The Health Benefits of Saussurea

This ancient herbal remedy may improve heart and liver health

Saussurea costus with flower clusters

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Saussurea is a genus of flowering plant related to the thistle that thrives in high-altitude alpine climates. Used for centuries in Tibetan medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, and Ayurveda, the root is believed to exert potent anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and analgesic (pain-relieving) effects beneficial to human health.

There are over 300 species of Saussurea, of which Saussurea lappa, Saussurea costus, Saussurea laniceps, Saussurea involucrata, Saussurea medusa, and Saussurea obvallata are said to have medicinal properties.

Also Known As

  • Costus root
  • Kuth root
  • Kushta (Ayurveda)
  • Mokkou (Japanese)
  • Mu Xiang (traditional Chinese medicine)
  • Saw-wort
  • Snow lotus
  • Qist al Hindi (Indian)

Health Benefits

Saussurea contains aroma compounds called terpenes that can alleviate pain and inflammation by suppressing the cyclooxygenase (COX) enzyme. This is the same enzyme targeted by nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen).

In alternative medicine, Saussurea is used to prevent or treat an array of unrelated health conditions, including:

  • Acne 
  • Altitude sickness
  • Angina
  • Anxiety
  • Arthritis 
  • Asthma 
  • Bronchitis
  • Cholera
  • Colds
  • Dysentery
  • Gastritis
  • Heart disease 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Indigestion 
  • Irregular menstruation
  • Intestinal worms
  • Liver problems
  • Muscle spasms
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Ulcers

Saussurea has also been shown in test-tube studies to neutralize multi-drug resistance bacteria, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Escherichia coli, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Even so, human research to support these and other claims is sorely lacking.

At present, there is little clinical evidence to suggest that Saussurea can prevent or treat any medical condition.

That is not to say that compounds in Saussurea are entire without benefit. Here is just some of what the current research says:

Intestinal Worms

Saussurea has long been used in traditional medicines treat worm (nematode) infections. A study published in the Journal of the Pakistan Medical Association in 1991 reported that a single dose of S. lappa extract was just as effective as the pharmaceutical drug Combantrin (pyrantel pamoate) in treating 36 children with intestinal pinworm infections.

Despite the positive findings, there have not been any published studies since 1991 to further support these findings.

Heart Health

Several studies have suggested that Saussurea can enhance heart health, although the exact mechanism of action remains unknown.

According to a 2013study in the Journal of Advanced Pharmaceutical Technology & Research, rats with chemically-induced angina were protected from myocardial injury (heart muscle damage) if provided an oral S. lappa extract for 28 days. Unlike untreated rats, those treated with S. lappa demonstrated no abnormalities in blood tests consistent with myocardial injury.

A similar study in the Pakistan Journal of Pharmaceutical Science reported that rabbits given three doses of an S. lappa extract experienced improved coronary blood flow and decreased heart rate compared to untreated rabbits. This effect was similar to that seen in rabbits treated with the pharmaceutical drugs digoxin and diltiazem. Further research is needed.

Liver Inflammation

Saussurea may aid in the treatment of certain liver disorders, suggests a 2010 study published in Phytotherapy Research. According to the investigators, mice with chemically-induced hepatitis experienced less liver damage when treated with an S. lappa extract than those that weren't.

Compared to untreated mice, those given S. lappa had less liver inflammation and improved liver enzymes. Mice pre-treated with S. lappa enjoyed similar benefits, suggesting that S. lappa may exert properties protective of the liver.

Possible Side Effects

Saussurea lappa is generally regarded as safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) when used as a dietary supplement. Common side effects may include dizziness and nausea.

Saussurea is a member of the daisy family and may cause allergy in people allergic to artichoke, asters, common burdock, cosmos, chrysanthemums, dahlias, daisies, dandelions, ragweed, thistles, and zinnias. 

The safety of Saussurea during pregnancy has not been established. Given the lack of research, it is best to avoid Sausseria if you pregnant or breastfeeding.

It is unknown if Saussurea can interact with other drugs or supplements. To avoid interactions, let your doctor know about any medications you are taking, whether they are prescription, over-the-counter, herbal, or recreational.

