The Health Benefits of Yerba Santa

This "holy herb" has long been used to treat respiratory ailments

cold symptoms
Paul Bradbury/OJO Images/Getty Images

Yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) is a shrub native to California long used for its medicinal properties. The name yerba santa, "holy weed," was given by the Spanish priests who learned of the medical value of the shrub from Native California tribes. The thick, sticky, lance-shaped leaves were chewed fresh—they reportedly start out bitter and slowly get sweeter. Dry or fresh leaves were also mashed into a poultice or used to brew a tea. Western physicians listed yerba santa as an official remedy for coughs, pneumonia, and bronchitis in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, a standardized drug reference, in 1894.

Although research on the health effects of yerba santa is very limited, it's said that the herb can help treat respiratory troubles in part by clearing mucus from the respiratory tract and alleviating congestion.

When applied directly to the skin, yerba santa is purported to promote the healing of bruises, wounds, and insect bites. Topical use of yerba santa is also purported to curb joint pain.

In addition, yerba santa is sometimes used in flower essences. When taken in this form, yerba santa is said to help treat emotional issues like depression and grief.

Health Benefits

Despite the claims for yerba santa's benefits in enhancing respiratory health, there's currently a lack of research to support the herb's effectiveness in treating any health condition.

Scientists at the Salk Institute announced in early 2019 the discovery of a potent neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory chemical, called sterubin, in the yerba santa. The hope is that the compound, which was effective against multiple inducers of cell death in the nerve cells of mice, will hold promise for treating Alzheimer's. Testing sterubin in an animal model of Alzheimer's is the next step.

Prior to this discovery, the most recent research on yerba santa and its potential health benefits includes a preliminary study published in the Journal of Natural Products in 1992. In tests on hamster embryo cells, the study's authors determined that yerba santa extract may offer anti-cancer benefits. The study's findings indicate that antioxidant compounds found in yerba santa may aid in cancer prevention by inhibiting the body's metabolism of certain cancer-causing agents.

While this study suggests that yerba santa may help protect against cancer, it's too soon to recommend the herb in cancer prevention or treatment.

Possible Side Effects

Due to the lack of scientific studies testing yerba santa's effects in humans, very little is known about the safety of taking this herb in supplement form.

Keep in mind that supplements haven't been tested for safety and dietary supplements are largely unregulated. In some cases, the product may deliver doses that differ from the specified amount for each herb. In other cases, the product may be contaminated with other substances such as metals. Also, the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established.

While it's possible that yerba santa may be of some benefit in the treatment of minor respiratory problems, using the herb as a substitute for standard care in the treatment of a chronic respiratory condition is not recommended.

Learn more about using yerba santa and other dietary supplements safely here, but make sure to consult your physician before taking yerba santa.

Dose and Preparation

Many natural-foods stores and stores specializing in herbal remedies sell yerba santa in dietary supplement form. You can also buy yerba santa supplements online.

To use yerba santa as Native Americans did, try these recipes:

To prepare a tea yourself to ease a cold or sore throat, place three leaves (fresh or dry) into a cup with boiling water for colds or sore throat and let it steep for 15 minutes before drinking.

To reduce congestion, prepare the same way but then inhale the steam.

For sore muscles or joint inflammation, steep five young leaves in hot water, soak a washcloth as a compress and apply to areas of pain.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.