What is Cistanche?
Cistanche (肉苁蓉) is a plant from the parasitic family Orobanchaceae, that grows in deserts and arid regions all over the world. Several unique varieties of Cistanche with potential medicinal properties exist in China, growing primarily in Gansu, Shaanxi, and Qinghai provinces, and the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. Cistanche is a small, cone-shaped plant that produces yellow flowers, and thrives on particular host plants. The stem of the plant (not the root, as is sometimes stated) is the part used medicinally, and it is harvested and sliced in the spring. Cistanche has a sweet and bitter taste.
Cistanche is known in China as Ròu Cōng Róng, which refers to the fleshy stem of the plant (rou) and its calming properties (congrong). The species most commonly used are Cistanche Deserticola, Cistanche Tubulosa, Cistanche Salsa, and Cistanche Chinensis. However, due to over-harvesting of the herb, as well as its host plants, C. Deserticola, in particular, is becoming endangered.
Cistanche Benefits and Uses
Cistanche has a history going back nearly 2000 years in traditional Chinese Medicine, but at the same time, it was not a commonly used herb and was mostly taken as part of large herbal tonics. In Chinese herbalism today, Cistanche is used to treat yang deficiency, which is said to cause reproductive and fertility problems, muscle pain and weakness, kidney disease, and aging. However, scientific research on Cistanche is scant, and mostly comprised of animal studies with few human trials. What is known is that Cistanche contains beneficial compounds such as iridoid and phenylpropenoid glycosides, especially acetoside and echinacoside. It also contains oligosaccharides and polysaccharides, lignans, and sterols. These compounds can provide some of the following benefits:
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— MedicinalHerbals (@MedicinalHerbal) February 28, 2017
The most well-known use of Cistanche is promoting longevity, but there have been no definite studies done on this effect in humans. Reports are mostly anecdotal, stemming from the fact that regions where Cistanche is regularly consumed, such as Hotan region, are home to more individuals past the age of 100.
The extract of C. tubulosa was shown to inhibit neuron apoptosis. Additionally, a study using C. salsa found that it can enhance neuron production and increase levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine.
Source of Antioxidants
Acetoside is a powerful antioxidant, approximately five times as powerful as Vitamin C. In one study, injections of acetoside inhibited death from liver failure in mice.
A water extract of Cistanche given to ovariectomized rats (modelling hormone deficiencies due to menopause) prevented bone loss through regulating some bone metabolism genes.
In one study, either 50 or 100 mg/kg per day of C. deserticola polysaccharides was administered to experimental aging model mice for 64 days. After treatment, the mice were tested on learning, memory, and physical endurance, and their brain tissue was examined through an electron microscope. The study found that C. deserticola increased the mice’s ability to learn and memorize, allowed them to swim longer during a swimming test, and decreased degeneration in neuron mitochondria.
Increasing Levels of Sex Hormones
Animal studies show that acetoside derived from C. tubulosa may regulate the production of sex hormones in males.
In mice, Cistanche was shown to decrease lactic acid buildup in muscles, which reduces fatigue.
Cistanche may increase levels of hyaluronidase, a fluid found in joints, ligaments, and under the skin. Hyaluronidase decreases with age, so consuming Cistanche may help prevent arthritis and improve joint flexibility.
Cistanche is also known as a libido enhancer, the acteoside and salidroside contained in Cistanche promote the secretion of hormones and neurotransmitters .Its efficacy for this usage has not been proven clinically however; there are anecdotal success stories.
Cistanche contains alkaloids, amino acids, and vitamins and is a yang herb. In a study conducted mice were shown to have higher SOD activity as well as lower MDA activity in the kidney, suggesting a reduction of inflammation and tissue damage in the kidney.
Cistanche enhances your glycogen storage, which in turn allows you to create more muscle.
Cistanche is loaded with polysaccharides which activate lymphocytes, thus having a beneficial effect on the immune system.
Cistanche is similar to another herb from Chinese medicine, Rehmannia, and contains some of the same compounds, including iridoid glycosides.
Varieties of Cistanche
The four most common varieties of medicinal Cistanche are Cistanche deserticola, Cistanche tubulosa, Cistanche salsa, and Cistanche chinensis. C. deserticola and tubulosa are in the Chinese pharmacopeia. All four varieties can be used more or less interchangeably, but C. deserticola is becoming endangered due to over-harvesting and the loss of its host plant, Haloxylon ammodendron, which is also being over-harvested. Therefore, while C. deserticola supplements and extracts are available (the whole herb is banned from international trade), other varieties of Cistanche may become more easily available over time. In fact, C. salsa is one of the more preferred varieties because it contains the highest concentrations of echinacoside (2.1%) and acetoside (1.5%). C. tubulosa is the variety that is considered most beneficial for sexual enhancement.
Cistanche Side Effects and Safety
So far, there is no confirmed side effect or safety information for Cistanche. Because few studies have been conducted with humans, it is difficult to say what effects, contraindications, or interferences Cistanche may have with other medications or conditions. Pregnant or breastfeeding women, as well as those with low immune function, should not take Cistanche as a precautionary measure. However, Cistanche has been given a “class 1” rating by the American Herbal Products Association, suggesting it is overall a safe herb.
Cistanche Extract or Cistanche Tea?
Cistanche is most commonly found as an extract, with dosages marked by the manufacturer (usually one or two capsules a day). It is also found as part of herbal blend capsules marketed for increasing longevity and libido. International trade of the dried stem (used for making tea) of Cistanche is prohibited as per the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Therefore; i’d suggest an extract as it is not only legal, but easier to source at a reasonable price. Extracts are also more potent and don’t require a huge dosage like most teas do.
Compared to other herbs Cistanche can be quite expensive. This is due to certain stands being endangered and the fact that the stem is prohibited internationally. The following dosages are recommended, but always check with your primary care provider.
As a Tea: Steep 10-15 Grams of the root.
As an Extract: All extracts aren’t made equally so it’s best to use the manufacturers recommended dosage.
Finding the Best Cistanche
Cistanche is a relatively uncommon herb on the market, and it is most often found in herbal blends rather than as a straight supplement. When choosing a brand of Cistanche, pay attention to any disclaimers on the package (e.g. that the supplement may contain lead) and buy from a reputable manufacturer. You can also consult with an herbalist or doctor if you are unsure about what supplement to take.