Herba cistanche is a parasite plant that thrives on the roots of Tamarix, its host. The herb has no chloroplasts or roots and therefore it is not photosynthetic. It survives by absorbing nutrients from the roots of the plants it parasitizes which enables it to beat the desert environment. It is mainly found in parts of northwest China and has been considered as a necessary tonic in the traditional Chinese medicines where the succulent stems were dried and used for medicinal purposes. It was utilized in the treatment of various health conditions such as female infertility, kidney deficiency, morbid leukorrhea, senile constipation, neurataxia amongst others. There are two species of interest; cistanche tubulosa and cistanche deserticola that have been collected in the Chinese pharmacopeia. However, there are some two unofficial species that has been used in other parts of China considering the scarcity of the two original species of the herba cistanche. They include the cistanche salsa and cistanche sinensis.
Several studies have been conducted to establish the possibility of using the latter two species as alternatives of the original species considering their scarcity. These studies include definite forensic tests used to determine the exact molecular compounds in C. salsa and C. Sinensis. It has been found that the primary elements of the two original species are phenylethanoid glycosides that comprise of echinacoside and acteoside that have been used on various occasions as markers to ascertain the quality of the herba cistanche.
Since the two glycosides exist in the four species, it has however become difficult to differentiate their sources while using them as markers. A more definite approach has been used that comprise of (HPLC) High-performance liquid chromatography has been used to distinguish them by their origin.
Growing regions and climate for Cistanche
Cistanche has been found naturally growing in the Takla Makan desert, Hsin Chiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. It possesses an enormous energy to flower and bear fruits in the severe desert climate. It survives on a host Tamarix which grows up to six feet tall with small dark pink flowers. This plant forms an important part of the dessert environment as it helps to protect against the spread of the yellow sand in the desert regions. The plant is now considered as an essential part of the greenification of the desserts which is one of the strategies of combating global warming. The Chinese government recommends the plantation and utilization of this plant to spur the local industries.
According to a report by Keiichi Morishita, the Hotan region boasts of having the 4th longest life expectancy records in the world. The number of elderly people that live past on hundred years surpasses that of Okinawa region in Japan by more than three times. According to the statistics, for every 100,000 persons, 51 of them above hundred years are from Okinawa while 183 people over hundred years old come from Hotan region in China.
Most of the families in the Hotan region consume cistanche daily by preparing it with mutton or pickling it in tea so as to survive the hostile climate of the dessert. This is one habit that has contributed to the increased life expectancy in the area.
Active compounds found in Cistanche
The active ingredients in the herb are the phenylethanoid glycosides as earlier highlighted. Although all the four species have been found to contain echinacoside one of the glycosides, cistanche contains a higher amounts than any of the four. Acteoside one of the glycosides is considered to be a very strong antioxidant. Its antioxidative properties are 15 times greater than that of polyphenols found in grapes and more than five times higher than that of vitamin C found in oranges and pepper. This explains why the people from Hotan can beat the scorching sun of the dessert with minimal aging.
Other new compounds such as the kankanoside have also been isolated from cistanche tubulosa and have been reported to have the same effect as other active ingredients. In all the studies conducted on the herb, cistanche tubulosa has been found to have higher amounts of the active ingredients.
Comparing cistanche tubulosa and cistanche deserticola
Most of the studies carried out to demonstrate the difference between these two species has adopted in vitro model that involves the use of rodents such as the mice to differentiate them. The chemical compounds under investigation include echinacoside, acteoside, and cistanosides. From these studies, the following was observed.
i. Cistanche deserticola were shown to reduce anti-fatigue properties in mice. This was achieved through reduced accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles during rigorous exercises such as mice swimming.
ii. Cistanche tubulosa was shown to induce hypocholesterolemic activity in mice.
iii. Another study showed that high doses of both cistanche deserticola and cistanche tubulosa increased the learning capabilities of the mouse and also showed signs of improved memory in the rodents. The results were due to the ability of the herb cistanche in regulating the nerve factor.
iv. The glycosides isolated from cistanche deserticola in high doses were found to possess immunomodulatory effects of the mice by activating the phagocytic of the immune cells.
v. High doses of glycosides extracted from both cistanche deserticola and c. Tubulosa affected the biomarkers used to identify aging in mice.
The results from these studies are used to emulate the effects of consumption of the two species of the herb to humans. The two species are very comparable to each-other which has been a major boon to the protection of the endangered deserticola genus, both plants (although they do have significant differences on a chemical level) have similar, appearance, active compounds and effects.
Cistanche deserticola, an endangered species
Owing to the increased demand for these species, cistanche deserticola is a plant that is heavily at risk of extinction. The use of these plants has not been banned from trade, and therefore it means they are prone to misuse by individuals and manufacturers. The main problem contributing to the scarcity of this plant is the ever increasing demand that outweighs the supply. With the increasing demand, the supply of cistanche deserticola has declined significantly for the past few years. Since it is parasitic, the plant takes quite some time to mature.
