Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

by Ally Broughton MSc BSc (hons) MNIMH Medical Herbalist, Researcher Herbal practitioner and member of the research team for the National Institute of Medical Herbalists. 

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal imbalance involving the development of cysts on the ovaries which can lead to a range of distressing symptoms including painful periods, premenstrual syndrome, acne, facial hair growth and weight gain. PCOS affects many women, an estimated 10-15% of the population, and is a common cause of fertility problems and may lead to other health conditions such as diabetesi.

Herbal Medicine & PCOS

Herbal medicines can help to restore hormonal balance containing a natural source of phytoestrogensii. Whilst these active plant constituents are not actual hormones, they are the ‘building blocks’ necessary for the body to produce hormones and gently stimulate the natural bodily processes into the correct hormonal balance, and thereby alleviate symptoms without side effects. Many herbs are a rich source of phytoestrogens including Agnus castus, Red clover, Marigold, Black cohosh, Motherwort and Ladies mantle. Recent research has focused on the herb Agnus castus.

Agnus castus (Vitex, Chaste tree berries)

Agnus castus has been used traditionally by herbalists for centuries specifically to treat hormonal imbalances and menstrual problems including premenstrual tension, heavy and painful periods and other irregularities in the menstrual cycle such as PCOS and endometriosis.

Modern clinical studies across Europe demonstrate the benefits of using Agnus castus in the treatment of premenstrual symptoms, menstrual irregularities and infertility, all of which may be associated with PCOS. Few side effects are reported in all studies, supporting its long traditional use and safety record. 

Research Studies

A clinical study using Agnus castus extract on 176 women suffering with PMS: the study concluded an effective and well tolerated treatment for the relief of premenstrual symptoms including mood changes and breast tendernessiii. In another clinical study 121 women suffering from moderate to severe premenstrual symptoms were given an Agnus castus dried herb extract over 3 menstrual cycles. The study concluded that treatment was effective in the majority of cases in relieving symptoms, in particular, mood changesiv

Other clinical studies have investigated potential benefits for improving menstrual irregularities and fertility problemsv

Research on Safety

A study on the safety of Agnus castus reviewed all published clinical studies available on side effects reported and concluded that it is a safe herbal medicine to take with no serious side effectsvi

The Herbal Practitioner Approach to Treatment 

Approach involves prescribing herbs on an individual basis depending on the symptoms experienced, medical history, diet, life style, overall health and wellbeing. Following a detailed case history, a specific herbal medicine is prescribed. For PCOS specific advice on weight control, blood sugar balance, exercise and stress management can be helpful, all of which influence hormonal balance and overall health.

By consulting with a herbal practitioner, the herbal medicine and treatment plan can be tailored to your individual needs and gives you the added assurance that you are taking the right medicines safely. An individual approach means that all your health needs are taken into consideration. 

The symptoms of PCOS can be mild to severely debilitating and can differ widely between individual women. There is a potential risk of developing diabetes, weight problems or infertility and it is therefore advisable to seek professional advice on any individual health concerns.

If you are pregnant, trying to conceive, or are on prescribed medications for a health condition, always ask a professional health practitioner for advice before taking any over the counter herbal supplements.

Further information on PCOS

Verity is a UK charity for women whose lives are affected by PCOS Verity is a self-help group for women offering support and providing up to date medical information. www.verity-pcos.org.uk


i March WA et al, 2010: The prevalence of polycystic ovary syndrome in a community sample assessed under contrasting diagnostic criteria. Human Reproduction: Vol 25(2):pp544-551 http://humrep.oxfordjournals.org/content/25/2/544.short

ii Trickey R, 2003: Women, hormones & the menstrual cycle. Allen and Unwin, Australia

iii Shellenberg R, 2001: Treatment for Premenstrual Syndrome with Agnus castus fruit extract: prospective randomized, placebo controlled study. BMJ: 322:134 http://www.bmj.com/content/322/7279/134.abstract

iv Prilepskaya VN et al, 2006: Vitex agnus castus: successful treatment of moderate to severe premenstrual syndrome. The European Menopausal Journal, Maturitas: Vol 55; pp S55-S63

v Westphal LM et al, 2004: A nutritional supplement for improving fertility in women. The Journal of Reproductive Medicine: Vol. 49(4):pp289-293 http://www.reproductivehealing.com/medart/fertilityblend.pdf

vi Daniele C et al, 2005: Vitex agnus castus: A systematic review of adverse events. Drug safety: 28(4): 319-332