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Cat’s Claw Benefits for Immunity, Digestion and Chronic Disease
June 14, 2017
I’ve previously written about cat’s claw as one of the best antiviral herbs to boost the immune system and fight infection. This powerful herb is not only antiviral — it also has anti-inflammatory, anti-mutagenic and antioxidant properties. These health-promoting attributes may make cat’s claw helpful as a natural treatment for arthritis, allergies, asthma, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, cancer, viral infections, ulcers, hemorrhoids and more. (1)
This woody vine native to the Amazon rainforest can help many serious health problems by assisting the body in eliminating free radicals that cause cellular damage. Test tube studies also demonstrate that cat’s claw can stimulate the immune system, dilate blood vessels, act as a diuretic and relax smooth muscles (like the intestines).
Cat’s claw may be a more recent natural remedy in North American, but it has a lengthy history in South America dating back to the Inca civilization. It’s been used as traditional medicine by indigenous peoples in the Andes to treat inflammation, rheumatism, gastric ulcers, dysentery and even tumors. It’s also been used in South American folk medicine to treat arthritis, intestinal complaints and wounds. One of the most impressive effects of cat’s claw is its scientifically proven ability to repair DNA. (2)
All of these properties help make cat’s claw a benefit-rich herb, and that’s not all it can do for you.
What Is Cat’s Claw?
What’s the plant origin? Cat’s claw is a tropical woody vine belonging to the Rubiaceae plant family. It clings to the sides of trees as it grows by using its claw-shaped thorns. The trees are typically 100 feet or taller. At least 20 plants with sharp, curved thorns are considered to be cat’s claw or uña de gato.
Uña de gato, its Spanish namesake, is native to the South and Central American tropical rain forests. Two species of cat’s claw are commonly used in North America and Europe. These are Uncaria tomentosa and Uncaria guianensis, which have different properties and medicinal uses. Uncaria tomentosa is the more heavily researched and used form when it comes to medicinal use and immune modulation. Uncaria guianensis is traditionally used for wound healing. Uncaria tomentosa makes up most of the cat’s claw imported to the U.S.
For medicinal purposes, the root and and bark of the cat’s claw vine are made into tea, tinctures, capsules or tablets. Cat’s claw is full of beneficial plant chemicals.
It’s said to contain over 30 known constituents, including at least 17 alkaloids, along with glycosides, tannins, flavonoids, sterol fractions and other compounds. All of these phytonutrients can do amazing things in the body, like the benefits listed above.
1. Treats Arthritis
Multiples studies have confirmed using cat’s claw to naturally improve both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. In a 2001 study, 45 subjects suffering from osteoarthritis of the knee either took 100 milligrams per day of freeze-dried cat’s claw or a placebo for four weeks.
Researchers found that “pain associated with activity, medical and patient assessment scores were all significantly reduced with benefits occurring within the first week of therapy.” Knee pain at rest or at night and knee circumference were not significantly reduced by cat’s claw during the short trial, but results led researchers to conclude that cat’s claw is an effective treatment for osteoarthritis with no significant side effects. (3)
A study published in the Journal of Rheumatology looked at the effects of cat’s claw on patients with active rheumatoid arthritis (RA) currently taking conventional RA medicines. In this double-blind study, 24 weeks of treatment with the cat’s claw extract resulted in a reduction of the number of painful joints compared to the placebo. The extract was obtained from a specific strain of cat’s claw that contains pentacyclic oxindole alkaloids, which are compounds that appear to be immune system modulators. (4)
2. May Fight Cancer
Scientific studies suggest cat’s claw may help kill tumor and cancer cells in test tubes. A 2001 in vivo study demonstrated that the bark of cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa) prevented the growth of human breast cancer cell line MCF7 by having antimutagenic and antiproliferative effects on the cancer cells. (5)
Cat’s claw has also demonstrated its ability to fight against leukemia. A 2006 study published in the British Journal of Haematology was the first to investigate the antiproliferative and apoptotic effects of five highly purified oxindole alkaloids of Uncaria tomentosa, including isopteropodine, pteropodine, isomitraphylline, uncarine F and mitraphylline.
Four of the five alkaloids inhibited the proliferation of human leukemia cells in the lab, but the researchers found that cat’s claw pteropodine and uncarine F both were especially impressive. These alkaloids were most potent in both inhibiting the growth of human leukemia cells from and inducing the cells to undergo programmed cell death or apoptosis. This points toward these specific alkaloids having significant potential to not only stop cancer from continuing to grow, but also killing the cancer cells themselves. (6)
A 2015 study also found that the cat’s claw might be especially beneficial to advanced cancer patients by improving their quality of life and reducing fatigue. (7) All of this makes cat’s claw a potentially effective natural cancer treatment.
