Unusual Herbs: Cat's Claw

Many North Americans have probably never even heard of cat's claw. In fact, as far as I can ascertain, it is not even grown in the United States. Nevertheless, this South American native may become better known in the north as more and more people learn of its health benefits and its potential as a cancer-fighting herb.

Cat's claw (Uncaria tomentosa, U. guianensis) belongs to the same family of plants (Rubiaceae) as coffee and gardenias; although, it resembles neither. Known as una de gato in its native Peru, cat's claw is a woody vine that can grow to be over 1,000 feet long. Spines that resemble the claws of a cat — hence the name — enable the vine to cling to the trunks of trees so it can climb ever higher. Cat's claw was used by native South Americans to treat wounds, dysentery, and even gonorrhea and various cancers. In the Amazon region, the native Indians drink a decoction of cat's claw about once a week as a general preventative, claiming that the vine has "life-giving" properties.

Studies conducted in Peru, Austria, and Canada have shown that using cat's claw as a medicinal herb does have some validity. For example, it has proved to be an effective treatment for the pain associated with both osteoarthritis and the debilitating rheumatoid arthritis. Cat's claw also boosts the immunity by increasing the number of white blood cells and also causing them to be more active in their fight against infection and disease. The herb also increases the levels of interleukin-1 and interleukin-6, both proteins that help to strengthen the immune system. As a result, there is ongoing research in the use of cat's claw as a treatment for AIDS. Finally, cat's claw also contains antioxidants. Swedish researchers are investigating the possibility that cat's claw can be used in the treatment of cancer. It seems that it can lessen and even prevent the cell mutations that can lead to cancer. (Note: The findings are only preliminary and more research is required.)

Cat's claw is nontoxic and generally safe. Rare allergic reactions are dizziness, headache, and stomach upset. If you suffer from an autoimmune disease, such as lupus, do no take cat's claw. Also, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children under the age of two should avoid the herb. As always, if you have any questions or concerns, consult your primary healthcare professional and/or a certified herbalist.

Note: Several online sites offer supplements of cat's claw for sale. (Enter a search for "cat's claw herbal supplements.") Always make sure that you order from a reliable source and take according the manufacturer's directions. In addition, you can check with your local health food or herbal store.