There is an herb from Peru known as Cat’s Claw that is always on my shelf of supplements at home. It’s there, year after year, for a very good reason. It works.
I first ran across Cat’s Claw (Uncaria tomentosa) many years back when I was attending a lecture on South American herbal medicines at Texas A&I University. The speaker, an ethno-botanist, who had traveled the jungles and mountains of South America for years, went on and on about the wonders of Cat’s Claw and how the native healers used it to treat everything under the sun from infectious diseases to parasites to arthritis. I filed this information in my internal database and pretty much forgot about it for several more years.
Then one day, a few months after I had bought my health food store, I came down with some sort of deep-seated lung infection. Couldn’t shake it even after a course of antibiotics. A vendor for one of the herb companies I dealt with happened in one afternoon, when I was in the middle of a death-rattle coughing fit, and suggested I try some Cat’s Claw, as he covered his nose with a handkerchief and back out the door.
Remembering the enthusiasm of the lecturer years before I went ahead and started taking the herb in capsule form. In just a few days my lungs were clear, much to my relief.
So I started to dig a little into the herbal literature and began to recommend Cat’s Claw to customers with similar complaints. What I found in the literature, and in my customers, was that Cat’s Claw is a truly remarkable herb with a long history of safe use.*
There exists a great deal of peer-reviewed research on this herb and nearly all of it supports the purposes for which it is used by the indigenous Peruvian people.
For instance, Peruvian healers use Cat’s Claw for these conditions and each is supported by the studies in parenthesis:
Arthritis and inflammation (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1919590?dopt=Citation and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12120814?dopt=Citation)
High blood pressure may also benefit from Cat’s Claw…
“The major alkaloid, rhynchophylline, is claimed to be anti-hypertensive; it relaxes the endothelial cells of blood vessels, dilates peripheral blood vessels, inhibits sympathetic nervous system activities, and lowers the heart rate and blood cholesterol.”**
Nearly all of us at some time in our lives have endured our own “dark night of the soul”, when all seems lost and every effort seems futile. Eventually the crises passes and ones life and mental balance resume their normal course. Hopefully…
But, when you’re in the middle of that divorce, or death of a loved one, or financial crises, or whatever it is that you struggle with, you are in grave danger. Danger not from the crises itself, but from your body’s reaction to the crises. In reaction to perceived danger your body produces “stress hormones” such as cortisol and adrenaline and we all know what that feels like… your heart races, blood pressure rises, anxiety clutches your throat and tears at your mind and decent night’s sleep is impossible.
When we were still out on the plains of Africa being chased by lions and hyenas, this state of “fight or flight” served a valuable purpose. It allowed us to survive by running faster or fighting harder. And then it was over. The danger was past and we all went back to sleep under the acacia tree.
The lions are gone now, at least for most of us, but now we face modern dangers and stresses every bit as terrifying… and oftentimes, these problems don’t go away. It’s as if the lions have decided to sleep next to us under that shady tree.
Most of us know how this state of prolonged “high anxiety” feels and none of us like it. Unresolved anxiety and the physiological responses to it are profoundly damaging to the body and brain. Hypertension, diabetes, actual shrinkage of the brain, damage to the heart, loss of collagen in the skin and joints, immune system suppression… the list goes on and on.
The pharmaceutical industry’s response to relief of anxiety and depression is a basket full of anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax, Valium, Klonopin and anti-depressant drugs like Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft. Not only can these drugs be habit-forming, but some, such as Prozac, may cause a host of disturbing and dangerous side-effects such as nausea, insomnia, personality changes and most disturbingly, a possible increased risk of suicide. To add insult to injury, the Selective Seratonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s) such as Prozac may take weeks before they begin to work!
Pardon me while I kick over the pharmaceutical card table and run for the door.
(Expletive deleted) This is the best our drug companies can come up with???
Let’s go knock on Mother Nature’s door and see what natural anxiety-reducing alternative she’s cooked up over a billion or so years of plant evolution…
Throughout the Western pacific, the cultures of Polynesia and Melanesia all regularly enjoy a plant they call Kava Kava (Piper methysticum) or Kava, in short.
