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Vitex (Vitex agnus-castus [Latin]), also known as chaste berry, chaste tree, and monk's pepper, and wild pepper, has traditionally been used to reduce the sex drive of both men and women. Modern research indicates that this herb may deserve its name, and is also helpful for treating a number of women's hormone-related health conditions.

Vitex agnus-castus is native to the Mediterranean, but today it is also grown in eastern coastal areas of the United States. It produces black peppercorns that were once eaten by ancient Roman priestesses and medieval monks to help them keep their vows of chastity. Ancient Romans also used this vitex fruit to increase a nursing mother's milk supply and help stop women's hemorrhaging after giving birth.

Research has shown that vitex may indeed be helpful for treating premenstrual syndrome (PMS), erratic menstrual cycles, and insufficient milk supply in women, and may even help reduce sex drive in men. Vitex causes the pituitary gland to decrease production of follicle stimulating horomone (FSH) and to increase production of luteinizing hormone (LH), a hormonal shift that indirectly leads to higher progesterone levels and a decrease of male hormones, or androgens, in the body.

Vitex also helps regulate levels of prolactin, a hormone produced by the pituitary gland that stimulates the production of milk but has also been linked to premenstrual breast tenderness and the development of fibroids in the breast and uterus. Vitex causes a hormonal shift that both reduces bloating and breast pain that many women experience before their periods and increases mothers' milk supplies.

In European studies women using vitex for treatment of PMS discomfort reported significant improvement; in other studies nursing mothers taking vitex demonstrated a significant increase in milk supply. Vitex has also been used successfully to treat irregular menstrual cycles, increasing or decreasing flow as needed, and to reduce menstrual cramping. The androgen-reducing effects of vitex may help curb male libido, which supports the traditional use of this berry my monks to reduce sex drive. Vitex has also been used to acne, which has also been linked to high androgen levels, and may help treat women experiencing abnormal hair growth, or hirsitism, which has been linked to high levels of androgens and FSH in women.

Vitex is available in capsules and tinctures. Most of the European studies used tinctures-the usual dose is 40 drops daily for 3 to six months. There are no toxic side effects reported with vitex usage, even in those that have been supplementing with this herb for nine years. Reported side effects include rash and upset stomach.

Because vitex affects hormonal balance, it should not be taken by children who have not reached puberty. Vitex has also been linked to increased fertility in women, and decreased fertility in men. Pregnant women and men who wish to have a child should not take this herb.

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