Is Vitex Really an Anaphrodisiac?
Vitex agnus-castus, or “Vitex” for short, is an herb from the Mediterranean region which is gaining more and more attention among researchers and consumers who are looking for home remedies for problems that involve imbalances of the hormones.
Vitex goes by a variety of names, but it this herbal medicine rich in flavonoids usually referred to simply as "Vitex," or as “chasteberry” or “chaste tree berry.”
I remember soon after I started taking Vitex, I was already thinking that it seemed a bit ironic that Vitex is called “chasteberry.”
Why? Because this herb for menstrual irregularities seemed anything but chaste to me.
My whole life, I’d had a very low, often negligible sex drive from a purely physical standpoint.
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But that changed almost instantly when I started taking Vitex.
Could it be a coincidence?
I decided to do some more investigation both to find out why this medicinal plant useful in combating certain hormonal imbalances is called “chaste tree berry” and whether it has any effect at all on libido, whether by promoting it or inhibiting it.
But before I get into my limited findings, let's first talk about why you might be considering taking this herbal supplement.
What Do People Take Vitex For?
People (frequently women, but not always) take Vitex for a wide variety of reasons, the majority of which do not yet have strong scientific backing.
The lack of backing is not surprising given that science has not paid a whole lot of attention to chaste tree berry until rather recently.
WebMD reports that Vitex is “possibly effective for” breast pain, premenstrual dysphoric disorder and premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
It does appear that a lot of consumer interest in the supplement does focus on these three conditions.
But many other consumers are taking Vitex to try and correct infertility. WebMD lists infertility among the many conditions that there is “insufficient evidence for.”
But there is growing research that Vitex may be able to help with infertility and other conditions, all of which appear to have common links with respect to hormone production and neurotransmitter production.
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Key Point: People take Vitex to treat PMS, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, breast pain, infertility, and a variety of other conditions with varying degrees of research support.
Vitex is a Rumored Anaphrodisiac
You almost certainly know that an "aphrodisiac" is a substance that promotes libido.
And "anaphrodisiac" is a substance that does the opposite. It suppresses libido.
Just as you would expect, Vitex goes under the traditional name "chaste tree berry" or "chasteberry” because it is a purported anaphrodisiac.
This article says, “It was used in ancient Greece and Rome as anaphrodisiac (diminish sexual desire).”
Another article says, “It is reputed to have both aphrodisiac and anaphrodisiac properties.“ It was used in ancient times to decrease libido in temple priestesses, and is still taken in Europe to treat “excessive sexual desire.””
So, the very claims made about the effects of Vitex on libido are inconsistent. While most claims since ancient times have focused on the supposed libido-suppressing qualities of chaste tree berry, there are claims made that it does just the opposite as well.
Apparently, monks in the Middle Ages also took Vitex in an apparent attempt to restrain sex drive.
For this reason, Vitex sometimes goes under the nickname "monk’s pepper.”
Considering one of our references states that the herb is "still taken" by European consumers to suppress “excessive sexual desire," this appears to be one of its ongoing uses.
If you are looking for an herb to suppress your libido, will Vitex do the job, or could it actually make the situation worse?
For that matter, if you don’t want to take something which is going to suppress your sex drive, should you be concerned that Vitex will have this effect?
Let's see if we can come to any sort of scientific understanding of Vitex’s potential effect on libido.
Key Point: Lay persons for centuries have believed largely that Vitex reduces libido, potentially in both men and women. But some people have believed the exact opposite.
Is There Evidence to Support Vitex as an Anaphrodisiac for Men or Women?
This article suggests that there may be a scientific reason to believe that Vitex could potentially reduce libido.
First of all, it is important to note that reducing prolactin produces different cascading effects in men and women.
The article explains, "Reduction in prolactin levels affects FSH and estrogen levels in females and testosterone levels in men."
The article continues:
"There is as yet no information regarding its efficacy in endocrine disease states such as PCOS, however, one small-scale study has demonstrated this prolactin reducing effect in a group of healthy males, and the implication is that it could be of use in mild hyperprolactinemia (16, 17). One could also theorize that it could be refined for use as a male contraceptive, because testosterone reduction should reduce libido and sperm production."