For thousands of years these people have used the root of the kava plant to brew a drink with miraculous properties. Kava seems to relieve stress and anxiety, relax the muscles and provide a gentle sense of tranquility without any mental confusion or loss of judgment. Best of all, the effects occur within minutes instead of weeks and there is no risk of dependence and no bothersome “hangover” the following day. Scientific studies are not really needed to support these claims, as anyone who has used kava can attest. However, for those who wish to read a study on kava’s anti-anxiety effects, here’s a good one. (1)
Kava is an herbal medicine for which I have the utmost respect, as it helped me endure a very difficult period in my life a few years back. During my own personal “dark night” I took it every evening to help me relax and go to sleep. Then, months later, with the crises resolved, I simply stopped using kava and I never missed it.
Now the question always arises, “But what about the reports of liver damage in Kava users?” Well, it seems that in the late 1990’s as kava was growing in popularity, several reports emerged of people with serious liver problems, who had been using kava. How many cases? Germany had 7, Switzerland 2, US had 2, Australia had 1 and New Caledonia had 2. Fourteen people. This was out of an estimated 450 million doses of production worldwide. No need to break put the calculator on those odds.
Perhaps the fact some of these cases were in people who were taking other drugs, both legal and otherwise, including alcohol, had something to do with it. Perhaps too, the fact that some kava producers had begun to uses the leaves and stems as well as the traditional root, due to a shortage of raw material, had an effect. Nobody really knows. (2)
What we do know is this: Kava works to dramatically and almost immediately to relieve anxiety. Kava helps you to sleep. Kava relaxes your muscles and induces a feeling of tranquility.
In 1937, Tom Harrison, author of Savage Civilization, wrote, “Your head is affected most pleasantly. Thoughts come cleanly. You feel friendly...never cross...You cannot hate with kava in you."
If you wish to try kava, there are several forms available at most health food stores. The active ingredients, known as kava-lactones, may be concentrated in capsule form, or liquid concentrated extracts may be used just as effectively. Just follow the recommendations on the bottle as each brand may differ slightly in terms of kava-lactone concentration.
Obviously, if you have liver problems, just to be safe, you may not choose to use kava. As with any medicinal herb or dietary supplement, it is wise to consult with a physician familiar with herbal usage, prior to use.
To Your Health!
References and Links:
1) “Kava extract versus placebo for treating anxiety” Max H Pittler, Edzard Ernst, German Cochrane Center, Department of Medical Biometry and Statistics, Freiburg, Germany. Complementary Medicine, Peninsula Medical School, Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, Exeter, UK http://mrw.interscience.wiley.com/cochrane/clsysrev/articles/CD003383/frame.html
2) “Kava hepatotoxicity: a European view.” N Z Med J. 2008 Oct 3;121(1283):90-8. Teschke R, Schwarzenboeck A, Akinci A. Department of Internal Medicine II, Klinikum Hanau, Teaching Hospital of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt/Main, Leimenstrasse 20, D-63450 Hanau, Germany. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18841189
The wine and grape juice industry is a global multi-billion dollar business, and as with any industry of this scale, there are waste products, in this case, the skin, pulp and seeds of the grape in enormous quantities. As luck would have it, and it’s good luck in this case, these waste products are a ready source of some exceedingly valuable anti-oxidant compounds with a wide range of health-promoting effects.
Once the grape is crushed and squeezed of most of its juice and the sugars are removed, the majority of the remaining dry pulp material is a combination of anthocyanins and polyphenols. The seeds contain large amounts of what are called oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPC’s). OPC’s also occur in the bark of certain species of pine tree and in the skin of peanuts and many other plant sources, but by far the most economical source is the abundant grape seed.
Each of these natural compounds exhibit very beneficial and somewhat different effects, but for the moment we’ll focus on OPC’s and their potential benefits. (anthocyanins and polyphenols found in grape pulp will be discussed in a future article)
The anti-oxidant effects of grape seed OPC’s are remarkable to say the least. Some sources claim the anti-oxidant potential of OPC’s are 50 times that of Vitamin E and 20 times that of Vitamin C. Other estimates are more conservative, yet one thing is certainly clear, OPC’s offer significant potential for optimizing one’s health due to their powerful anti-oxidant effects and the scientific research is solid in this regard (1)
This is not to say that OPC’s are a replacement for other anti-oxidants, as these other anti-oxidants are essential vitamins with a number of critical roles to play within the human body. However, it IS safe to say that OPC’s offer an anti-oxidant sparing effect in relation to C, E and other anti-oxidants. That is to say OPC’s may free up other anti-oxidants to fulfill their particular functions more effectively.
