It isn’t difficult to guess what some assumptions surrounding the usage of chaste tree may have been. The name is a rather large clue as to how monks in the Middle Ages implemented the plant.
Yes, the historical usage of the berries and leaves of chaste trees was as an anti-aphrodisiac in an attempt to suppress the libido.
Recently, chaste tree has been found to be beneficial in another way: balancing hormones during the menstrual cycle.
Beyond the spurious claims of monks, chaste tree has long played a role in European medicine. It’s primarily linked to the regulation of hormones, and has been used for a variety of purposes surrounding menstruation.
Studies into the effects of chaste tree are still ongoing. However, it’s considered to be safe to use, and many report that it’s had a positive effect on their health.
If you’re interested in introducing chaste tree to your diet, this guide can help you understand the basics that are necessary to know.
What is chaste tree?
Chaste tree has gone by a few different names over the centuries. Now known most commonly as chaste tree or chaste berry, it’s sometimes referred to as monk’s pepper, Texas lilac, or Abraham’s balm.
The Latin name of Vitex agnus-castus is also commonly shortened to vitex, and is used as a descriptor in medicinal fields.
So, you may have come across chaste tree more often than you realized. The attractive and aromatic plant is cultivated across warm regions, enjoying subtropical temperatures.
When flowering in mid to late summer, it produces delicately beautiful lavender spikes which are known for attracting butterflies.
Both the leaves and the fruit of the chaste tree are harvested, although the berries are supposedly the more powerful of the two. A single tree can be cultivated to produce fruits for harvest for up to 15 years.
The berries are only the size of a peppercorn, and have a tendency to drop off early and get lost in the soil. For this reason, they’re often harvested when not yet ripe. Thankfully, this has no effect on the usage.
The chaste tree has been known for a long time, with various uses common to both the Romans and the ancient Greeks. Pliny the Elder described the tree in his Historia Naturalis, and how it was used to cool the lust of women.
The supposed use of the berry as an anaphrodisiac has persisted for centuries, but is now largely abandoned.
Chaste tree berries are often sold as capsules, syrups, or teas. They’re used primarily by women, and are intended to reduce the effects of premenstrual syndrome.
What are the benefits of chaste tree?
For women, chaste berry is seen as a way of reducing the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). These include depression, irritability, migraines, constipation, breast pain and tenderness.
Most of the research into chaste berry has focused on the effect it may have on PMS.
Chaste tree, commonly known in medicine as vitex, alters the balance of hormones in those who are menstruating. It regulates hormones such as estrogen and progesterone by reducing the levels of the hormone prolactin.
The overall effect of this rebalancing is decreasing the symptoms of PMS.
Clinical studies have been carried out that seem to support the assumption that chaste tree can help with PMS. Women involved in the trial reported a decrease in irritability and mood swings, as well as reduced cravings and swollen breasts.
There is also some belief that chaste tree can help with cyclic mastalgia, a form of breast pain that regularly afflicts those who are menstruating.
These hormone balancing properties are also thought to have beneficial effects in women who are going through the menopause.
Some of those given chaste tree have reported a reduced amount of night sweats and hot flashes, as well as a better mood, and better sleep.
A small number of women have even reported their period returning, which speaks to the long history of chaste tree being used as an emmenagogue – something that increases menstrual flow.
The influence chaste tree has on prolactin levels may carry another benefit: increased fertility. An unusually high prolactin level can be the result of a condition known as luteal phase defect.
With this condition, the lateral stage of the menstrual cycle is reduced. Women struggling with luteal phase defect can often find it incredibly difficult to conceive or maintain a pregnancy.
As vitex helps lower prolactin levels to balance other hormones, it may lead to an increase in fertility.
A similar benefit of chaste tree may be regulating the menstrual cycle. Women with irregular cycles can struggle to conceive because of the difficulties that lie in identifying periods of increased fertility.
An irregular cycle can also be inconvenient and disruptive to live with. Studies have shown that chaste tree supplements may help to stabilize periods, making it easier to plan a pregnancy.
Chaste tree may also have a very different sort of benefit. Applied to the skin, there is some evidence that chaste tree works as an efficient insect repellent, and can keep fleas and mosquitoes from biting for up to six hours.
It’s also been used to protect against head lice, and keep the larvae of head lice from hatching.
There are potential other benefits to chaste tree, but the evidence of this is limited. More in-depth studies are needed to fully understand any links. It’s thought that chaste tree may be helpful in treating migraines, reducing inflammation, and even in bone repair.
However, these claims are not yet scientifically supported. In animal studies, vitex has shown to work as a preventative for epilieptic seizures, but there isn’t yet strong evidence it may help with seizures in humans.
What are the uses of chaste tree?
Chaste tree is mainly used to treat conditions relating to the menstrual cycle, due to the effect that it has on hormones. At points in the past, chaste tree was used as an anaphrodisiac – something to repress sexual desire.
