How to Know When Vitex is Right for You
Vitex agnus castus, also known as chaste berry or chaste tree berry is a small fruit about the size of a peppercorn. It’s an herbal remedy commonly recommended for boosting progesterone levels and regulating menstrual cycles. But does it actually do that?
The Menstrual Cycle
First, let’s take a look at how the hormones work throughout the menstrual cycle. The menstrual cycle begins with the first day of the menstrual period, the first day of full flow. All of the hormones start out low and then gradually change over the next few weeks (how long or short greatly depends on your individual cycle).
The pituitary gland is a small endocrine gland in the brain which produces luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) throughout the first phase of the cycle, the follicular phase. FSH slowly rises, signaling to the the follicles in the ovaries to grow. The follicles contain maturing eggs. The follicles grow and begin producing estrogen.
Once estrogen reaches a high enough level it tells the pituitary gland to stop sending FSH and to send LH instead. The LH spikes and signals the dominant follicle to release its egg, resulting in ovulation. The remaining follicle, stimulated by LH, luteinizes into the corpus luteum. The corpus luteum is the gland which remains and produces progesterone (and estrogen in smaller quantities) throughout the luteal phase.
If conception and pregnancy does not occur, then estrogen and progesterone drop and the menstrual cycle begins over again with the menstrual period.
Prolactin: Another Pituitary Hormone
Prolactin is another pituitary hormone which is produced in pregnancy to stimulate the growth of milk glands in the breasts. If the mother is breastfeeding the prolactin remains high postpartum, stimulated by the suckling of the baby at the nipples. If the mother does not breastfeed the prolactin level drops quickly after birth.
High prolactin levels suppress the other pituitary hormones (LH and FSH) so that the mother may recover from pregnancy and birth and nourish her child without risk of another pregnancy so soon. In other words, it suppresses ovulation and leads to long cycles. Fertility and menstruation may not return for many months, or even years if breastfeeding is frequent.
However, many women experience high prolactin without ever being pregnant or breastfeeding. It is one possible cause of irregular or long cycles with delayed ovulation. It is commonly high in PCOS and hypothyroidism.
What does prolactin have to do with Vitex?
The research is mixed but most studies show that vitex lowers prolactin levels and in so doing, raises LH to promote ovulation. So the natural act of ovulation produces progesterone. Some experts believe it may boost progesterone in other ways but there is very little, if any evidence of this in the research and the mechanism is unknown.
To be clear, Vitex naturally lowers prolactin and removes the suppression of the pituitary hormones which lead to ovulation. With the suppression removed the ovaries are now able to ovulate, do so naturally without outside stimulation, and the remaining corpus luteum produces progesterone.
There is no clear evidence that Vitex boosts progesterone on its own.
Is Vitex right for me?
The answer is in the hormones. You have to ask some questions and evaluate your personal cycle.
- Do you have high prolactin levels?
- Between 10 and 20 ng/ml is moderately high
- over 20 is high
- over 100 is very high and may indicate a hyperprolactinemia which is a prolactin producing tumor on the pituitary gland, diagnosed by MRI and treated with medication or surgery.
- May be falsely high if taken less than 3-4 hours after waking up.
- Do you have high LH levels?
- Over 7 IU/L is considered high
- Commonly high in PCOS
So, if your prolactin is not high, will vitex actually help you? Probably not. And if you tend to have high LH levels, like with PCOS, vitex may even make your cycles worse.
Another piece of the puzzle: Dopamine
If prolactin is high, boost dopamine naturally. I didn’t get into this when talking about how vitex works but the way it works is actually in raising dopamine levels. The dopamine in turn keeps prolactin at a healthy level. Some experts suspect that low dopamine leads to high prolactin.
Raising dopamine comes down to diet and lifestyle. Lots of protein, exercise, good sleep, stress management, and getting sunlight can all help boost dopamine, and progesterone too.
Deficiencies in iron, niacin, folate and vitamin B6 can lead to low dopamine levels so consider testing your levels. These nutrients are typically best to get from food but a B complex supplement is mostly harmless. Iron can be a little more complicated to supplement since your body has no natural way of getting rid of excess, so try to get iron from food.
Supporting Progesterone Without Vitex
If you’re considering vitex because you suspect or know you have low progesterone levels then consider finding ways to boost progesterone naturally without vitex. A lot of this comes down to supporting a healthy ovulation and healthy hormones in the follicular phase, which may be suppressing ovulation and leading to a deficient corpus luteum.
And as with dopamine, diet and lifestyle factors come into play. Manage stress, get good sleep, eat a healthy diet and make sure you’re getting enough B vitamins, especially B6, to help your body ovulate and produce healthy levels of progesterone.
Still considering taking Vitex?
If you still want to take vitex, I have some recommendations for you. First, chart your cycle. I recommend doing this for a few cycles before starting the vitex so that you can identify your natural hormonal patterns and ovulation before adding a factor which may complicate things (vitex). Make sure to track which days you are taking vitex, as well as any symptoms you experience throughout your cycle. That way, once you start taking it you will easily be able to see any changes in your cycle due to the vitex, for better or worse.
Opinions are mixed on which days of your cycle you should take vitex but since it supports ovulation it makes the most sense to take it only through the follicular phase and stop once you’ve identified ovulation.
I strongly recommend depending on hormone testing, even if you decide to take vitex anyway. If you’re experiencing long or irregular cycles, high prolactin (hyperprolactinemia) should be ruled out as a cause. And knowing your levels before taking something that can alter them is always a good idea.
Don’t Go it Alone
I offer consultations so that you don’t have to figure it out on your own. Herbal remedies for hormone balancing are complicated, but I’ve done all the research for you. Together we can take a look at your hormones and find the right remedy that will bring you long-term balance. Take advantage of the free consultation to get feedback on your situation and find out how I can help you reach your goals.