Rumoured to have been prescribed by the Incas to treat serious ailments, the herb pau d'arco has recently been investigated as a remedy for infectious diseases and cancer. Though its anticancer properties are debatable, it may indeed combat a variety of infections.
What it is?
Pau d'arco is obtained from the inner bark of a tree – Tabebuia impetiginosa – indigenous to the rainforests of South America. Native tribes have taken advantage of its healing powers for centuries. Pau d'arco is also known as lapacho, taheebo or ipe roxo. In Australia and New Zealand, however, it's always sold as pau d'arco or taheebo.
What it does?
Lapachol and other compounds in pau d'arco help to destroy the micro-organisms that cause diseases and infections, ranging from malaria and flu to yeast infections. Most people, however, are interested in the potential cancer-fighting properties of this herb.
Pau d'arco appears to combat bacteria, viruses and fungi, reduce inflammation and support the immune system. One of its best-documented uses is to treat vaginal yeast infections; herbalists often recommend a pau d'arco tea douche to restore the normal environment of the vagina. In capsule, tablet, tincture or tea form, pau d'arco may be effective in strengthening immunity in people with chronic fatigue syndrome, HIV or AIDS, or chronic bronchitis. The herb's anti-inflammatory properties are useful for acute bronchitis, which involves inflammation of the respiratory passages, as well as muscle pain. And a tincture of pau d'arco applied directly to warts helps to eradicate them.
Pau d'arco's claimed anticancer activity is subject to continuing debate. Because of the herb's traditional reputation as a cancer fighter, the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) investigated it, identifying lapachol as its most active ingredient. In animal studies, pau d'arco showed promise in shrinking tumours, and so the NCI began human trials using high doses of lapachol in the 1970s. Again, there was some evidence that lapachol was active in destroying cancer cells, but participants taking a therapeutic dose suffered serious side effects, including nausea, vomiting and blood-clotting problems. As a result, research into lapachol and its source, pau d'arco, was abandoned.
Critics of this investigation believe that using therapeutic doses of pau d'arco – and not simply the isolated compound lapachol – would have produce similar benefits without the potential dangerous blood-thinning effects. It's probable that lapachol interferes with the action of vitamin K, which is needed for the blood to clot properly. Some researchers suggest that other compounds in pau d'arco supply some vitamin K, and that using the whole herb would avoid this problem. Others think that combining lapachol with vitamin K supplements might make it possible for people to take doses of lapachol high enough to permit its potential anti-tumour action to be further studied without provoking a reaction. Despite the controversy, many practitioners rely on the historical evidence of pau d'arco's cancer-fighting properties, and often recommend it as a complement to conventional cancer treatment.
- Treats vaginal yeast infections.
- Helps get rid of warts.
- Reduces inflammation of the airways in bronchitis.
- May be useful in treating such immune-related disorders as asthma, eczema, psoriasis, and bacterial and viral infections.
- Dried herb/tea.
- Pregnant or breast-feeding women should avoid pau d'arco.
- Pau d'arco may amplify the effect of anticoagulant drugs.
- Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
When using pau d’arco in capsule or tablet form, the typical daily dosage is 250 mg twice a day. This dose of pau d'arco is often recommended for chronic fatigue syndrome or HIV and AIDS in alteration with other immune-boosting herbs such as echinacea or goldenseal. Pau d'arco is also commonly taken as a tea in dried herb form. To make it, steep 2 or 3 teaspoons of pau d'arco in two cups of very hot water; drink the tea over the course of a day.
Guidelines for use:
Herbalists recommend whole-bark products (not only those that contain just lapachol) because they suspect the herb's healing properties come from the full range of plant chemicals in the bark
For vaginal yeast infections: Let pau d'arco tea cool to lukewarm before using it as a douche.
For warts: Apply a tincture-soaked compress to the affected area at bedtime and leave it on all night. Repeat until the wart disappears.
Possible side effects
Whole-bark products are generally safe; they do not produce the side effects of high doses of lapachol. If pau d'arco tea or supplements cause stomach upset, take them with food.
Facts and Tips
- Supplements are made from the inner bark of the pau d'arco tree, but in some parts of the world, the leaf of the tree is also valued for its therapeutic effects. In the Caribbean, for example, the leaf and bark have been used for the pain of back aches and toothaches.
- Several South American tribes, including the Guarani and the Tupi, refer to pau d'arco as tajy, which means 'to have strength and vigour'.
- To be effective, pau d'arco products must contain lapachol, which is found only in the bark of Tabebuia impetiginosa, not other Tabebuia species. One study examined the chemical make-up of 10 pau d'arco products and found that only one of them contained any lapachol, the major active ingredient, indicating that either the wrong species or the wrong part of the plant had been used. The most effective pau d'arco products are those that are standardized to contain 2-7% lapachol, but these may be hard to find. Products that contain 3% naphthoquinones are of comparable quality.