From the jungles of South America, cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa) is a woody vine that features thorns shaped like hooks, which allow this plant to climb and cling to trees as high as 100 feet tall. Used therapeutically for at least 2,000 years by indigenous peoples of the rainforest, cat’s claw – or uña de gato, as it is known locally – is believed to have magical healing powers.
And indeed, there is something magical about this plant. Composed of at least 30 constituents – including alkaloids, tannins, phenolic acids, diterpenes, flavonoids, and other powerful phytochemicals – cat’s claw is an extraordinary specimen with the capacity to heal us on so many levels. Read on to discover the amazing benefits of this little-known medicinal herb.
1. Cat’s Claw is a Seriously Powerful Antioxidant
Analysis of cat’s claw bark extracts revealed it to be a potent antioxidant, with greater free radical scavenging activity compared with fruits, vegetables, cereals, and other medicinal plants. This is due to very high concentrations of tannins and phenolic compounds found within cat’s claw, together amounting to 292 mg/g in ethanol extracts and 111 mg/g in aqueous extracts.
Measured against broccoli (11.7 mg/g), blackberry (23.1 mg/g), and Echinacea root (62 mg/g), the total tannins and phenolic compounds in cat’s claw far exceeds these examples. Further testing on the efficacy of cat’s claw on free radicals led the authors to conclude that “the antioxidant capacity of…Uncaria tomentosa should occupy the top position within the worldwide dietary plants.”
2. It Repairs DNA Damage
Each day, our DNA undergoes millions of damaging events. Simply breathing in oxygen introduces free radicals into our bodies, which build up over time and cause damage not only to DNA, but RNA and proteins as well. Spending time in the sun is another way DNA becomes damaged, as exposure to ultraviolet light and other forms of radiation are known to disrupt the normal functioning of cells that can lead to skin cancer. Air pollution – specifically polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are found in car exhaust fumes, cigarette smoke, and the burning of fossil fuels – can compromise DNA and result in the formation of tumors in the body.
Though our bodies are equipped to repair DNA damage, the system is far from perfect. As we age, the body’s ability to fix itself is reduced. It may make mistakes that can shorten our lifespan.
Studies performed on cat’s claw have shown that it can supplement the natural mechanisms our bodies possess and assist in repairing damaged DNA. In one study from 2001, a group of healthy volunteers underwent chemotherapy treatments to induce DNA damage; they then were given cat’s claw water extracts for a period of eight weeks. The cat’s claw supplements were found to reduce the amount of DNA damage that occurred in the first place and increased the degree of DNA repair as compared to the control group. Another study testing the effect of cat’s claw on skin cultures exposed to radiation resulted in a reduction of cell death from UV light and enhanced DNA repair. The study’s researchers noted that cat’s claw could be a viable and natural alternative to sunscreen.
3. It Strengthens the Immune System
Protecting us against illness and disease, white blood cells play an important role in immune system function by defending against viruses, bacteria, and other foreign entities.
Shown to significantly elevate white blood cell counts in an animal study, the effect of cat’s claw on human participants had the same result. The study involved providing volunteers with cat’s claw supplements for two months prior to receiving a pneumonia vaccine. In addition to increasing white blood cells, consuming cat’s claw greatly reduced the rate of decay of the vaccination five months after receiving the shot.
4. It Helps Treat the Symptoms of Arthritis
Cat’s claw also possesses powerful anti-inflammatory properties, and is capable of suppressing tumor necrosis factor (TNF) – a group of pro-inflammatory proteins that have been implicated in rheumatoid arthritis. Use of this supplement on rheumatoid arthritis suffers for one year had the effect of reducing pain and swelling by more than 50%.
Also of benefit to patients with osteoarthritis of the knee, taking cat’s claw for just one week significantly reduced pain during walking and other physical activities by inhibiting TNF production.
5. It Lowers High Blood Pressure
Hypertension is a common condition that, when left untreated, will eventually cause heart problems such as heart attack and stroke.
In assessing the blood pressure reducing effects of various herbs and plants (thankfully, there are many), cat’s claw was identified as a natural remedy for high blood pressure. With a long history of use for hypertension in traditional Chinese medicine, Uncaria sp. contains the organic compound hirsutine. A neuroprotective alkaloid, hirsutine was shown in animal studies to be an effective calcium channel blocker – preventing calcium from entering the heart and blood vessels which results in lower blood pressure.
6. It Holds Promise as a Treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease
The neuroprotective effects of cat’s claw also extend to degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. A 2006 study reviewed the impact several herbs had on the pathological markers of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain, and the Chinese speicies of cat’s claw (Uncaria rhynchophylla) especially stood out.
Of the 20 Chinese herbs known to hold a benefit for memory and intelligence (including turmeric, cinnamon, ginseng, and mondo grass), the activity of cat’s claw in the brain was superior to these plants, able to inhibit proteins associated with the development on Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to these preventative effects, cat’s claw had the ability to “destabilize” these proteins after they had already formed in the brain. The remarkable impact of cat’s claw in this study prompted the researchers to speculate that this plant has the potency to become a natural remedy for the prevention and / or cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
7. It is Antimutagenic
In the fight against cancer, too often herbal remedies are overlooked despite the tremendous amount of scientific findings that indicate many plants have the power to prevent and correct the malignant spread of abnormal cells.
In the case of cat’s claw, research suggests that it is anti-tumor, anti-proliferative, and anti-mutagenic. An in vitro breast cancer cell study found that cat’s claw reduced the frequency of mutations as well as stemmed the spread of cancer cells by 90%. In support of these findings, another study showed that cat’s claw had an anti-proliferative effect on tumors in mice.
Using alkaloids derived from the cat’s claw vine, test tube experiments on leukaemia cells furthered the notion that this plant is capable of inhibiting the spread of cancer cells while inducing apoptosis – cell death that helps balance normal cell division. Similar results were seen with thyroid carcinoma cell lines.
Even at the late-stage, cat’s claw has shown a benefit to people with advanced cancer. Fifty one patients with solid tumors, who had a life expectancy of as little as two months, and were without any further medical intervention options, were given 100 mg of cat’s claw three times per day. Not only did cat’s claw improve their quality of life (reduced fatigue, anxiety, depression, and inflammation, as well as better sleep quality and social functioning), the treatment prolonged survival in four of the participants, stabilizing their condition for as long as eight months.
8. It’s Antiviral
In addition to immune system support, cat’s claw holds strong antiviral properties. Studies on the plant’s effects on dengue virus and herpes simplex showed that it helped to slow the spread of infection. In the herpes virus testing, cat’s claw extract prevented the virus from attaching to the host cells, while the dengue fever study found it reduced the infection rates of monocytes, a type of white blood cell.
How to Use Cat’s Claw
Cat’s claw comes in many forms. It is widely available as a daily supplement. You can also take it as a liquid extract that can be added to teas and juice. Or you may use fresh bark powder and mix it with smoothies. It is practically tasteless, so it won’t have much impact on the flavoring of your drinks.
Although use of cat’s claw is very safe, with only minor side effects if any, it’s always best to consult with your healthcare practitioner before taking this medicinal plant.