Women suffering from the all-too-common condition of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) look for solutions that will relieve the discomfort of the multiple symptoms of the disorder. One of the more recently recommended options being considered is the use of herbal supplements, which are a natural approach to bringing the symptoms under control. Clinical and laboratory studies have investigated Vitex and PCOS symptoms – with some promising results.
What are Vitex and PCOS?
Vitex agnus-castus (also called chaste tree or chasteberry) has been used for medicinal purposes in Europe for many years, possibly as far back as 400 B.C. In Germany, physicians prescribe Vitex for premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms more than any other medication. It has been used by generations of herbalists as a natural remedy for premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).
Only since the 1990s has it begun gaining usage in the United States.
Vitex is a fruit plant. Found growing naturally in the Middle East and Africa, the berries and leaves are used as a tonic for both female and male reproductive systems. Historically, it has been used to suppress libido for women whose husbands were away from home fighting wars and for men, especially men who were chaste by choice – as in those who choose the monastic life.
More recently, Vitex has been used to relieve symptoms of PMS and PMDD in women. It also has been used effectively to relieve abnormal uterine bleeding disorders. Some evidence suggests a usefulness in increasing female fertility and decreasing symptoms of menopause.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a fairly common endocrine disorder that occurs in as many as twenty percents of women. It can begin right after puberty and remain a problem for years. The cysts that give the condition its name result from ovulation that does not happen as it should. When a woman has PCOS, eggs do not mature in her ovaries and are not released when they should be during the menstrual cycle. Rather, they form cysts in the ovaries.
Women with this syndrome report a variety of symptoms including:
- Multiple cysts on the ovaries
- Either no menstrual cycle or irregular menses
- Lack of ovulation
- Infertility due to the lack of eggs
- Increased hair growth on the face
- Loss of hair on the head
- Increased acne
- Accumulation of fat around the waist
- The darkened skin on the neck, groin, breasts, or under armpits
Causes of PCOS
While the specific cause or causes of PCOS are not known yet, there are strong indications of contributing factors. One of the greatest is a genetic component. If another female in your family line had symptoms of this condition, you are at a greater risk of developing it also.
Overall, PCOS is caused by a hormonal imbalance. Hormones secreted by the pituitary gland, the ovaries, the pancreas, and the adrenal glands have all been linked to the symptoms of PCOS. One very important factor involved in PCOS is insulin resistance. Insulin resistance affects your body’s use of glucose and can lead to high blood sugar levels.
The hormonal imbalance seen in PCOS occurs in both phases of the menstrual cycle. In normal menstrual cycles, progesterone side effects and estrogen work in balance to prepare the ovaries for a release of mature eggs and the uterus for implantation of fertilized eggs. If the eggs are not fertilized, they are expelled from the body during menses.
However, the imbalance of hormones in PCOS interrupts this normal cycle. In the first phase of the menstrual cycle, increased luteinizing hormone (LH) and decreased follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) are present. This allows for increased production of androgens and increased levels of estrogen.
Stress and being overweight also add to the level of estrogen in the body. This leads to a state known as Estrogen Dominance, where the body has too much estrogen relative to progesterone. These conditions prevent maturation of the follicles that contain eggs and allow only some maturation. In the second phase of the cycle, these immature eggs are not expelled from the body and are not fertilized. Instead, they remain in the ovaries, thus setting the stage for cysts to form.
Adrenal Fatigue and Continued PCOS
The symptoms of PCOS are similar to those experienced by people going through Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). In both conditions, people experience lower sex drive, foggy thinking, decreased memory, hypoglycemia, and nervousness. Women also have an increase in PMS symptoms. In AFS, these symptoms are due to the adrenal glands becoming less able to secrete cortisol to fight the effects of stress on the body. Continuing and increasing stress is the culprit in AFS. Stress tends to make symptoms of PCOS worse. In both conditions, hormone imbalance is implicated as well. Insulin resistance is present in PCOS and becomes more prevalent as AFS worsens.
Women who experience PCOS also are at greater risk for infertility or subfertility. When the eggs produced in the ovaries don’t mature, they won’t be fertilized. In addition, there are times when eggs are released infrequently – making it less likely for these women to become pregnant.
Endometrial Cancer is another possible risk later in life for women with PCOS. The endometrial lining of the uterus isn’t completely shed during menses with these women. Over time, this build-up of the lining may lead to cancer growth.
Diabetes is another possible outcome of PCOS. The insulin resistance seen in this disorder may lead to Type 2 diabetes in time. Inflammation, the body’s natural response to any harmful stimuli, has also been implicated in the development of Type 2 diabetes. This inflammation is usually a result of injury or invasion by an internal substance. In the case of PCOS, this substance appears to be increased levels of insulin due to the insulin resistance was seen in the condition. In addition to diabetes, the inflammation may result in heart disease or obesity. These conditions are all seen in women with PCOS.
The increased testosterone that is a complication of PCOS may lead to an imbalance of “good” and “bad” cholesterol. Increased low-density lipoproteins (LDL or “bad” cholesterol) increase the risk of developing heart disease.
Offering Options: Vitex and PCOS
The major goals of remedies for PCOS are balancing hormone levels, decreasing insulin resistance, and keeping a good body weight. Typically, the first thought of physicians facing this disorder is to prescribe medications such as birth control pills and put patients on an appropriate diet. While the latter is an appropriate approach, any medications prescribed will have side effects, some of which are disagreeable. In addition, this treatment regimen does not address the underlying causes of PCOS.
