Herbs have been used for centuries in the treatment of health conditions. More women are interested in using them to treat infertility, defined as the inability to conceive within a year of unprotected intercourse. One herb that fertility experts are often asked about is vitex.
Vitex agnus-castus, or vitex, is also known as chasteberry. It's an herb used for female reproductive conditions such as premenstrual syndrome, menopause symptoms, and to stimulate breast milk in new mothers. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or NCCAM, says studies thus far are inconclusive on vitex's effectiveness in treating infertility.
Think of your fertility -- that is, your ability to conceive and carry a pregnancy to full-term -- on a gradual scale. It's not a trait that's either on or off. At one end is the ability to get pregnant very easily, while at the other end is complete sterility. Infertility lies toward that latter extreme. There are numerous conditions that cause infertility, and some can be quite complicated to treat. Ovulation disorders, a very common cause of female infertility, are often the result of hormonal imbalances. While very treatable, the complexity of the female endocrine system calls for expert finesse to accurately diagnose problems and to treat conditions safely and effectively.
How Vitex May Work
Breea Johnson, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., nutritionist, says vitex has been found to enhance the activity of dopamine, which can inhibit excessive prolactin secretion. Prolactin can inhibit both follicle stimulating hormone, or FSH, and GnRH -- gonadotrophin releasing hormone -- which may interfere with ovulation and menstruation. Johnson says she sometimes recommends vitex for women with low progesterone for support throughout their luteal phase.
How to Take Vitex
Specifics on how much vitex to take and when to take it during your cycle are best prescribed by a practitioner who can evaluate your situation. Generally, "Naturopathy Digest" reports that the German Commission E -- a governmental regulatory agency that may be compared to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration -- recommends 40 mg dried vitex fruit daily, or 40 droplets concentrated extract in a glass of water in the morning.
Use With Caution
The NCCAM concurs that chasteberry may affect hormone levels, so it states that women who are pregnant, using oral contraceptives, or with hormone-sensitive conditions like breast cancer must not take vitex. Also, due to possible effects on your brain's dopamine, anyone taking related medications should avoid the herb. No serious side effects are listed, but more mild ones such as gastrointestinal upset, rash, and dizziness have been noted.
Not For Everyone
Breea Johnson says she won't recommend herbal treatments in general to women who are using other prescribed fertility medications. And, she also does not believe women who are not using fertility drugs can necessarily benefit from vitex. "It really depends on their hormone levels, their menstrual cycle, and their current state of health," Johnson remarks as she describes the importance of individualized fertility treatment.
- National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Chasteberry
- Breea Johnson, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.; Nutritionist, Pulling Down the Moon; Chicago
- Naturopathy Digest: Vitex (man jing zi)
Since 1997, Tracy Morris has written about fertility and medical topics for magazines such as "Achieving Families," "ePregnancy," "Nurses Lounge" and internet communities like MomsOnline. She has written for the clinics IntegraMed America, Shady Grove Fertility and RSC Bay Area. Morris has a Bachelor of Arts in human development/family studies from University of Houston and is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.