Vitex and maca are two popular herbs for women's hormones. Find out how they work and how I use them clinically below!
Mechanism of Action of Vitex (Chasteberry)
Vitex does not act as a phytoestrogen (plant estrogen.) "Vitex instead works through another important chemical pathway, the hypothalamus-pituitary axis, to balance female hormones. Vitex increases luteinizing hormone production while inhibiting the release of follicle stimulating hormone, leading to an indirect increase in progesterone and a normalization of prolactin levels. The combination of actions produced by vitex seems to restore the estrogen/progesterone balance.” Source
We will learn below that maca can help both men and women with fertility. But vitex has an opposite effect on men than on women. Vitex can curb hypersexual tendencies in men, and can help with testosterone decreasing benefits, therefore with it help with prostate enlargement or possibly male pattern baldness. So don't share your vitex with your man.
My experience: For the most part I've found vitex to be an extremely helpful herb in my practice, with just a couple women having a negative effect. Please keep in mind that you will probably need to stay diligent and use for 6 months.
Does Vitex Cause Side Effects?
I’m sharing a thread I found online: http://community.babycenter.com/post/a22279399/chasteberry_vitex_side_effects
Interestingly, the woman who started the thread because she suspected vitex as making her cycle late actually got pregnant! However some women reported a late or early cycle, or headaches.
We cannot say for sure if all these symptoms were due to the vitex. However affecting the hypothalamus-pituitary axis is probably not a fit for every case of luteal phase defect or infertility.
Mechanism of Action of Maca
Biologist Dr. Chacon has done the most important scientific work to date on the maca plant. Dr. Chacon isolated four alkaloids from the maca root and carried out animal studies with male and female rats given either powdered maca root or alkaloids isolated from the roots. In comparison with the animal control groups, those receiving either root powder or alkaloids showed multiple egg follicle maturation in females and, in males, significantly higher sperm production and motility rates than control groups.
Dr. Chacon established that it was the alkaloids in the maca root, not its plant hormones, that produced fertility effects on the ovaries and testes of the rats. These effects are measurable within 72 hours of dosing the animals. Through the experiments, she deduced that the alkaloids were acting on the hypothalamus-pituitary gland, which explains why both male and female rats were afflicted in a gender-appropriate manner. This also explains why the effects in humans are not limited to ovaries and testes, but also act on the adrenals, giving a feeling of greater energy and vitality, and on the pancreas and thyroid as well.
Now practicing complementary medicine with an emphasis on the use of medicinal herbs, one of the earliest modern pioneers in the therapeutic use of this ancient herb for an urban population is Hugo Malaspina, MD, a respected cardiologist in Lima. Dr. Malaspina has been using the maca root in his practice for a decade and makes the following observations. 'There are different medicinal plants that work on the ovaries by stimulating them. With maca, though, we should say that it 'regulates' the ovarian function.’ Source
Maca is an adaptogen, which means the body will use it to self-regulate and adapt to stressors. Maca also contains a variety of nutrients, including zinc, iodine, copper, selenium, manganese and silicon. Source
Unlike the sexual dampening effects of vitex on men, maca is often cited as helpful for sexual performance in and desire. For women, it is helpful for fertility, PMS and in the management of perimenopause and menopausal symptoms.
My experience: I experimented with maca about 10 years ago when I worked in an herb shoppe. It gave me a good dose of energy. I was cautious to use it with my clients because of some reports that it could more firmly establish an already irregular cycle. But as I learn more, I think it will be well-tolerated by most people.
Does Maca Cause Side Effects?
As with vitex, maca seems to work on the HP axis, and it may not be a fit for everyone. Or, some sources say, you may have side effects at first that could pass. One approach is to start slowly.
If you are highly sensitive to nightshades, start maca slowly to see if tolerated.
Maca also contains iodine, which may aggravate an autoimmune thyroid condition. Source
Substances that work on the hypothalamic-pituitary axis are working ‘upstream,’ as my talented Standard Process herb representative (and former midwife) Julie Shivley would say. This is a pretty powerful place to start, so starting slowly and ‘watching and waiting’ may be advised.
Sometimes we don’t need to go so far upstream to treat the hormones. Sometimes we need to work more on diet and lifestyle, or focus more directly on the adrenals or the ovaries (downstream, but still potent.) Supporting the gut and liver in detoxification of used hormones is also critical in hormone management.
If you would like to gauge your own hormone stressors, please take our Hidden Hormonal Stressors interactive quiz here! It reviews blood sugar, thyroid imbalance, adrenal exhaustion and digestive stress as possible causes of your female cycle issues. It also includes quick tips for getting start to heal your hormones.