Cat’s Claw (Uncaria tomentosa)
When NSP first came out with their Uña de Gato Combination, it was difficult for me to locate credible information on the main ingredient, uña de gato. Today, I have a lot more useful information, and I was even able to talk to one of the herbalists who helped introduce uña de gato into the United States, a chiropractor named Brent W. Davis. Dr. Davis attended a plant conference in Lima, Peru in 1988 where he learned about this woody vine, and subsequently wrote an article on the plant which was picked up by numerous sources.
Translated from the Spanish, uña de gato means “claws of the cat,” which is where the plant gets its more common trade name—Cat’s Claw. The name comes because the vine bears sharp, curved thorns. Cat’s claw has been used traditionally in Peruvian medicine for cancer, arthritis, gastrointestinal problems, diabetes, menstrual irregularities, rheumatism, lyme disease, acne, depression, wounds, fistulas and hemorrhoids. It has also been used in large doses as a contraceptive.
Research has shown the plant contains immune stimulating alkaloids, which also enhance the parasympathetic nervous system. The alkaloids also inhibit striated muscle contraction, reduce blood pressure, stimulate the uterus and have a diuretic action. One of the alkaloids in cat’s claw, hirsutine, helps lower blood pressure and has an anesthetic property on the bladder.
Italian researchers found the steroidal fraction to be anti-inflammatory. German and Austrian researchers found quinovic acid, glycosides and triterpenes that have anti-viral and anti-inflammatory action. The plant also has some effect on the mood-elevating neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin.
The plant also shows promise as an anticancer agent. It has been documented to induce apoptosis (programmed cell death) in leukemic cancer cells. Cat’s claw reduces the side effects of chemotherapy and AZT therapy for HIV, and is used in Europe for these purposes.
Through clinical work, and applied kineseology, Dr. Davis found that one of the major actions of cat’s claw was to restore the integrity of intestinal membranes, balance intestinal flora and repair leaky gut. He believes this effect is part of the reason why cat’s claw is useful for cancer. In other words, a toxic bowel will create a compromised immune system which will lead to cancer. Therefore, cat’s claw is working on the abnormal biological terrain that creates cancer. It’s anti-depressive effects also appear to be linked to its positive effects on the bowel, another example of how altering biological terrain has wide-reaching effects.
In an article written in 1992, Dr. Davis says “in my experience on approximately 150 patients during the last four years…I have seen Uncaria tomentosa break through severe intestinal derangements that no other available products can touch… Herbalist David Winston, who is very conservative in his claims for medicinal actions in plants, considers cat’s claw a very good herb for strengthening the integrity of the gastrointestinal system. He lists it as being good for conditions like gastritis, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel, inflammatory bowel diseases and leaky gut.
Some of the conditions Dr. Davis says cat’s claw may benefit include: skin disorders, allergies, rheumatism, chronic inflammation, viral diseases (especially herpes zoster) and cancer. He indicates that certain types of chemotherapy and radiation therapy in cancer are more effective when cat’s claw is used at the same time. Considering the damage some of these therapies do to the intestinal membranes, it seems reasonable to assume that cat’s claw would reduce some of these negative effects.
Cat’s claw has a beneficial effect on the intestinal micro flora and may help the body get rid of both yeast and parasites, or at least, help the intestines heal once the parasites have been eliminated. Many times NSP Managers understand the need to “cleanse” the colon to remove wastes, yeast and parasites, but fail to realize that once the colon has been cleansed, it also needs to be repaired. Cat’s claw is one of the remedies that can be used to stimulate this repair.
The doses used by Dr. Davis, David Winston and other herbalists are quite high. Dr. Davis recommends 3-5 grams (a capsule is usually 400-500 milligrams, so 1 gram is about 2 capsules). Winston recommends up to 9 capsules per day. The plant also works well when taken as a decoction.
NSP’s Uña de Gato Combination combines cat’s claw with astragalus, echinacea and vitamin C. This blend is useful for rebuilding the immune system in chronic viral infections, cancer and other disorders. It will also have benefits in rebuilding the intestinal mucosa in leaky gut.
There are some cautions for using cat’s claw as a single herb, which may or may not be applicable to NSP’s combination. Since cat’s claw is a contraceptive in high doses, it may be wise to avoid this blend in pregnancy, although small doses are not likely to be a problem, especially when used as part of a formula.
Some books recommend avoiding cat’s claw during lactation, but cat’s claw was used in Peruvian medicine for recovery after childbirth, so this concern does not seem warranted. Large doses of cat’s claw sometimes cause diarrhea, but again, this is unlikely to occur with NSP’s formula. So, in general, Uña De Gato Combination is a very safe blend.
I do have one final comment, however. One of Dr. Davis’ big concerns about cat’s claw is the amount that is being harvested from the wild without being replanted. This is the “dark side” of the herb industry. When an herb becomes popular, like echinacea or goldenseal, it can nearly be driven to extinction through overharvesting.
Native people never took every plant when they were harvesting medicinal herbs—they always left some plants to proliferate in the environment. Many modern wild crafters take every plant, leaving none to reproduce. This short-sightedness does not work in our favor when it comes to healing. A wise native Indian elder in Peru told Dr. Davis that even though cat’s claw is powerful, “it is nevertheless very sensitive, and that if it is utilized with a lack of good motivation, it will lose much of its wide healing ability and will become only a ‘chemical shadow’ of its real self.”
It’s a reminder to us all that healing isn’t just about plant chemistry. Healing is about becoming “whole,” and part of that wholeness needs to be a profound respect for other living things on this planet. Our culture needs to stop acting like a cancer. We consume, consume and consume so we can grow carelessly, and in our wake, we pollute the environment and deplete the earth’s resources. This is what cancer cells do in the body. They grow out of control, consuming resources and polluting the ecosystem that sustains them.
So, I don’t think we’ll ever solve the problem of cancer in our society until we return to a reverence for the earth. The native healer who spoke to Dr. Davis cautioned that “perhaps more than any other herb, uña de gato has to be treated with reverence.” If we want the plants to assist our healing, we must treat them with respect. Unfortunately, modern commercial herbalism often fails in this regard.
A “New” World Class Herb for A.K. Practice: Uncaria tomentosa – a.k.a. Uña de Gato (UDG) by Brent W. Davis, copyright 1992.Herbal Therapy and Supplements by Merrily A. Kuhn and David Winston
PDR for Herbal Medicines by Medical Economics Press
The Essential Guide to Herb Safety by Simon Mills and Kerry Bone