The Health Benefits of Suma

Often Used as an Anti-Inflammatory and Anti-Tumor Agent

Powdered suma root in a bowl

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Suma (Hebanthe eriantha,) commonly referred to as Brazilian ginseng, is a species of plant in the Amaranthaceae family. The root of the suma plant is commonly used to make medicine. Suma has historically been used in the Amazon rainforest region by indigenous tribes to treat a variety of conditions, including a tonic for energy, to boost sexuality, treat anxiety and ulcers, and more. Today, in areas such as Equador, suma continues to be used as a tribal folk medicine for the treatment of a variety of health maladies.

Suma is considered a rambling ground vine; it grows a complex root system and is native to tropical areas such as Peru, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador and other countries in the Amazon rainforest.

Other names for suma include ginseng brasilero, gomphrena paniculata, Hebanthe paniculata, Pfaffia, and Pfaffia paniculata. Although suma is commonly referred to as Brazilian ginseng, the plant family it belongs to (the Amaranthaceae family) is different than that of other types of ginseng (belonging to the Araliaceae family).

Health Benefits

Suma is one of many medicinal herbs that some have referred to as adaptogens. Alternate medicine practitioners hold that adaptogens can help the body cope with stress by adapting themselves to support the body’s imbalances, whatever they may be. However, it is not clear from studies that substances actually act in such a way, and most traditional physicians do not accept the concept. 

Nonetheless, alternative medicine practitioners believe that adaptogens can be helpful in helping the body cope with conditions linked with aging, such as:

  • Chronic inflammation
  • High levels of cortisol (the stress hormone)
  • Impaired cognitive function

Adaptogens are also said to help boost the immune system and may promote healthy brain aging.

Suma has been of considerable interest to researchers for its potential to treat cancer. Perhaps the most important of the possibilities for medicinal uses of suma is cultivation and commercial use of the plant’s roots for its anti-tumor activity.

Suma root has traditionally been used for a wide range of conditions, many of which are NOT thoroughly backed by clinical research, (more studies are needed to prove the effectiveness and safety) these including:

  • Stimulating the appetite
  • Increasing hormone levels (such as estrogen)
  • Balancing blood sugar levels
  • Improving the memory
  • Boosting the immune system
  • Stimulating blood circulation
  • Improving sports performance

Conditions commonly treated with suma include:

Studies

Suma as an Anti-Tumor Agent

A 2006 animal study examined the effects of suma supplementation on inflammation and tumor control in several diseases in 200 mice. The study concluded that suma root reduced fluid accumulation and increased the cell’s ability to engulf tumor cells (macrophage activity)—a common means of controlling a specific type of tumor growth (called Ehrlich tumor) in mice.

"Increased macrophage activity may be one of the effects contributing to inhibition of the Ehrlich ascitic tumor growth in mice," explained the study authors. 

Suma for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

IBD is a long-term condition involving inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. IBD may include conditions such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. The condition is caused by many factors, including, genetics, immune system, and environmental factors (like diet and stress).

Because suma is considered an adaptogen, to treat stress, it was studied for its impact on IBD in a 2015 animal study. The study discovered that the administration of 200 milligrams per kilograms (mg/kg) of Brazilian ginseng (suma) reduced pro-inflammatory cytokines (involved in the inflammation process). 

The study authors concluded that P. paniculate (suma) was linked with a reduction in oxidative stress, due to its immunomodulatory activity. Immunomodulation is a common method used to control the growth of tumors.

Suma for Hormonal Conditions

A 2003 animal study examined the effects and safety of the administration of P. paniculate root (suma) on the progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone levels of female and male mice.

The study findings revealed that suma increased the blood levels of the sex hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone in the mice that drank water enriched with suma root. No side effects were observed within 30 days of the administration of suma. The study authors concluded, "Consumption of P. paniculate [suma] for long periods of time appears safe."

How Does It Work?

Although there is limited research, many scientists believe that the root of the suma plant possesses chemicals that lessen inflammation, relieve pain and help prevent certain types of cancer from developing.

Phytochemicals (biologically active compounds found in plants) thought to promote suma’s healing properties include:

  • Saponins (pfaffosides): Thought to boost the immune system to protect the body against some types of cancer, lower cholesterol levels, and lower the blood glucose response (helping to combat diabetes).
  • Beta-ecdysterone: Thought to build lean body mass
  • Glycosides: Flavonoids found to have strong antioxidant, anticancer, anti-tumor, and anti-diabetes activity; works to protect the liver and lower inflammation. Also antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal

Potential Side Effects

When taken by mouth for short durations, suma is considered safe for most people.  There is not enough medical research to show the safety of suma when used topically (on the skin).

The root powder should not be inhaled, because it can cause symptoms of asthma, and complicate symptoms for those who already have asthma.

Contraindications

In medical terms, something that is contraindicated involves a specific condition or circumstance (such as a treatment, drug, or natural supplement) that should not be used. Suma is contraindicated for:

  • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding: There has not been enough clinical research to prove the safety for use during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
  • Those with severe liver or kidney disease: The safety of the use of suma has not been well established for those with kidney or liver disease.

While many types of ginseng are indicted as being contraindicated with the use of Lanoxin (digoxin), a drug that slows and strengthens the heart rate, a 2005 study found that Brazilian ginseng (suma) does not interfere with serum digoxin levels.

Selection, Preparation, and Storage

Although there are not enough clinical research study results to support a recommendation for a safe dosage of suma, according to some experts, the traditional use involves one cup of tea made from suma, ingested twice daily, or 500 mg of suma root powder capsules taken twice daily. 

Always follow the label instructions when taking suma (or any other medicinal herb) and consult with a professional healthcare provider regarding the recommended dosage.

What to Look For

Keep in mind that herbal preparations are not strictly regulated by a government agency, unlike commercial drugs and over-the-counter medications, which are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means that the burden of finding a product that is safe and effective is on the consumer.

Look for wild-harvested, all-natural, organic herbs that are certified by third-party agencies such as the U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International, or ConsumerLab.com. These organizations evaluate and report on a product’s level of safety, purity, and potency.

Herbal preparations should be stored in a cool, dry place, out of direct sunlight.

Other Questions

Is suma safe for children to use?

No, the safety of suma for use in infants and children has not yet been established.

Why is suma referred to as Brazilian ginseng if it is not a type of ginseng?

Suma got its common name, Brazilian ginseng, because its roots are similar to Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) and because of its wide use as an adaptogen. But suma and ginseng come from different plant families and differ in chemical makeup as well as in health benefits. 

A Word From Verywell

Although suma shows great promise for the treatment of many conditions, such as those caused by inflammation and specific types of tumors, much of the medical research data comes from animal, and not human, studies. This does not necessarily mean that suma is ineffective, but rather that more studies are needed to definitively prove its safety and effectiveness for human use.   

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Article Sources

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