Many years ago I read of a study showing that if rats were injected with OPC’s, within four hours, the strength and flexibility of their arterial walls doubled. Four hours. Now this was such and bold and unusual claim, it stuck in the back of my mind all these years. Unfortunately I cannot locate the source at the moment but there are a host of more recent studies lending support to idea that grape seed extract can greatly benefit the heart and vascular system.
The important implication of course, is that humans with “hardening” of the arteries (atherosclerosis) or other vascular diseases might greatly reduce their risk of stroke or heart attack by consuming OPC’s.
There are a number of studies to support this compelling notion. A 2002 study done in China concluded that “The results indicate that the grape seed extract has inhibitory effect on atherosclerosis in C57BL/6J mice, and the possible mechanism may be related to inhibition of the increase of OX-LDL, and ICAM-1, reduction of the damage of vascular endothelium and protection of the function of vascular endothelium.” (2)
Yet another study, published in the US in 2003 found that Grape Seed Polyphenolic Extract (GSPE) exhibited a wide range of beneficial cardiovascular effects. “Approximately 49 and 63% reduction in foam cells, a biomarker of early stage atherosclerosis, were observed following supplementation of 50 and 100 mg GSPE/kg body weight, respectively. A human clinical trial was conducted on hypercholesterolemic subjects. GSPE supplementation significantly reduced oxidized LDL, a biomarker of cardiovascular diseases. Finally, a cDNA microarray study demonstrated significant inhibition of inducible endothelial CD36 expression, a novel cardioregulatory gene, by GSPE. These results demonstrate that GSPE may serve as a potential therapeutic tool in promoting cardiovascular health via a number of novel mechanisms.” (3)
It is doubtful OPC’s will ever be approved by the US FDA due to OPC’s being a non-patentable natural substance. (No money in it for the drug companies)
Once again we see an exceptionally valuable, safe and inexpensive natural substance being left by the wayside simply because it cannot be turned into a billion dollar drug.
Grape seed OPC’s are one of those natural substances that present a real challenge when writing about them due not to a lack of supporting literature, but rather an overabundance of it. I could fill page after page with references to solid scientific studies showing OPC’s potential in improving not only cardiovascular health but a host of other health issues as well, such as:
Suffice to say, OPC’s derived from grape seeds are worth considering if you suffer from any form of cardiovascular disease or if you simply wish to significantly increase your anti-oxidant intake and reap the benefits of doing so.
As with any powerful natural dietary supplement, you would be well advised to consult a doctor practicing Complementary Medicine before adding OPC’s to your dietary regimen, especially if you are already taking pharmaceutical medications for a cardiovascular condition.
To Your Good Health,
1) Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics 1998 Oct;23(5):385-9. An evaluation of the antioxidant activity of a standardized grape seed extract, Leucoselect. Nuttall SL, Kendall MJ, Bombardelli E, Morazzoni P. Department of Medicine, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, UK. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9875688?dopt=Citation
2) Journal of Hygiene Research (Wei Sheng Yan Jiu) 2002 Aug 31(4):263-5. Study of anti-atherosclerotic effect of grape seed extract and its mechanism. School of Public Health, Shandong University, Jinan 250012, China.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12600036?dopt=Citation
3) Mutation Research 2003 Feb-Mar;523-524:87-97. Molecular mechanisms of cardioprotection by a novel grape seed proanthocyanidin extract. Bagchi D, Sen CK, Ray SD, Das DK, Bagchi M, Preuss HG, Vinson JA. Department of Pharmacy Sciences, Medical Center, School of Pharmacy and Creighton University Health Professions, 2500 California Plaza, Omaha, NE 68178, USA. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12628506?dopt=Citation
*OPC’s should not be taken by persons on Warfarin of other blood thinning drugs.
According to the Sloan-Kettering Database, possible herb-drug interactions related to grape seed extracts are as follows:
“Cytochrome P450: Grape seed extract has been shown to inhibit cytochrome P450 isoenzymes, therefore may affect serum concentrations of certain medications metabolized by the same enzyme.
Warfarin (Coumadin): due to its tocopherol content, GSE may theoretically enhance the activity of Warfarin.” http://www.mskcc.org/mskcc/html/69243.cfm )