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Nutrient - Agnus Castus

(Vitex agnus castus)

By Jenny Bodenham BA (Hons) Dip.ION, MBANT

It is estimated that over 70% of women experience mild to moderate symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) during their lives, whilst a further 10% may suffer more extreme symptoms. If you are enduring this monthly misery, do not despair! Help is at hand in the form of a herb used for these female problems since ancient times – namely, Agnus Castus.

Referred to by Homer in the Illiad, and prescribed by Hippocrates, Agnus castus, which was called agnos in Ancient Greece, is now known by various names including Vitex, Monk’s Pepper and Chasteberry. One explanation for this last name derives from Roman times, when it is believed that wives whose husbands were away at war used to scatter aromatic Agnus castus leaves in their homes to reduce sexual desire!

Agnus castus grows naturally in the Mediterranean region, producing fragrant foliage and lavender-coloured flowers in summer that are very attractive to bees and butterflies, but it is the fruit and seed that contain the active constituents that have been used for its effects as a female remedy.  The berries contain essential oils, iridoid glycosides, flavonoids, and diterpenes. Agnus castus berries also contain several essential fatty acids, including oleic acid, linoleic acid, palmitic acid and stearic acid. 

PMS appears to be a multifactorial imbalance with diet, lifestyle and general health all playing a role. It is believed that symptoms may also reflect fluctuating hormones in the second half of the menstrual cycle. PMS symptoms occur during the 14 days following ovulation and disappear as soon as menstruation begins. Sufferers may experience physical, emotional or behavioural symptoms ranging from irritability, tearfulness, anxiety, and fatigue to food cravings, bloating, breast tenderness and fluid retention.

Considered to be very effective, Agnus castus has been the subject of extensive studies and has been shown to be beneficial in relieving symptoms of premenstrual syndrome such as bloating, menstrual cramps, breast tenderness and mood swings.

It has been found that some PMS sufferers have raised levels of the hormone prolactin which is secreted by the pituitary gland. The excess prolactin can disturb the balance of other hormones and is thought to result in lowered progesterone levels. Research work carried out on Agnus castus in Germany during the 1940s and 1950s indicated an effect on pituitary hormone activity. It is speculated that the action of Agnus castus in balancing the function of the pituitary gland, reduces prolactin levels and so normalises the oestrogen-progesterone ratio. Research also shows that Agnus castus seems to affect neurotransmitters in the brain such as dopamine and possibly acetylcholine as well as opioid receptors.  Generally well tolerated, Agnus castus may provide the answer to the monthly misery that you’ve been searching for! 

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