3. Repairs DNA
In vivo studies have shown that water-soluble extracts of cat’s claw (C-Med-100) can enhance DNA repair, mitogenic response and leukocyte recovery after chemotherapy-induced DNA damage. Chemotherapy is a common conventional cancer treatment with many negative side effects, including damage to the DNA of healthy cells.
A 2001 study looked at the effects of using a water-soluble cat’s claw extract (250 and 350 milligrams per day) for eight weeks on adult volunteers who had previously received chemotherapy. The results were truly awesome. There was a significant decrease of DNA damage and an increase of DNA repair in both cat’s claw supplement groups compared to the non-supplement group. The supplement groups also had an increase in white blood cell proliferation, which is also a huge finding since chemotherapy commonly reduces white blood cell counts and increases infection risk. (8)
A 2006 study wanted to evaluated the ability of a water-soluble cat’s claw extract to enhance DNA repair in human skin. Using skin cultures, researchers found that the extract protected human skin cells from death induced by ultraviolet radiation. How? By increasing the ability of skin cells to repair the DNA damage done by UV light. Researchers conclude that cat’s claw extract should be considered for use as a natural sunscreen. (9)
4. Lowers High Blood Pressure
Studies of cat’s claw as a treatment for hypertension indicate that it may be helpful in naturally reducing high blood pressure. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, a variety of cat’s claw (Uncaria rhynchophylla) has been used to lower blood pressure as well as improve various neurological symptoms.
Cat’s claw has also been shown to inhibit platelet aggregation and blood clot formation. This means that cat’s claw could likely be helpful in warding off heart attacks and strokes by not only decreasing blood pressure and increasing circulation, but by also inhibiting the formation of plaque and blood clots in the arteries, heart and brain. (10)
Cat’s claw’s ability to improve blood pressure has been attributed to an alkaloid called hirsutine. This health-promoting alkaloid has been found to specifically act at the calcium channels of the heart and blood vessels as a calcium channel blocker. (11)
Why is this significant? Calcium channel blockers can lower blood pressure by blocking calcium from entering the cells of the heart and blood vessel walls. Calcium channel blockers also widen and relax the blood vessels themselves, which helps blood flow in a healthy, smooth manner.
5. Boosts Immune Function
Both animal and human studies have demonstrated cat claw’s powerful immune-boosting abilities. In one animal study, researchers gave subjects a water-soluble extract of cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa) for eight weeks. They found that this supplementation significantly elevated subjects’ infection-fighting white blood cell count.
Researchers also observed a repair of DNA, both single and double strand breaks. These two highly impressive findings came with no signs of acute or chronic toxicity in the animal subjects. (11)
Another human study had adults supplement with cat’s claw for two months before receiving pneumonia vaccination. The results showed “statistically significant immune enhancement” in the individuals taking the cat’s claw supplements compared to the untreated control group. (12)
6. May Aid in HIV Treatment
Some people with serious viral infections like HIV use cat’s claw as a dietary supplement. They choose cat’s claw because it has been shown to strengthen the immune system. In Southern Africa, HIV and AIDS are major health problems with an estimated 25.5 million people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. (13) The use of traditional remedies for HIV and AIDS is very common in Africa.
However, a 2011 study showed that natural remedies like cat’s claw can have “potentially significant reactions” with antiretrovirals conventionally used to slow down the progression of HIV. (14) Until more substantial human research is conducted, combining cat’s claw with conventional medicines does not appear to be a good idea since it can may lead to unwanted interactions.
Controlled clinical trials are also lacking, but at least one uncontrolled study has suggested a positive effect on lymphocytes (white blood cells) in HIV-positive individuals. (15)
7. Combats Herpes
Cat’s claw also appears to have positive immune system effects when it comes to herpes. The herpes virus can live dormant inside a person’s immune system for a lifetime, periodically causing blisters that burst and turn into open cold sores or ulcers before healing.
A 2011 study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology looked at the effects of different preparations of Uncaria tomentosa on herpes in vitro and found they exhibited antimutagenic and antiherpetic activities. The herpes-fighting ability of cat’s claw is associated with its polyphenols working synergistically with its oxindole alkaloids or quinovic acid glycosides. (16)
8. Improves Digestive Problems like Crohn’s Disease
Researchers are looking into the possible benefits of cat’s claw for people suffering from Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation of the lining of your digestive tract, which can lead to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition.
