three monthly cycles. There was a significant reduction in PMS-related symptoms, and these gradually returned after the treatment was stopped. The main response to the chasteberry treatment was symptomatic relief rather than a major reduction in the duration of the syndrome. The time that the patients sustained PMS symptoms on the treatment was reduced only slightly from 7.5 to 6 days.

In a multicenter trial involving 1,634 women that were given a chasteberry preparation, the women experienced a reduction in anxiety and depression, fluid retention, and food cravings. After three months 93 percent of the patients reported a decrease in the number of symptoms or even cessation of PMS complaints. More than 80 percent of the women assessed their status after the treatment as much better than before the treatment.

Safety

Generally there are no adverse side effects seen with the use of chasteberry. Rare cases of itching and rashes have been observed. However, chasteberry is not recommended for use by pregnant women or nursing mothers.

We have seen that chasteberry is a safe and effective herb for the treatment of PMS symptoms as well as for menstrual irregularities. Other herbs that have been usefully employed for the treatment of PMS include black cohosh and evening primrose oil.

Remember: Herbal products and dietary supplements can have pharmacological effects, may produce adverse reactions in some people, and could interact with over-the-counter and prescription medications you may take. Discuss with your physician your decision to use any herbal product. Anything mentioned in this article is not intended to diagnose, prescribe, or treat any ailment.

Winston J. Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is a professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.