So, based off of these statements, we can assume that it is indeed possible that men could experience a reduction in libido while taking Vitex.
But what about women?
Testosterone is tied to libido in females as well according to many researchers, but as the previous reference mentioned, reducing prolactin in women impacts levels of estrogen and FSH.
So, could that have an impact on sex drive?
The New York Daily News discusses a study that looked into the impact of estrogen and progesterone levels on female libido.
Here is a brief excerpt from the article:
"’We found two hormonal signals that had opposite effects on sexual motivation,’ said lead author James Roney of the University of California Santa Barbara. ‘Estrogen was having a positive effect, but with a two-day lag. Progesterone was having a persistent negative effect, both for current day, day before, and two days earlier.’"
Curiously, these researchers also found something different regarding testosterone:
"The team also discovered a lack of impact of testosterone on women's sexual motivation, which counters a common belief. ‘Doctors tend to believe that, though the evidence isn't that strong in humans," Roney said. "In the natural cycles, we weren't finding effects of testosterone.’"
So, it seems that there are contradicting beliefs regarding testosterone and sex drive in females.
So, this gives us a lot to think about. As this paper explains, “In humans it [Vitex] has been shown to reduce levels of follicle‐stimulating hormone and increase luteinizing hormone (LH) resulting in decreased oestrogen and increased progesterone.”
So, if estrogen promotes libido in women and progesterone tends to decrease it, it follows that by decreasing estrogen levels and increasing progesterone levels, Vitex could act as an anaphrodisiac in women as well.
Key Point: It is entirely possible that Vitex could suppress sex drive in both men and women through its action on testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone.
Is There Evidence to Support My Suspicion That Vitex is an Aphrodisiac?
Even though Vitex can reduce testosterone and estrogen while increasing progesterone, and thereby perhaps decrease libido, there may still be reason to believe that I am correct in asserting that Vitex could possibly act as an aphrodisiac.
As described here, the neurotransmitter dopamine plays an important role in sex drive.
This should not surprise us because dopamine is part of our reward system which drives behavior.
Describing a study on prairie voles, the paper I just linked to talks about a female vole which showed a 50% dopamine increase in the nucleus accumbens in response to being mated with a particular male vole.
When the researchers injected her with a dopamine antagonist (a substance which suppresses dopamine), she lost interest in that same vole.
When they then tried injecting her with a dopamine agonist (a substance which boosts dopamine), she automatically formed an interest with whatever vole happened to be present at the time.
The researchers then went on to conduct a human study, and found that dopamine pathways seem to be involved in human attraction and relationships as well, and that glutamate and norepinephrine might also be involved.
The researchers also explain,
"When individuals exhibiting hypoactive sexual desire disorder are treated with dopamine-enhancing medications, libido improves. (Segraves et al. 2001). When patients suffering from depression take drugs that elevate central dopamine activity, their sex drive often improves (Walker et al. 1993; Ascher et al. 1995; Coleman et al. 1999). In fact, since elevated activity of central serotonin is inhibitory to the sex drive (Rosen et al. 1999; Montejo et al. 2001), some patients taking serotonin-enhancing antidepressants supplement this therapy with medications that elevate the activity of dopamine (and norepinephrine) solely to maintain or elevate sexual appetite and arousal (Walker et al. 1993; Ascher et al. 1995; Coleman et al. 1999; Rosen et al. 1999)."
It is even possible for the libido-enhancing effects of dopamine agonists to go too far, sometimes leading to psychological problems.
This page explains that according to a study, "roughly 3.5 percent of Parkinson’s disease patients develop behaviors normally associated with sex addiction (also known as compulsive sexual behavior or hypersexuality) after receiving levodopa or a dopamine agonist."
Clearly, the vast majority of patients who take dopamine agonists to treat Parkinson’s disease do not go on to become sex addicts, but there does seem to be a measurable connection.
Key Point: By acting as a dopamine agonist, it is hypothetically possible that Vitex could increase libido, but I've yet to see any research conducted in this area.
My Case with Vitex
My "sex drive" for most of my lifetime has been almost entirely cerebral.
