Named after its unique, curved hook-like thorns, cat’s claw is a plant that has been long valued in South and Central America.1 But there’s more to this herb than its peculiar appearance. Cat’s claw is actually well-known for its traditional medicinal uses, from boosting the immune system, speeding up healing of wounds and even for relieving digestive problems.2 Discover more interesting facts about this herb by reading this article.
What Is Cat's Claw?
Native to the Amazon rainforest and other areas of Central and South America, cat’s claw is an herb you’ll find thriving in forest areas. You can easily spot it – just look for woody vines with hook-shaped thorns growing on them, resembling a kitty’s claw. This plant can grow to heights of 100 feet.3 The thorns actually serve an important purpose, though, as they allow the vines to attach themselves to tree barks.4
Cat’s claw plant is known by many names, including Uña de Gato, Paraguayo, Liane du Pérou, Garabato and Samento. It’s also been dubbed the “life-giving vine of Peru.”5,6 However, do not confuse it with cat’s foot (Antennaria dioica L.), which is a small perennial plant7 – these two are very different.
There are two cat’s claw species that have been used for medicinal purposes: Uncaria tomentosa and Uncaria guianensis. In the U.S., U. tomentosa is commonly used, while U. guianensis is popular in Europe.8 U. tomentosa can be seen growing in organic soils on mountain slopes of rainforests, anywhere between 250 and 900 meters above sea level. Disturbed forests may also contain this plant, albeit it’s rarely seen in secondary forests.
However, there are serious threats to U. tomentosa, particularly overharvesting and the destruction of old growth rainforest. As a result, U. guianensis is becoming more popularly used, as it grows in lower elevations near rivers, making it easier for wild harvesters to find, collect and transport.9
The roots and the bark of the plant are what’s used for the medicinal preparations of cat’s claw, as they contain an impressive blend of chemicals, such as antioxidants and alkaloids.10 Cat’s claw can come in liquid extracts, powders and tablet form. It can also be used to make tea.11
The Medicinal Uses of Cat’s Claw Have Been Known for a Long Time
Cat’s claw is not a recent discovery, as there have been accounts of it being used in the early times. South Americans made use of it to ease conditions, such as fevers, arthritis, stomach ulcers, dysentery and inflammation.12 The ancient Incan civilization has also used cat’s claw for viral infections and for immune system stimulation.13
The herb has also garnered attention in more recent times. Since the 1970s, scientists in Germany, Peru, England, Austria and other countries have conducted studies to learn more about its healing potential.14
Cat's Claw Potential Health Benefits
Cat’s claw’s potential for boosting health mainly comes from the oxindole alkaloids found in its roots and bark. These seven alkaloids are said to stimulate the immune system, leading to this herb’s various medicinal and healing benefits.
Isopteropodin or Isomer A, is the most active alkaloid in this cat’s claw, and is said to help eliminate free radicals from the body. In addition, the plant contains various compounds that can help eradicate harmful bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms.15 Just take a look at these body-wide effects to see what cat’s claw is good for:16,17,18
• Promotes good immune function: Cat’s claw increases the white blood cell count in the body which then stimulates antioxidant action. It may help halt the spread of diseases and assist in eradicating bacterial infections and other pathogens.
• Speeds up healing of wounds. It may also help prevent wounds from being infected.
• Helps provide intestinal support. This herb helps maintain good gastrointestinal health. People with leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive system disorders may find cat’s claw particularly useful, as it can help cleanse the digestive tract and ensure good gut flora.
• Provides relief from inflammation-related illnesses. It suppresses the TNF-alpha synthesis, therefore helping relieve symptoms associated to gout, arthritis and other inflammatory diseases.
• May help ease symptoms of viral infections, including shingles and cold sores.
Try This Cat’s Claw Tea Recipe
As mentioned above, cat’s claw can be made into tea, which is an easy way to reap its benefits. Here’s a recipe courtesy of LEAFtv:19
Cat's Claw Tea
1. Boil water and pour into a cup, along with a few drops of lemon juice. The acid from the lemons will help release the tannins in the tea.
2. Add the bark or powder. If using the bark, one to two average-sized pieces will be enough. For the powder form, 1 to 2 teaspoons is ideal.
3. Let steep for five to 10 minutes. Strain and add a teaspoon of honey or a dash of spices to taste.
Be Aware of Cat's Claw’s Side Effects
Cat’s claw is not recommended for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Because of its use for birth control, women who are also trying to conceive should refrain from using it.20
Small amounts of cat’s claw will not cause any side effects for most people, however, those who have allergies to plants belonging to the Rubiaceae family should refrain from using it, as it may promote reactions such as mild irritation or itchy eyes, even through simple physical contact or if ingested.21
There are also rare cases of kidney problems linked to cat’s claw ingestion. Other health problems that may be compounded by cat’s caw include:
• Leukemia: Using this herb may worsen this illness.
• Bleeding disorders: Cat’s claw may slow blood clotting and increase the risk of bruising or bleeding.
• Autoimmune illnesses like lupus and multiple sclerosis: Prompting the immune system to become overactive may worsen the symptoms of these diseases.
• Low blood pressure: This herb has blood pressure-lowering effects, which may cause further problems.
People who are about to undergo surgery should also refrain from using cat’s claw at least two weeks prior to the procedure, as it may make it difficult for blood pressure to be controlled.22
Cat’s Claw May Be Beneficial, but Use It Wisely
While most people will generally benefit from using cat’s claw, if you fall under the groups mentioned above, then it’s better to forego the use of this herb. Furthermore, cat’s claw should only be used as a dietary supplement to complement your healthy lifestyle – and should not be treated as the primary solution to your health woes.