The Health Benefits of Phyllanthus

This ayurvedic herb may protect the liver and treat kidney stones

Phyllanthus niruri growing outside

 ossyugioh / Getty Images

Phyllanthus is a genus of flowering plant used in herbal medicine. Commonly used in Ayurvedic healing, species like Phyllanthus emblica and Phyllanthus niruri have long been touted as a safe and effective remedy for liver disorders and host of other medical conditions.

Phyllanthus is grown throughout the world in tropical and subtropical climates. Available as a dietary supplement, the leaves stems, and root of the phyllanthus plant can be used to make teas, decoctions, tinctures, and extracts. Phyllanthus poultices, using fresh shoots and leaves, can also be applied to the skin to treat sores and rash.

Also Known As

  • Gale of the wind
  • Leafflower
  • Seed-under-leaf
  • Stonebreaker

Health Benefits

Phyllanthus has been used in the Ayurvedic system of medicine for over 2,000 years, where it is believed to prevent or treat a wide range of unrelated health conditions. The Ayurvedic drug Bhumyamalaki is widely used to treat liver disorders, the effects of which are attributable to Phyllanthus niruri.

Other conditions commonly treated by phyllanthus include:

The evidence supporting these health claims is generally weak. With that being said, there is evidence that phyllanthus can aid in the treatment of certain liver or kidney diseases. Here is what some of the current research says:

Liver Disease

Scientists have found that certain species of Phyllanthus may help prevent liver inflammation and damage. According to a 2012 study in Pharmaceutical Biology, extracts of Phyllanthus polyphyllus, Phyllanthus emblica, and Phyllanthus indofischeri were able to protect liver cells (called hepatocytes) from oxidative stress when exposed to hydrogen peroxide in a series of test-tube studies.

The results were supported by a 2017 study published in the journal Nutrients in which a 50% extract of Phyllanthus niruri appeared to halt the progression of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) in mice. Not only was the extract able to normalize liver enzymes, but there was no sign of fibrosis (scarring) in liver tissue samples. These effects were attributed to a plant-based polyphenol called phyllanthin, unique to Phyllanthus genus.

Further research is needed to determine whether the same effects can be achieved in humans.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a form of viral hepatitis that can cause long-term liver inflammation and damage. Since as far back at the 1990s, studies have suggested that phyllanthus can eradicate the hepatitis B virus (HBV), effectively "curing" users of the chronic infection.

Many of these studies were criticized for including acutely infected individuals in the research. In people with acute hepatitis B (meaning that they were recently infected), as many as 90% will experience spontaneous clearance of the virus without treatment. Only a small number will progress to a chronic HBV infection, some of whom may never experience symptoms.

Claims that phyllanthus can "cure" or "treat" hepatitis B are unlikely given that chronic HBV infections are not only incurable but variable in their progression.

This was echoed in a 2011 review in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in which investigators asserted there was "no convincing evidence that phyllanthus, compared with placebo, benefits patients with chronic HBV infection."

Kidney Stones

Phyllanthus has long been used in alternative medicine to prevent and treat kidney stones (also known as renal calculi). There is some evidence to support this claim.

According to a 2018 study in the International Brazilian Journal of Urology, 56 adults with kidney stones given a series of intravenous Phyllanthus niruri infusions experienced a 37.5% reduction in the size of their stones after 12 weeks.

Moreover, the infusion decreased uric acid and urinary oxalate levels that contribute to the development of stones (suggesting that phyllanthus may also help prevent kidney stones). There is little evidence that phyllanthus taken by mouth can render anywhere near the same effect.

Cancer

Some scientists believe that phyllanthus has anti-tumor properties that may one day lead to the development of a new class of cancer drugs.

A 2010 study published in Phytotherapy Research aimed to evaluate the effect of Phyllanthus emblica (also known as the Indian gooseberry) on human cancer cell lines. In a series of animal and test-tube experiments, the scientists reported that an extract of Phyllanthus emblica was able to slow tumor growth by inducing apoptosis (programmed cell death) in a wide range of cancer cells.