Warnings

One of the common concerns about Saussurea products is that manufacturers will often substitute it with the root of the Aristolochia plant, currently banned in the United States. Aristolochia contains a compound known as aristolochic acid that can cause kidney damage and cancer (including transitional cell carcinoma).

Despite an official ban by the FDA, it is not uncommon to find Aristolochia in many Chinese herbal remedies, including those labeled Saussurea. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine often consider them to be interchangeable.

Because all aristolochic-acid-containing products are banned by the FDA, any suspected product can be confiscated until the manufacturer proves that it is aristolochic-acid-free.

Selection, Preparation, and Storage

Saussurea is sold almost exclusively in the United States in dried form, including powders, capsules, and desiccated whole roots. Saussurea is also included in many multi-ingredient formulations, including Mu Xiang Shu Qi Wan tablets used in traditional Chinese medicine. Saussurea can also be found an alcohol-based tincture or extract.

There are no guidelines for the appropriate use of Saussurea. Studies involving the use of S. lappa in children reported that dosages of 40 milligrams per kilogram per day were well-tolerated. For a 100-pound adult, that would translate to 1.8 grams (1,800 milligrams) per day. As a general rule, never exceed the dose listed on the product label.

Saussurea powders and liquids, typically mixed with water or juice, should be measured precisely with a measuring spoon or dropper. Saussurea root is commonly used to make teas and decoctions (although there no way to accurately measure the dose).

Saussurea essential oil made from the plant root is used in aromatherapy and to make fragrances, incense, and scented candles. It is not intended for internal use.

Because Saussurea supplements rarely undergo quality testing (and are not required to do so by the FDA), there is really no way to know for sure if a product is authentic or pure.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, some Chinese and Ayurvedic remedies have been known to be tainted with drugs, heavy metals, pesticides, and undeclared animal or plant products. 

To be safe, only buy products that are labeled "aristolochic-acid-free." This will provide you some assurance that the manufacturer has adhered to FDA regulations.

Other Questions

Is Saussurea an endangered plant species?

Both Saussurea lappa and Saussurea costus are threatened due to the unregulated collection and illegal trade of the medicinal plant. Saussurea is especially prized in Tibetan and traditional Chinese medicine and is among the most sacred plants in India, where it is used to pay homage to the goddess Nanda Devi. These factors drive demand for the plant as well as high market prices.

Among the most prized species is the Himalayan snow lotus (Saussurea asteraceae) grown at altitudes of 12,000 feet. Because the root is so valued, the entire plant has to be pulled from the soil rather than just the leaves or blossoms.

This has led to a decrease in an evolutionary size of snow lotus from the previous century. Because smaller Saussurea plants produce fewer seeds, continued consumption could push the plant to the brink of extinction unless conservation efforts are made.

Of the species currently threatened, only S. costus is classified as endangered, meaning that it is illegal to harvest, import, or export the plant in any form.

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Article Sources

  1. Choi HG, Lee DS, Li B, et al. Santamarin, a sesquiterpene lactone isolated from Saussurea lappa, represses LPS-induced inflammatory responses via expression of heme oxygenase-1 in murine macrophage cells. Int Immunopharmacol. 2012 Jul;13(3):271-9. doi:10.1016/j.intimp.2012.04.016


  2. Hasson SS, Al-Balushi MS, Alharthy K, et al. Evaluation of anti-resistant activity of Auklandia (Saussurea lappa) root against some human pathogens. Asian Pac J Trop Biomed. 2013 Jul;3(7):557-62. doi:10.1016/S2221-1691(13)60113-6


  3. European Medicines Agency/Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC). Public Statement on the Risks Associated With the Use of Herbal Products Containing Aristolochia Species. London, England; November 23, 2005.


  4. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Health. Traditional Chinese Medicine: What You Need To Know. Bethesda, Maryland; updated October 2013.


  5. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Health. Ayurvedic Medicine: In-Depth. Bethesda, Maryland; updated January 2019.


  6. Dennis N. Himalayan Snow Lotus Threatened with Extinction. HerbalGram J Am Botan Coun. 2006;71:48.


  7. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Checklist for CITES Species: Saussurea costus. Washington, D.C.; 2019.


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