The other reason for the scarcity of cistanche deserticola is the indiscriminate collection of the host plant that is being used for firewood. The host plant haloxylon ammodendron is a very popular charcol like firewood used by the indigenous people of the region. Reducing the natural host for the cistanche deserticola genus and is believed to be one of the primary causes behind the rapid decline of the medicinal plant species.
There is a need to conserve the plant and develop a sustainable way to grow that has been used for medicinal purposes in parts of China for over 1800 years and now is being used in the whole world as part of the natural herbal medicine.
Uses and Benefits of Cistanche
Cistanche herb has been used for a long time, but the main methods were inclined towards medical where it was used to treat various health conditions. However from the modern research, it has been shown that the herb has a lot more physiological functions that are equally beneficial to humans. These are explained in the points that follow.
Improved learning activity
A step-down test was used to evaluate the learning ability of mice in-vivo. From the study, it was reported that mice were able to acquire memory that in the case is referred to as learning ability. They were also able to keep the memory for a longer time that is referred to as consolidation. And also they were able to recall the memorized information. The same module can be emulated for humans to achieve the same results. These active ingredients can achieve this through anti-apoptosis activity, preventing aging of the brain cells and increasing the number of brain neurotransmitters. They are also capable of preventing cerebral infarction and myocardial infarction.
The phenylethanoid glycosides are reported to have immense antioxidative properties compared to that of any other plant. The radical hydroxyl present in the herb cistanche has been found to have scavenging effects that help to protect the DNA molecules. Other radicals that are cancer causing and those that accelerate aging are scavenged out of the system.
Hyaluronidase is a type of fluid found in joints, ligaments, under the skin and vitreous bodies. Its main work is to distribute nutrients and keep cells in these regions hydrated and maintained their elasticity. The amount of this fluid diminishes as one age leading to flaky and poorly moisturized skin and poorly lubricated joints. Lack of enough of these lubricant results to painful joints that are described as arthritis. The dry and poorly moisturized skin accelerates aging. The active glycosides in herb cistanche herb increase to significant amounts levels of hyaluronidase are thereby reversing the effects of arthritis and premature aging.
Anti- fatigue effects
The primary reason muscles get fatigued as a result of lactic acid accumulation. This is mainly caused by anaerobic respiration where the muscles don’t receive enough oxygen to break down glucose into energy+co2+water. The glycosides in the cistanche tubulosa act by eliminating the excess lactic acid from the muscles thereby reducing their fatigue.
Improved sexual activity
Phenylethanoid glycosides that are the essential ingredients of cistanche tubulosa have been reported to induce increased sexual activity also known as the aphrodisiac effect. The results from a study conducted o mice indicate that the active compounds were able to increase the sexual activity of a stress-induced libido loss. Cistanche tubulosa having a higher amount of the active ingredient is considered to more efficient. It is responsible for improved fertility among women and also increases male hormone production through enzymatic actions. It is also known to influence hormone level in women therefore treating cases of irregular menstruation that is as a result of hormonal imbalances.
Boosting of the immune system
The mice were radiated with cobalt (60) to lower the immune function. They were then given the test samples for 15 days and observed. A blood sample taken from mice that were given the phenylethanoid glycosides showed increased diameter of the lymphocytes that are the immune cells. These active ingredients were also shown to increase the rate through which the cancer cells were killed.
Metabolism is the process through which nutrients are absorbed and utilized by the body. Cistanche tubulosa has been shown to increase the rate of lipid metabolism that has a significant effect of reducing the blood cholesterol in humans. The herb is also known for its role in reducing cases of constipation among the older people.
Other herbs commonly blended with Cistanche
The healing power of herb cistanche can be improved by combining it with other effective herbs. For instance, when used with hemp plant, it can significantly reduce digestion related issues. It can also be safely used with other herbs such as herba cynomorii, radix angelicae sinensis, and fructus cannabis to reduce intestinal dryness. It is also used with radix morindae officinalis to treat muscle weakness and kidney deficiency. When used with radix morindae offcinallis, it has shown signs of reduced impotence and treating premature ejaculation among men.
Are there any side effects?
Typically taken in doses of 10g or more Cistanche has been labeled a safety class 1 herb making it one of the safest herbal products reviewed by the American Herbal Products Association. There are no documented side effects or negative interactions associated with the consumption of Cistanche.
Parts of the Cistanche herb that are used for medicinal purpose
The succulent stem of the cistanche herb is collected during the spring, sliced and then dried for medicinal use. The whole stem complete with the bark are considered to be an important part of the medicinal herb hence are consumed together.
Despite the herb being an important cure for various life threatening illnesses, there is still a possibility of being extinct and disappearing out of the earth’s surface. To save the herb, proper policies need to be put in place to regulate its collection and usage. It has proven through centuries to possess the real healing power.
American Herbal Products Association’s Botanical Safety Handbook, Second Edition (2013): pages 219-220.