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Vitex agnus castus - the chaste tree or Monk's Pepper

A member of the Verbenaceae family, the chaste tree is a small deciduous tree or shrub native to central and Eastern Europe valued for its use in herbal medicine. It is multi-stemmed, grows to around 9 feet tall and has spikes of pretty mauve, pink or white flowers in the summer. The leaves are palmate; their resemblance to hemp leaves has lead to it being known as the hemp tree in England. The tree itself is aromatic, the leaves were used to perfume bedding in the Middle Ages, and the berries taste mildly peppery.

Reported by herbalists as having the ability to curb sexual desire, the chaste tree is still known in some parts of Europe as Monk's Pepper - historically the berries were frequently used in monastaries to help the monks adhere to their vow of celibacy. Strangely enough, many herbalists also used agnus castus as an aphrodisiac so you have to wonder what kind of a state those poor monks were in after dosing themselves up with it! (In actual fact, it is said that chaste tree preparations normalise sexual desire, whatever 'normal' means!)

Since the Ancient Greeks medicines made from agnus castus have also been prescribed for other things, including cures for epilepsy, 'conditions of the spleen', snake and spider bites (it has some anti paralytic properties) and most importantly problems with lactation, menstruation and the symptoms of the menopause. Modern interest in this herb is mainly concerned with the latter.

How does it work?
Although the herb has no direct hormonal action, research has shown that it does have an effect on the pituitary gland and the corpus luteum (the body which remains in the ovary after ovulation), and therefore affects the amount of progesterone secreted into the blood stream. Many adolescent and perimenopausal conditions are related to irregularity of ovulation, leading in turn to irregular production of progesterone by the corpus luteum; mood swings and abnormal bleeding are often the result. Studies have shown that long term use of extracts of Vitex agnus castus can be very beneficial, but it does have to be taken for at least 3 cycles before the benefits can be seen.

How to use it.
Tinctures and tablets are available from most Health Shops. It needs to be taken regularly and for at least 3 months before deciding whether or not it is working. Always take according to the instructions on the label - a common side effect from taking too high a dose is formication, the sensation of crawling insects on the skin; as this is sometimes a symptom of the menopause you need to be aware of your own body should you decide to use this herb.

Alternatively you can use the real thing. Harvest the berries in late autumn when dark and ripe, and dry them. Make a tincture by pouring a cup of boiling water onto a teaspoon of dried berries. Drink 3 times a day.


Caution:
  • Do not exceed the dose (number of tablets or capsules) or dose schedule (number of doses/day) recommended on the product label.
  • If you experience any ill effects, stop taking the medication. If adverse effects are serious or it they persist, contact your physician or pharmacist.
  • Do not take herbal remedies during pregnancy or while nursing a newborn unless advised by your physician.
  • Do not use chaste tree berries if you are currently taking oral contraceptives unless advised by your physician or pharmacist.
  • The safety of chaste tree preparations in children has not been evaluated; they should not be used in children unless advised by your physician or pharmacist.

Sources include:
http://www.health-pages.com/ct/
http://www.healthy.net/asp/templates/article.asp?PageType=Article&ID=430
http://www.geocities.com/nutriflip/Naturopathy/AgnusCastus.html

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