This potential usage has largely been abandoned.
Chaste berry is most often used to treat issues surrounding the menstrual cycle. Due to the effect it has on balancing hormones, chaste tree is taken to reduce the symptoms of PMS.
Some women also take chaste tree in an effort to boost fertility, as it may potentially stabilize periods and lower prolactin levels.
In Germany, chaste tree is commonly recommended to women who are struggling with an aspect of their menstrual cycle. Due to the effect chaste tree has on the body, it can reduce or even eliminate varying symptoms of PMS.
This includes migraines, tenderness of the breasts, irritability, and depressed moods. With further testing, chaste berry may be a medicine used to treat cyclic mastalgia – breast pain that often occurs during menstruation.
For these uses, chaste tree is most commonly taken as a supplement. Chaste tree is generally found in capsules, for easy dosage. It’s also sold in liquid form, and can be taken by adding small amounts to other drinks.
If you are interested in adding chaste tree to your routine, always check the labels for the correct dosage.
A different usage of chaste tree is as an insect repellant. It can potentially stop insects from biting for up to six hours. In this instance, chaste tree is found in spray bottles and applied directly to the skin.
The oil of the chaste tree may have potentially anti-bacterial effects, although this is still under investigation.
However, it’s worth noting that this would not be safe for consumption, and therefore wouldn’t be used to fight infection in the body.
Chaste tree doesn’t just affect the hormone balance of humans: it can be used as a supplement for horses. Powdered chaste tree is given to both male and female horses who may be facing hormonal challenges.
It’s also fed to older horses that are experiencing pituitary problems. A similar effect can be seen in dogs, and chaste tree can be included in canine herbal supplements.
As for the traditional usage, there is some debate whether chaste tree has an effect on the libido – and what that effect may be. While monks and Athenians may have found chaste tree to suppress sexual desires, some believe it actually leads to an increase.
The usage as an anti-aphrodisiac is highly debated, with many believing it won’t make any change at all.
At one time, chaste tree was used as a galactagogue – a medicine designed to improve lactation. However, this is no longer considered a safe usage. It’s recommended that anyone who is breastfeeding should avoid chaste tree.
Due to its attractive flowering, chaste tree is also a popular garden plant.
Potential side effects of chaste tree
For most, the potential side effects of chaste tree are limited. However, it does carry some risk and isn’t suitable for use by all.
Potential side effects include headaches, nausea, itching, and a heavier menstrual flow. These side effects are usually mild, and chaste tree has been approved for human consumption.
There are those that should avoid chaste tree altogether. While chaste tree was at one point recommended to improve lactation, it’s now advised that those who are breastfeeding avoid it altogether.
Similarly, those who are pregnant shouldn’t use chaste tree.
Certain medications can have a negative reaction to chaste tree. Anyone using antipsychotic medications, birth control, or hormone replacement therapy (HRT), should consult with their doctor before trying chaste tree.
Finally, women with hormone sensitive conditions, such as certain forms of cancer, should avoid chaste tree.
While chaste tree is normally safe to use, it’s recommended that anyone who is struggling with an illness or taking medication consult a doctor first.
What is the history of chaste tree?
The several names for chaste tree serve to give some indication of exactly how rich a history this plant has. Abraham’s balm is a particularly unusual one, and refers to the role chaste tree may have played in religious history.
In the story of the Binding of Isaac, Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his son as a test of commitment. Abraham, prepared to go through with the sacrifice, was deemed loyal and stopped by an angel.
Abraham then saw a ram caught in a thicket, which he offered as a sacrifice in place of his son. In one Jewish tradition, the thicket the ram was in is thought to have been a chaste tree plant. Hence, the name Abraham’s balm.
Pliny the Elder described the plant, particularly the way that women used the leaves as bedding. The purpose of this was to stave off women’s lustful desires when they were required to remain chaste.
This was expected of them during Thesmophoria, a festival attended only by married women. Thesmophoria was an ancient Greek festival thrown annually to honor Demeter and her daughter Persephone.
For several days, women left their homes and moved into tents, where they had to be chaste. The use of anaphrodisiacs, including chaste tree, were required to suppress the libidos of the women involved.
During the second day of the festival, nesteia, the women acted to honor the mourning Demeter endured when her daughter was taken to the underworld.
To do so, they spent the day fasting while sitting on chaste tree leaves. This is one of the earliest references to chaste tree being used in this manner.
This usage as an anti-aphrodisiac persisted. Chaste tree is sometimes known by the name ‘monk’s pepper’, as it was used by monks in the sixteenth century to suppress the libido.
As well as sleeping on the leaves and chaff, monk’s ate the berries of the chaste tree. Scattering chaff leading to the monk’s sleeping area was another common practice, and one that is supposedly still found today in Italian monasteries.
A more benign use of the chaste tree made advantage of the strong and flexible limbs of the plant. In Roman times, the chaste tree was used for weaving, and this has persisted across centuries.