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Bionorica one-a-day agnus castus tablet compared to Viridian agnus castus capsules (and 20p piece for scale)

agnus castus products - capsule by Viridian and tablet by Bionorica
The two forms of agnus castus – capsules and tablets (NEW)

There’s solid research behind agnus castus, and it’s a godsend for many women with PMS.  Agnus castus is an age-old herbal remedy, which seems to work by:

  • Raising progesterone
  • Reducing prolactin
  • Counteracting excessive oestrogen

Agnus castus can also be helpful during perimenopause.  Although hormone levels overall are declining during this time, fewer menstrual cycles where ovulation occurs (called anovulatory cycles) mean less progesterone is released in the second half of your cycle.  This in turn can lead to oestrogen dominance, often accompanied by symptoms like hot flushes (or ‘flashes’, if you’re American), forgetfulness and putting on weight.  Which is where topping up with progesterone, either by a ‘natural’ progesterone cream, or agnus castus, comes in.

A small number of women – usually those with with the most extreme form of PMS, called PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) – have an intolerance to progesterone.  But for most PMS sufferers and women in perminenopause, agnus castus is a safe and effective herbal remedy with minimal side effects.

Well, the good news seems to have just got better: there’s now a one-a-day formulation of agnus castus available in tablet form.

The New Agnus Castus Kid on the Block

I was recently sent a free sample of a month’s supply of a new agnus castus product called Cyclopret. (Free samples were available to members of NAPS to tie in with PMS Awareness Week).

I’ve been used to taking agnus castus three times a day in the form of powdered herb in a capsule.  My choice of brand is usually Viridian, which is an ethical UK-based company which donates part of its profits to charity.  Obviously, I pay for my usual supply myself (not freebies!).

I was intrigued to find that this agnus product looked completely different – and that the recommended dose was only one tablet a day. 

Hang on a minute… just ONE? Was this some sort of homoeopathic remedy, I wondered, with only the teensiest, tiniest molecule of actually active ingredient which would prove worse than useless?

I checked the packaging and was even more bemused. The dose in each individual tablet is advertised as being 4mg.  That’s 4mg compared to a single capsule of my regular brand containing:

  • 200mg agnus castus extract
  • PLUS 150mg of agnus castus powder (i.e. the whole berry) in each capsule
  • with a recommended dose of 1-3 capsules per day
  • totalling a whole lot more than 4mg of agnus castus! 

Extracting Only the Active Ingredients From Agnus Castus

I emailed Bionorica, who make Cyclopret, and queried the difference in appearance, strength and recommended dose.   This is what I gleaned:

  1. Bionorica is a long-established German company that specialises in herbs. (Interestingly, one of their other products is St John’s Wort, an anti-depressant herb which seems to have a beneficial effect on serotonin, and which I will do a post about soon).  The Germans pioneered the use of agnus castus and have a long history of using it in PMS treatment and research its effects, so this felt like a good sign.
  2. Rather than using the whole agnus castus plant or berries in a dried form, Bionorica extract the active compounds using water and alcohol.  This process is called phytoneering – I guess from ‘phyto’ = plants + ‘engineering’ – and more technical information is available from the English language pages on their German website (there’s also a separate website specifically for the UK).

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PMS and breast tenderness

When you have PMS breast tenderness, your breasts can feel heavy like melons!Breast tenderness may not be the most life-changing of PMS symptoms, but sore and swollen breasts can make you feel uncomfortable all the same.  Breasts so heavy and sensitive that something brushing up against you makes you wince can make you feel grouchy and vulnerable.

Breast Tenderness Is Very Common

So-called fibrocystic breasts (fibrocystic means benign breast pain that’s related to your monthly cycle, rather than something more worrying, like breast cancer) are very common in women of child bearing age, and breast tenderness is one of the top ten PMS symptoms.  Breast tenderness often goes hand in hand with feelings of bloating, swelling and fluid retention in the second half of your cycle, together with weight gain. 

It’s all because your body is getting ready for pregnancy (even if you’re not) and responding to the monthly fluctuations in hormones which are part of your cycle.  In particular, oestrogen and prolactin are significant for breast tenderness: oestrogen is what makes you curvy, creating fat around your hips, bottom and thighs for example, and prolactin is naturally produced when we breastfeed.

What Can You Do About Monthly Breast Tenderness?

The best thing to do to prevent breast tenderness is to balance your hormones throughout the month by eating whole foods and consuming essential fatty acids (like evening primrose oil, or borage oil) and fibre (like flax and complex carbohydrates), getting regular exercise and reducing stress. (I never said there was a ‘magic bullet’ for PMS!)

