The Latin name of this herb is Vitex agnus castus. Commonly it is known as agnus castus or as chaste berry.
It is not a cactus (it is sometimes mispronounced “agnus cactus”), but a member of the Verbena family.
The name ‘agnus castus’ derives from the Greek for ‘chaste’. According to Pliny, writing in the first century, Greek women wishing to preserve their chastity placed leaves of this plant on their beds and slept on them. Pliny’s contemporary, Dioscorides, claimed that Agnus Castus preserved chastity because it smells so bad that, when strewn on the bed, it was enough to deter amorous advances from men!
Agnus Castus was certainly used widely by the ancient herbalists. Dioscorides even concurs with its current uses; “it both brings down the milk and expels the menstrua”.
Although not a native plant of the UK, records indicate that it was in use here by 1500. It is then mentioned in Gerard’s herbal in the seventeenth century. Until recent years, though, you would have difficulty finding much written in UK herb books about agnus castus. It is in the rest of Europe that the herb has had the most use over the past century.
Only in the last ten years has it become popular again in the UK – and, now, in America.
Uses of agnus castus
The herb is mainly known as a remedy used by women. I will concentrate on its effects for PMT and menopause – its main uses today.
The effect it has on female hormones is largely a balancing effect. This ‘normalising’ influence makes it useful in a wide range of situations. And it can be helpful for a large proportion of the time – some studies indicate improvements in symptoms for 90% of sufferers from PMT.
PMT – agnus castus can improve headache, breast tenderness, fatigue, bloating, anxiety and similar symptoms, irregular cycle and short or long cycle.
Menopause – symptoms agnus castus can improve include: night sweats, hot flushes and fatigue.
Although agnus castus is recommended by several sources for increasing breast milk – as referred to by Dioscorides – I have come across little evidence for this.
Combinations with agnus castus
You may also see agnus castus combined with other herbs in agnus castus combination products such as for the menopause. (It could also be for help with monthly periods.) It often happens that a combination of herbs will be more effective than a single herb. There are a number of agnus castus combination products. Find a product which works for you – either the single herb or a combination of herbs – and then continue with it for a full course of treatment.
Do not take agnus castus during pregnancy; and it would be wise to avoid it when taking any other product or drug which affects the female hormone system – such as HRT or the contraceptive pill.
Reports of negative reactions to agnus castus are few. About one in 50 people may experience mild indigestion, or a mild skin rash. If this happens, stop taking the herb, temporarily, then re-introduce it more slowly.
Keeping a record of your health
As always where your health is concerned – keep a record. Note in a diary how you are feeling when taking agnus castus or an agnus castus combination. This is often very useful when deciding how beneficial a treatment has been. It can also be helpful information for a practitioner, should you consult one.