So, I was caught quite off guard when shortly after I began taking Vitex to treat chronic head pain, I suddenly started experiencing libido as a physical, almost overpowering urge on a regular basis.
This goes through upswings and downswings, as you might expect, often in conjunction with my menstrual cycle.
I have no idea whether this would be considered a "balanced, normal, healthy" sex drive or not, given my perhaps unusual baseline.
An SNRI helped to suppress it for a while, but after coming off of it, it came right back.
Personally, I find it distracting and disruptive, and view it as a negative side effect. It presents as an inward compulsion that I cannot control, and it attempts to prioritize itself beyond what I consider rational or worthwhile. This doesn't strike me as particularly normal.
That being said, it is also a pretty minor side effect in comparison to the vast benefits it has brought me in terms of reducing my chronic head pain to a much more manageable and livable level. And thankfully, there are weeks when it goes back into a “downswing” and I can forget about it.
I am not sure if my perception of it as a negative reflects my suspicion of an addictive tendency (as in the Parkinson’s cases), or simply discomfort with how different this state is from the one in which I spent the first couple decades of my life.
Perhaps another person would find this increase in libido helpful and positive.
I am willing to believe that individual factors may cause different expressions of sexuality while taking Vitex.
Perhaps some people, whether male or female, might experience a decrease in libido after all.
Maybe I only experience an increase because I am biologically wired with a “tendency to addict” in response to an increase in dopamine levels. In other words, maybe I simply have the “brain of a potential sex addict,” and am more likely than another person to be influenced accordingly.
Considering that I have chronic pain and that malfunctions in the dopaminergic pathway may be implicated in chronic pain (perhaps accounting in part for the helpfulness of a dopamine agonist in treating it), I am certainly willing to believe that there might be other aberrations with my body's dopamine system as well.
Or perhaps the increase in libido that I experience on Vitex reflects some other differences in my sexuality, for example the fact that my sex drive is actually at its lowest during ovulation and its highest during menstruation—the opposite of most reported cases.
Maybe my body and brain simply respond differently to an increase in progesterone and a decrease in estrogen than most.
Finally, it is also entirely possible that starting Vitex and experiencing an increase in libido was a complete coincidence for me. Maybe the increase in sex drive simply was the result of underlying hormonal or neurotransmitter changes in my body in response to getting older.
Since I have not stopped taking Vitex for any period of time since starting, I have no way of knowing. But it is worth considering all possibilities. That is why even in my particular case, I can draw no conclusions.
Key Point: While there are scientific reasons to believe that Vitex could act as an anaphrodisiac or an aphrodisiac, my personal experience seems to suggest that it at least can be an aphrodisiac, depending on individual factors. I suspect that quite a bit of research will be required in this area to figure out the real potential relationships between chasteberry and sex drive in assorted individuals.
Take Notes on How Vitex Impacts Your Libido
So, based on my personal experiences as well as all of the research I have gathered for you here, my recommendation is not to make any assumptions about how Vitex might impact your sex drive.
Do not take for granted the notion that it acts only as an anaphrodisiac. Even though this is the common lore surrounding the herb, the reality may be quite a bit more complex.
If you decide to take Vitex, whether you are male or female, you should maintain a journal about all of the physical and psychological changes you experience while using the supplement.
Maybe you will find your sex drive increases, decreases, or stays the same.
In the meantime, keep an eye out for more research. I am seeing a lot of studies emerging on Vitex’s potential benefits.
Hopefully, some scientists will start checking into the possible ways in which Vitex might increase or decrease libido.
Key Point: At this point, it makes sense to proceed cautiously and without assumptions when it comes to Vitex and libido. Take notes about your personal experiences.
Conclusion: The Jury Is Still Out on How Vitex Impacts Sex Drive
As of the time of this writing, most references to Vitex and libido even in scientific research simply mention its traditional use as an anaphrodisiac in men and women.
Nobody seems to be going out of their way at this time to research the connection, but there are scientific reasons to hypothesize that Vitex could decrease or increase sex drive in men and women.
So, whether you want to increase or decrease your libido or keep the same, proceed without assumptions, take notes, and try to figure out based on your own experiences what impact Vitex is having on your sex drive.