Discovering Herbs: Agnus castus
The common name of this pretty herb is Chaste Tree, harking back to the Crusaders’ belief that it would crush their wives’ libidos whilst they were off crusading. Whether it actually achieved this effect is doubtful as it is now recognised as boosting female fertility and easing menstrual symptoms, but the wives obviously weren’t telling and who can blame them? Athenian women used to put the leaves in their beds to help with gynaecological problems, which also sounds rather dubious! Monks, however, used to grind the seeds to make pepper, which was believed to help keep them ‘chaste’, and this is rather more credible as we now use Agnus castus for teenage acne in boys, so it may well balance testosterone levels in men.
Agnus castus, the ‘Chaste Tree’, is therefore only partially chaste-making, and is actually not a tree at all but a shrub with violet flowers and fruit, containing volatile oils that create a peppermint-like scent. In modern times, Agnus castus has increasingly become recognised for its beneficial effect on female hormones, boosting the levels of luteinising hormone and therefore the production of progesterone. It may not seem important to have enough progesterone – oestrogen is the hormone most people are aware of and many women worry that lower oestrogen levels experienced in the menopause will bring them uncomfortable symptoms. It is, however, high oestrogen levels in the menstruating woman that we associate with symptoms such as Prementrual Syndrome (PMS), breast tenderness, fluid retention, heavy, painful periods and many other miseries that women think are an inevitable part of their lot. Increasing progesterone levels can alleviate many of the these symptoms, and there is even research to prove this!
A trial published in the British Medical Journal in 2001 showed Agnus castus to have a beneficial effect on PMS symptoms, ranging from anger and irritability to bloating and breast fullness. The herb was well tolerated and did not cause unwanted side effects.
Another trial published in 2000, showed 42% of the 1,634 women involved reporting that they no longer suffered from PMS! Overall, 93% of the women on the trial reported that their PMS symptoms either disappeared or decreased. Interestingly, 23 of the women on the trial fell pregnant whilst taking Agnus castus, and 19 of them had previously had fertility problems. Seemingly, not only does Agnus castus increase progesterone, but it inhibits prolactin, high levels of which have been connected to infertility. It is therefore well worth trying if you’ve had problems conceiving – and tell that to the Crusaders!
Other uses of this interesting shrub are for teenage acne, as previously mentioned, working for both boys and girls, and for menopausal women experiencing flooding in the early part of the menopause.
When using this herb, take it all month round rather than just for a few weeks of the cycle. It will work on PMS within two to three cycles and can be taken for a greater length of time if necessary.