Cat’s claw, specifically Uncaria tomentosa, is believed to be able to help fight the inflammation associated with Crohn’s. A dosage of 250 milligrams per day is a recommendation for Crohn’s sufferers. (17) If you can naturally calm the inflammation, unwanted Crohn’s symptoms should improve greatly.
Cat’s claw is also used to treat a wide array of digestive disorders, including colitis, diverticulitis, gastritis, hemorrhoids, stomach ulcers and leaky gut syndrome.
How to Use (and Dosage)
It’s easy to find cat’s claw supplements at your nearest health store or online. You can purchase cat’s claw in liquid extract, capsule or tablet form. You can also buy cat’s claw tea.
The traditional use of cat’s claw was to make a tea from the inner bark of the vine. You can use a store-bought tea, or you can buy the loose bark and make tea from that yourself.
Commercial cat’s claw preparations vary in dosage recommendations and standardization of active constituents. The suggested dosage for C-Med-100, a patented extract of cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa) bark, is 300 milligrams daily. (18) For proper dosing, follow label instructions or consult an expert if you are unsure.
Cat’s claw cream can also be used as a topical treatment of arthritis, rheumatism, and various muscle and joint problems.
Cat’s Claw Interesting Facts
Cat’s claw is also called the “life-giving vine of Peru.” Its use for health purposes actually dates back to the ancient Inca civilization in Peru. Cat’s claw or uña de gato is also the most sacred herb among the Ashaninkas, Campo and other Amazonian tribes. According to indigenous Shamans, uña de gato serves as a bridge and balancer between the physical and spiritual worlds, which is helpful to health problems since they believe in spiritual causes of bad health.
In the 20th century, a German natural scientist named Arturo Brell is responsible for making cat’s claw become popular. In 1926, he moved from Munich to Pozuzo, which is a small town founded by German colonists in the Peruvian rain forest. Once in Pozuzo, Brell used cat’s claw to treat his own rheumatic pain.
Later on, he used cat’s claw to treat a fellow colonist, Luis Schuler, who had terminal lung cancer. After other various failed approaches, Schuler started drinking cat’s claw root tea three times a day to treat his cancer. It’s said that he improved dramatically, and after a year, he was cancer-free. (19)
Today, ethically harvested cat’s claw bark continues to be a significant source of income for many Peruvian and Brazilian villages.
Risks and Side Effects
Cat’s claw is generally well-tolerated by users and considered non-toxic. Few side effects have been reported when it’s taken in small amounts, but some people taking the herb have reported dizziness, nausea and diarrhea. However, diarrhea or loose stools are typically mild and subside with continued use of the herb.
Talk to your doctor before taking cat’s claw if you currently take any medication because cat’s claw is known to interact with several medications, including high blood pressure and immune-modulating drugs. Also, talk to your doctor first if you have any ongoing health concerns, especially any type of autoimmune illness (like multiple sclerosis and lupus), bleeding disorder, low blood pressure or leukemia.
If you have Parkinson’s, you also should definitely check with your doctor before taking this herb. In 2008, there was one case report of Parkinson’s disease becoming worse after a man started taking cat’s claw, and he improved after he stopped taking cat’s claw. (20)
Cat’s claw is not recommended for pregnant or nursing women, and it should not be given to a child unless under a doctor’s supervision because its use has not been studied in children.
If you have surgery scheduled, it’s recommend to stop taking cat’s claw at least two weeks prior to surgery.
If you’re allergic to other plants in the Rubiaceae family, then you may be more likely to have an allergic reactions to cat’s claw. Discontinue use if a reaction occurs, and seek medical attention if necessary.
A plant commonly called catclaw acacia, catclaw mesquite or Gregg’s catclaw grows in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. It’s important to know that this plant, Senegalia greggii, has no known health benefits and contains potentially poisonous elements.
Unless you have health issues that conflict with the usage of cat’s claw, it can be an amazing natural remedy with minor side effects, if any. One of its most popular uses in the United States is for the treatment of various forms of arthritis, and science backs up this usage. Studies also show that cat’s claw may be able to fight cancer, repair DNA and improve our disease-fighting white blood cells.
It’s been employed traditionally for centuries for things like viral infections (such as herpes and HIV), Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, arthritis, diverticulitis, peptic ulcers, colitis, gastritis, hemorrhoids, parasites and leaky gut syndrome, and it’s now helping many people today fight some pretty serious health problems. Maybe it can help you too.