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Science Rediscovers the Forgotten Herb Andrographis

Healthy living involves reaching out to gain new knowledge and then sharing what we know to help others. Integrative medicine has its hands full trying to work out all these things, and it is truly exciting to see the new cooperative spirit that is rising in those involved in such work.
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Humanity can be a strange group. Our cultures grow and fade, and our ability to access information improves only to be lost as a civilization falls. Important healing knowledge won over long generations of trial and error is being lost each day as elderly indigenous healers die without handing their knowledge to the next generation. Fortunately science values such knowledge and people are hard at work to find and preserve these important pearls of wisdom in a field called Ethnobotany.

An herb used extensively in India and China, which is nearly forgotten in modern western herbal practice, is Andrographis paniculata.

This medicinal plant is also known as chuan xin lian, charita, kalmegh and nain-e havandi. It is grown widely in the tropics and subtropics and has a history of traditional use in a wide variety of conditions including fever, gastrointestinal diseases like dysentery, hepatitis, stomach ulcers and colitis, respiratory diseases (influenza), allergies, venomous snake and scorpion bites, malaria, ear and skin infections, and even vaginitis. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) describes Andrographis as bitter and cold, good for clearing heat, and it is known for relieving toxins. Those types of metaphorical descriptions bother modern doctors but allowed Ayurvedic and TCM doctors to treat patients with this herb for over 1,000 years.

Modern doctors want evidence to support the use and safety of various agents we use in our practices, and research does exist for this herb. In fact there seems to be growing interest in it because it can be readily cultivated and seems to offer the possibility as a source of new drugs with anti-inflammatory, antimalarial, hepatoprotective, and anti-cancer applications.

Doctors Susan Wynn and Barbara Fougere are skilled veterinary herbalists and authors of the textbook, Veterinary Herbal Medicine. I thought I would contact them to see their feelings about Andrographis.

Dr. Fougere stated, "This herb is known as the King of Bitters. I use it, or another herb called gentian in animals as a tincture to stimulate appetite. Strange but true, a drop on the gums stimulates saliva and reflex digestive enzymes." This fits with scientific evidence that shows the herb's effect on the gastrointestinal system. Studies show that Andrographis protects the liver from toxins and protects the stomach from ulceration by several different mechanisms. Its antioxidant qualities seems well-suited for many different applications, which is why we are seeing an increase in research interest in Andrographis. We all agreed that it is usually best to use this herbal as a tablet since it is bitter and animals do not find it appealing, and it should not be used as a crude extract for injection as serious allergic reactions can occur.

A brief summary of current research papers includes these exciting findings:

  • Studies show the herb and its constituents may have antiviral activity against the dreaded dengue fever, which means that with more research the world might gain additional alternatives to treat this horrible disease.
  • Researchers have identified antiherpes virus qualities that need further research and refinement.
  • As further research occurs we may well gain entirely new classes of anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer drugs from Andrographis. An extract of Andrographis improved wound healing in rats. Laboratory research showed it may have useful applications in treating asthma and airway inflammation. One exciting paper just published demonstrated that a constituent of this herb can combat proliferative changes seen in rheumatoid arthritis. Bearing in mind the number of people who suffer from RA, this could develop into something very important.
  • In a 2011 paper, laboratory experiments found one constituent could inhibit the development of squamous cell carcinoma from toxin exposure. This component blocked the growth of tumor cells, as well as of new blood vessels, and killed cancer cells directly through a process known as apoptosis.
  • Other components were found to bring about vascular wall relaxation which opens the door for several other applications.
  • When birds were fed a mixture of several herbs including Andrographis, the negative effects of toxic cadmium metal were minimized, and they tended to accumulate less of the metal in their bodies. This is an important finding for food animal medicine.
  • Dr. Wynn said that she does not use this herb commonly, but that it has potential uses for the items discussed here. She also advised people to seek professional guidance as Andrographis has potential interactions with anticoagulant, antihypertensive, immunosuppressant and hypoglycemic drugs. Large doses can cause gastric upset, loss of appetite and vomiting. The use of Andrographis during pregnancy and lactation should be avoided. I would add to her comments that since this is a cooling herb in Chinese medicine, its use should be limited to shorter periods of time unless under the supervision of an experienced veterinary herbalist. In our practice it is usually not needed for more than two weeks.

    As we examine our lives we find there is so much richness present. We have resources in our relationships with all aspects of life. A major job of civilization is learning how to best direct its resources. For thousands of years humankind has collected and refined this. Now experience and science come together permitting us to look even deeper and develop more amazing ways we can help each other by cooperating with the gifts of nature.

    Healthy living involves reaching out to gain new knowledge, and then sharing what we know to help others. Integrative medicine has its hands full trying to work out all these things and it is truly exciting to see the new cooperative spirit that is rising in those involved in such work. Like Andrographis sometimes things are bitter, but in the end there is the potential for healing and the joy that accompanies that.

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