On top of all that, the following tips are specific to reducing breast tenderness caused by monthly hormonal changes.  (Be aware that certain medications can cause breast tenderness as a side-effect too: these include the Pill and antidepressants).

SALT Aggravates BREAST TENDERNESS (And BLoating)

Salt (sodium) is a factor in fluid retention and bloating generally.  And we all eat too much of it. 

It’s not just a case of reducing the salt you use in cooking, or what you add to your plate at the table.  Most of the salt – and sugar, for that matter – that we consume is hidden in shop bought foods.  Examples include butters and margarines, bread, canned food and ready meals – not to mention most crisps, crackers and other savoury snacks (salted nuts, anyone?). 

If you are prone to bloating and breast tenderness, try to cut down wherever you can and see if it makes a difference.  It will certainly make a difference to your health overall.

Saturated fats and dairy aggravate breast tenderness

A high consumption of saturated animal fats has been shown to increase oestrogen levels which in turn exacerbates PMS symptoms like breast tenderness.  This is probably due to the hormones used in livestock farming and milk production (basically, farmers give cows oestrogen to make them grow and get fat).

If you already have an imbalance of oestrogen – as demonstrated by PMS symptoms like breast tenderness – it doesn’t help to take on board artificial oestrogens from external sources.

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There are better alternatives for PMS than evening primrose


Evening Primrose Oil Remains a Popular Dietary Supplement

woman with PMS holding up evening primrose oil capsuleFor years I remember being told to take evening primrose oil.  I’ve long since moved on to more effective ways to balance hormones and control my PMS, but one of my readers recently reminded me that evening primrose oil is still commonly offered to women with PMS.  In fact, she’d gone into a branch of a chain of health food stores and evening primrose oil was the ONLY thing the staff there could suggest for PMS.

So I thought it was high time that I reviewed whether the claims for evening primrose oil are supported by experience and by the scientific evidence. Basically, does it work?  Or is it a waste of time and money…

Why Evening Primrose Oil Is Linked to PMS Treatment

Evening primrose oil is made from the seeds of this plant

via Wikimedia Commons

First of all, let’s look at how evening primrose oil is supposed to work for PMS. 

Evening primrose oil is the made from the oil extracted from the plant’s seeds which contain the fatty acids, linoleic acid and gamma linolenic acid (GLA). Evening primrose oil extract contains about 10% of gamma linolenic acid (GLA) and it’s this which is thought to help premenstrual syndrome.

GLA is a fatty acid found in vegetable oils which is needed for the formation of healthy cell membranes.  Inside the body, it converts into a hormone-like substance (a prostaglandin) and helps regulate women’s  reproductive system and menstrual cycles.

There are other health claims made for evening primrose oil, including that it lowers cholesterol levels and helps with inflammatory and auto-immune diseases.  You may even read that it helps with alcoholism. 

Evening primrose oil is also often sold for healthy skin, hair and nails, and you’ll find it as an ingredient in beauty creams, as well as being sold in capsules.  For a long time, the idea that it helps with eczema was promoted too (when applied on the skin, rather than being taken internally).  However, this angle has been thoroughly researched and soundly disproved in a paper published in the British Medical Journal.

Is Evening Primrose Oil Safe?

The answer to that question at least seems to be yes, evening primrose oil is safe to use as a dietary supplement at the recommended dosage.  Side effects are rare, although some cases of indigestion, diarrhoea and headaches have been reported.

In common with many supplements, you’re not advised to take evening primrose oil if you’re:

  • pregnant
  • have epilepsy
  • have any blood or bleeding disorders or are about to undergo surgery
  • suffer from schizophrenia

Is There Scientific Evidence for Evening Primrose Oil As a PMS Remedy?

Unfortunately, when you look at the available research, there is very little evidence to support the claim that evening primrose oil helps with PMS overall. Continue reading

Agnus Castus - does it work for PMS?

Agnus Castus is a Proven Herbal Treatment Option for PMS

agnus castus effective for PMS

The herb Agnus Castus in its natural state

Agnus castus is an alternative to the two main choices offered by doctors to women with PMS, namely synthetic hormones (usually oestrogen and progesterone) or SSRIs anti-depressants. 

Agnus castus is the most studied one of the herbal alternatives for PMS, and is considered to be safe and effective and without the side effects associated with pharmaceuticals. 

Agnus castus has been used to restore hormonal balance and help make menstrual cycles more regular over many generations.  It seems to have a balancing effect on female hormones in the second half of the menstrual cycle which alleviates PMS (something we’re all grateful for!)

What’s The Evidence for Agnus Castus’ Effectiveness?