The best practice for physicians in treating this disorder is to have a multisystemic or whole body view. All too often, however, treatment is symptom-based or single organ based and may not be as effective as needed. Adopting the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response viewpoint of the body’s response to this condition and many others is more comprehensive. This approach looks at multiple systems of the body that interact with one another. When symptoms occur in one system, for example, the metabolic system, all other systems are affected as well. So when hormones are out of balance, the metabolism is affected as well as the neuro-affective system. Thus the set of symptoms seen in PCOS and AFS are faced. A solution is also most effective when conducted from a multi-system perspective.
One of the most direct ways of reducing estrogen dominance (the underlying trigger of PCOS) is to reduce estrogen load. This can be done with natural progesterone. Unfortunately, not everyone can tolerate this. For those who cannot accept natural progesterone, Vitex and PCOS can be considered.
Vitex appears to work on the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus. These two structures are responsible for releasing and regulating hormones in the reproductive system. When Vitex is used in treating PCOS, it regulates the pituitary and promotes the balance of estrogen and progesterone. This hormone balance is necessary for promoting a healthy menstrual cycle and in improving ovulation. Women with PCOS typically have higher than normal levels of prolactin – a hormone that decreases fertility. Vitex has been shown to increase progesterone and decrease prolactin. Simplistically, vitex can be considered a “weak” progesterone.
Also when examining Vitex and PCOS, the role of this herb as an anti-inflammatory must be considered. Inflammation is one of the primary symptoms of PCOS.
Considering the imbalance of hormones in the role of Vitex and PCOS, its ability to help regulate hormonal imbalance comes into play. This factor will significantly reduce most of the symptoms of PCOS.
Vitex and PCOS Study Results
A large number of studies have been conducted examining Vitex and PCOS remedies. One such study was a literature review of laboratory and clinical trials involving Vitex and PCOS symptoms. Significant evidence was found for Vitex lowering prolactin, increasing the regularity of the menstrual cycle, and increasing fertility. Three of the studies cited showed improvement in the regularity of the menstrual cycle for Vitex and PCOS options. In this review, the quality of evidence was best for Vitex, Cimicifuga racemose, and Cinnamomum cassia.
Another double-blind study showed Vitex and PCOS recommendations to be more effective than placebo. Prolactin was reduced after three months, luteal phases of the menstrual cycle that were shortened prior to the application of Vitex and PCOS became normal, and progesterone was increased.
Another double-blind, placebo-controlled study showed serum prolactin levels reduced in patients treated with an extract of Vitex and PCOS.
A study of sixty-seven women with disorders of ovulation and menstrual cycle resulted in what was called a marked improvement in progesterone levels in the luteal phase of the cycle, increases in ovulation, and thirty-eight pregnancies.
A study of women with high prolactin levels was given Vitex. Results included lowered prolactin levels, normal luteal phase progesterone levels, and normal luteal phases in their menstrual cycles.
A study of women with amenorrhea treated with Vitex resulted in a restoration of hormonal balance and regularity of menstrual cycles.
A double-blind clinical study of women diagnosed with fertility problems showed more pregnancies in those treated with Vitex than in control groups.
Side Effects of Vitex and PCOS Remedy Options
Overall, Vitex has very few, if any, side effects when properly used. The key is dosage. It is one of the most gentle herbal medicines known. One review of the scientific literature regarding safety and side effects of Vitex and PCOS showed it to be safe and pose no health risks. Any side effects were said to be mild and similar to those found in other medicines like aspirin and vitamins. Uncommon side effects include upset stomach, nausea, rash, headaches, acne, and trouble sleeping.
Likewise, Vitex is generally considered safe to use for relatively long periods of time, up to 18 months. In fact, it is a relatively slow-acting herbal remedy, so it makes up to six months for the full effects to be seen. Benefits of using Vitex will increase as time goes by. Generally, a few months of use bring maximum benefits. Indeed, this may be a disadvantage of Vitex and PCOS.
Like most compounds, whether regular prescriptions or herbal remedies, Vitex has some contraindications. Due to its effects on hormones, use of Vitex during pregnancy or when breastfeeding is possibly unsafe.
This hormone supplement should not be used if you’re taking prescription fertility medications. Also, Vitex may interfere with the effectiveness of in vitro fertilization. If you have a hormone-sensitive condition – don’t use Vitex. The effect of this herb on hormones may affect estrogen levels.
Chemicals that affect the brain are found in Vitex. This makes it inappropriate for use if you’re taking medications for Parkinson’s disease or for any psychotic disorder.
Birth control pills may interact with Vitex and PCOS due to the effect of this herb on hormone levels. Other forms of birth control may have to be added if you’re taking Vitex and birth control pills.
Any estrogen medications you may be taking may interact with Vitex and PCOS as well.
You should consult with your primary care physician before taking Vitex for the relief of your PCOS symptoms. Overall, it appears that Vitex is an effective and safe herbal medication for the correction of PCOS symptoms. Clearly, clinical research has supported its use in helping women deal with the unpleasant symptoms that accompany this condition. One possible drawback to using Vitex and PCOS recommendations is the length of time needed to achieve best results. It becomes necessary for women to stay with the remedy using this herbal medication so they will gain maximum benefit.