Health Benefits of Devil's Claw?

African cure-all may help relieve pain and inflammation

DEVIL S CLAW HARPAGOPHYTUM PROCUMBENS USED AS MEDICINE TO ALLEVIATE VARIOUS DISORDERS SOUTH AFRICA
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Devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) is a plant native to the Kalahari desert in southern Africa. The plant grows in the savannahs of Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana and is named after the appearance of its fruit, which is covered to hooks that catch onto the fur of animals. This allows the encased seeds to be carried to distant regions.

The roots of the devil's claw plant have been used for centuries by the Khoisan people of southern Africa to treat pain, arthritis, indigestion, and skin conditions.

While other plant species are referred to a devil's claw (including Proboscidea altheaefolia and Proboscidea parviflora found in the United States), H. procumbens is the only type believed to have medicinal properties.

Devil's claw is also known by the names grapple plant and wood spider. Indigenous Africans commonly refer to the plant as kamangu, while it is known by the name teufelskralle in Afrikaans.

Health Benefits

Many of the benefits of devil's claw are attributed to a compound known as harpagoside that is believed to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-relieving) properties.

The plant is commonly used to treat rheumatic conditions affecting the joints, ligaments, tendons, bones, and muscles. These include back pain, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and tendinitis. Others believe that it can treat fibromyalgia, sciatica, nerve pain, gout, and symptoms of Lyme disease.

Infusions of the dried root are sometimes used to ease indigestion and stimulate appetite. An ointment made from the root can be applied to the skin to help heal sores, ulcers, and boils.

While evidence of its effects is sorely lacking, a number of smaller have suggested that devil's claw may be highly effective in certain situations. Here are some of the key findings:

Osteoarthritis

In recent years, devil's claw extract has shown promise in alleviating the symptoms of osteoarthritis ("wear-and-tear arthritis").

An early study published in the journal Joint Bone Spine reported that a devil's claw extract containing 60 milligrams of harpagoside was able to relieve pain, improve mobility, and reduce the need for backup drugs in 61 people with knee or hip arthritis.

A 2013 review of studies in Phytochemistry further supported these claims, suggesting that the routine use of devil's claw could reduce osteoarthritic pain by around 60 percent compared to a placebo.

Back Pain

A systematic review published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews examined previously published trials on the use of herbs for non-specific low back pain.

In evaluating 14 randomized controlled trials, the researchers concluded that devil's claw extract (containing 50 to 100 milligrams of harpagoside) was superior to a placebo in providing short-term relief of lower back pain.

In terms of analgesic effect, the extract was seen to be roughly equivalent to a 12.5-milligram dose of Vioxx (rofecoxib). Despite the positive findings, the researchers stated that the quality of studies was moderate at best. 

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is the autoimmune form of the disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the joints of the body.

Unlike osteoarthritis, in which inflammatory substances such as interleukin 6 (IL-6) trigger symptoms, rheumatoid arthritis is associated with immune proteins called autoantibodies. These autoantibodies direct the body's own defenses to target the joints, causing acute pain and inflammation.

While devil's claw appears to inhibit the production of IL-6, making it effective in people with osteoarthritis, its mechanism of action makes it only nominally effective in reversing the inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis.

Possible Side Effects

Devil's claw appears to be safe if consumed in moderation, although its long-term safety has yet to be established. The most common side effect is diarrhea. Others include stomach pain, headache, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, loss of taste, changes in blood pressure, irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia), and ringing in the ear (tinnitus). Allergic reactions have been known to occur but are extremely rare.

Since devil's claw can affect heart rhythm, it should not be used in people who have or are being treated for heart rhythm disorders.

Devil's claw may also lower your blood sugar levels. People on diabetes medications may want to avoid devil's claw as the combined use may trigger hypoglycemia (an abnormal drop in blood sugar).

Due to the gastrointestinal side effects, devil's claw should not be used in people with diarrhea-prevalent irritable bowel syndrome (IBS-D), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or peptic ulcers. The remedy might also increase bile production, making it unsuitable for people with gallstones.

Devil's claw should not be used during pregnancy as it may trigger uterine contractions. Nursing mothers and children should also avoid the supplement.

Drug Interactions

Devil's claw is metabolized by the liver using an enzyme known as cytochrome P450 (CYP450). This is the same enzyme used to metabolize a number of other medications. In competing for the same enzyme, devil's claw can interact with these drugs, causing them to accumulate in the bloodstream (leading to toxicity) or speeding their excretion (leading to a loss of efficacy).

Before staring devil's claw, speak with your doctor if you are taking any of the following medications:

  • Allegra (fexofenadine)
  • Celebrex (celecoxib)
  • Coumadin (warfarin)
  • Cozaar (losartan)
  • Elavil (amitriptyline)
  • Feldene (piroxicam)
  • Glucotrol (glipizide)
  • Halcion (triazolam)
  • Mevacor (lovastatin)
  • Mobic (meloxicam)
  • Motrin (ibuprofen)
  • Nizoral (ketoconazole)
  • Prevacid (lansoprazole)
  • Prilosec (omeprazole)
  • Protonix (pantoprazole)
  • Soma (carisoprodol)
  • Sporanox (itraconazole)
  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Viracept (nelfinavir)
  • Voltaren (diclofenac)

Other drug interactions are possible. To avoid problems, always let your doctor know what medications you are taking, whether they are pharmaceutical, over-the-counter, herbal, or homeopathic.

Dosage and Preparation

There are no guidelines for the appropriate use of devil's claw. When taken as an oral supplement (either in capsule or tablet form), it is generally considered safe at doses of 600 milligrams or less per day.

Devil's claw is also available as a concentrated alcohol-based extract and may be safe at doses up to 2.5 milligrams daily mixed with a glass of water. There are also devil's claw powders that can be steeped in hot water to make tea

Devil's claw products can be readily sourced online or found at health food stores, supplements stores, and some retail pharmacies. Dried "wild-crafted" devil's claw can also be purchased from specialty herbalists for use in making decoctions and extracts.

What to Look For

Dietary supplements are not strictly regulated in the United States and can vary significantly from one brand to the next. This is especially true with herbal remedies that are rarely submitted for voluntary inspection by the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or other independent certifying bodies.

To ensure quality and safety, stick with well-known brands with an established market presence. As an added layer of safety, choose brands that are certified organic under the regulations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

As a rule of thumb, be wary of whole, dried wild-crafted products that have been imported from overseas. While you may believe them to be more "natural," you have virtually no assurance that their safety or whether they've been exposed to pesticides, heavy metals, or other toxins.

Other Questions

How do you make devil's claw tea?

If used for medicinal purposes, devil's claw powder is usually best for making tea since you can control the quantities easier.

Start by adding one teaspoon (1.5 grams) to one tablespoon (4.5 grams) of powdered devil's claw to two cups of boiling water. Allow to steep for six to eight hours. You can then strain the tea, discarding the leftover root, and drink it in two to three doses throughout the day. To avoid gastrointestinal symptoms, drink the tea right before meals.

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