Unlike some alternative therapies, there’s plentiful research evidence to back up the age-old use of agnus castus.  A randomised controlled study involving 170 women in Germany in 2001 showed a significant improvement in symptoms compared to a placebo (dummy pill): 

Over half the women had a 50% or greater improvement in their symptoms

Patient acceptance was high and side effects were few and mild

Another study in Germany in 2004this time involving more than 1,600 women – showed that four out of five of the women rated their PMS as ‘much better’ or ‘very much better’ as a result of taking agnus castus.  More recently still (2010), a research study in China again showed significant improvements in women with PMS symptoms using agnus castus compared to a placebo.  And there are numerous other studies around the world which all show remarkable consistent results.  It’s pretty impressive stuff.

How does Agnus Castus Work?

Here’s the science bit.  Your hormones make up a finely balanced system.  Although the causes of PMS are still not fully understood, two factors seem to be key:

  • Hormone levels being out of balance with each other (e.g. too much oestrogen and not enough progesterone), and / or
  • A hyper-sensitivity to the monthly fluctuations in your body’s hormone levels (and since hormones going up and down is the very essence of the monthly menstrual cycle, this hormone rollercoaster is hard to avoid) 

Although agnus castus doesn’t actually contain any hormones itself, it has properties which act on the body’s endocrine (hormone) system and seems to work on the pituitary gland in the brain which produces the hormones which regulate those secreted from your ovaries which then determine your menstrual cycle.  It’s all interrelated. 

agnus castus

Balanced hormones, balanced life.

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The Truth About Milk and PMS

PikiWiki Israel 4795 Milking cow



I like dairy.  I grew up on a farm.  But one has to look at the facts.  Dairy has been considered a health food, and that’s an unfortunate myth.

T. Colin Campbell, Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, author of The China Study


I recently wrote a post about the misguided PMS advertising produced in America by the milk producers’ association, which many women felt was offensive in the way it trivialised PMS and focussed on its impact on men (while selling a product to women – confused, or what?).

There was also something more fundamental wrong with this ad campaign.  And that’s the fact that the link between milk and reduced PMS is tenuous, at best.  

Time To Question Our Reliance on Milk

We’ve all been brought up with the notion that milk contains calcium which builds healthy bones (and apparently now also sorts out PMS).  But there are many other sources of calcium which are as good – or better – at being absorbed by the body. 

The reality is that the rate of osteoporosis (an issue for older women in particular) is rising at the same time as dairy consumption is increasing .  So calcium from milk evidently isn’t doing its job the way we’re supposed to believe. (I’ll talk about calcium sources and Vitamin D, essential for absorption, in another post).

Of course, it’s never about just one mineral or vitamin in isolation.  A holistic nutritional approach to managing PMS might include:

  • Lots of fibre and antioxidants in the form of fruit and vegetables, pulses (legumes), seeds and grains and essential fatty acids (Omega 3 fats are especially low in the modern diet).  These will balance blood sugar, improve brain chemistry, and provide a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals.
  • Supplements, as appropriate, for instance, agnus castus or maca 
  • Exercise as a crucial way to improve your metabolism and improve mood
  • Steering clear of foods that aggravate PMS, like alcohol, sugar and processed foods

But that solution’s not as simple and appealing to the marketing bods, is it? 

Beware Big Business Marketing

It’s worth remembering that the milk and meat industries are hugely powerful lobby groups and exercise massive marketing power.  (The latest area where profits from increasing milk production are being aggressively pursued is China – a country where historically, dairy milk consumption has been very low, but is now on the rise).

Women represent a huge market – especially when claims are made about the health benefits of certain foods.  As Ms Magazine points out, this American ‘Milk for PMS’ ad is presented as a kind of public health announcement with the interests of women at heart.  This rather masks the commercial profit motive actually driving it .

Milk – Unhealthy and Unnatural?

There are many issues concerning milk, from the level of saturated fat (implicated in various chronic diseases), and the additives routinely fed to the cows, to the hormone levels present in the milk.  Arguably, the last thing you need when trying to balance your own human hormones is more oestrogen or prolactin. 

Milk is also acid-producing within the body, rather than being alkaline-producing. I’ll talk about why restoring pH balance is important for optimal health in a later post.

Milk is difficult to digest.  In the normal run of events, animals become lactose intolerant when they are young.  But humans – especially those where a lot of milk is consumed – have developed lactase persistence, which means they can continue drinking milk (although this decreases with age).  Countries where there is little historic milk consumption typically have high levels of lactose intolerance.  Symptoms of lactose intolerance include bloating, flatulence and abdominal pain and are often similar to irritable bowel syndrome. 

Cow’s milk is the ideal food for baby calves to help them grow into adult cows.  There’s no question about that.  Whether it’s as suitable as a healthy or long-term food for humans is debatable.  What other species continues to breast feed throughout it’s adult life – and using the milk of another species at that?

Thanks for reading!

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