Unlike normal cells that undergo apoptosis (so that old cells can be replaced with new cells), cancer cells are effectively "immortal" and do not experience apoptosis.

As positive as the findings seem, a great many plant-based substances can trigger apoptosis in the test tube. That phyllanthus was able to reduce tumor size by 50% in mice suggests that it may have real-world applications. Further research is needed.

Possible Side Effects

Even though phyllanthus has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine, little is known about its long-term safety. Side effects tend to be mild and may include stomach upset and diarrhea.

Due to the lack of research, phyllanthus should be avoided in children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers. It should also be avoided in people with Wilson's disease as it may further reduce uric acid levels and increase the risk of liver damage.

Interactions

Research has shown that phyllanthin can bind to platelet receptors and inhibit blood clotting. As such, phyllanthus should not be used with anticoagulants like Plavix (clopidogrel) as this can lead to increased bleeding and easy bruising.

Phyllanthus supplements should be stopped at least two weeks before scheduled surgery to prevent excessive bleeding.

Phyllanthus can also interact with drugs used to treat diabetes, potentially enhancing their effects and causing an adverse drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia). It may also do the same with anti-hypertensive medications, lead to an adverse drop in blood pressure (hypotension).

Selection, Preparation, and Storage

Phyllanthus is most commonly sold in the United States as a dried herb or dietary supplement. Fresh phyllanthus is generally considered a weed and can be foraged from nature, although a horticulturist may be needed to identify the species. Certain species, such as Phyllanthus amarus, have been known to cause mild toxicity.

Harvesting wild phyllanthus also poses a concern, as there is no way to know if it has been tainted with weed killers or has absorbed heavy metal and other contaminants from groundwater.

Phyllanthus supplements may be safer but still pose risks. Because dietary supplements are largely unregulated in the United States, some brands may be safer than others. To better ensure quality and safety, opt for brands that have been independently tested by a certifying body like the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), NSF International, or ConsumerLab.

Sadly, few Ayurvedic products are ever submitted for quality certification. This can pose serious risks to the consumer.

According to a 2015 survey from the Mayo Clinic Health System, 40% of Americans who used Ayurvedic preparations had elevated levels of lead in their blood, while almost half had high levels of mercury.

Here are a few tips that can help you buy and use phyllanthus supplements more safely:

  • Always buy organic. This offers you the best assurance that the product is safe from contaminants. Only choose supplements that have been certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
  • Read the product label. Phyllanthus supplements should ideally include the species name (such as Phyllanthus niruri) on the product label. Also, check for added ingredients you may be sensitive to, including gluten and animal-based gelatins. If you don't know what an ingredient is, ask your pharmacist.
  • Avoid wildcrafted goods. These are products foraged from the wild that are typically dried to make home decoctions and teas. If you don't know where a plant came from, you can never be sure if it is safe and untainted.
  • Avoid overdosing. More isn't always better. As a rule, never exceed the dosage on the product label. This doesn't necessarily guarantee that the product is safe or effective, but it may reduce the risk of gastrointestinal side effects.

Finally, let your doctor know if you are taking or planning to take phyllanthus so that you can be monitored for unexpected side effects or interactions.

If you experience side effects while taking phyllanthus, call your doctor or go to your nearest walk-in clinic. Be sure to bring the product along in its original container.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  1. Sharma SK, Sheela MA. Pharmacognostic evaluation of leaves of certain Phyllanthus species used as a botanical source of Bhumyamalaki in Ayurveda. Ayu. 2011 Apr-Jun;32(2):250-3. doi:10.4103/0974-8520.92552

  2. Thamlikitkul V, Wasuwat S, Kanchanapee P. Efficacy of Phyllanthus amarus for eradication of hepatitis B virus in chronic carriers. J Med Assoc Thai. 1991 Sep;74(9):381-5.

  3. Chou HH, Chien WH, Wu LL, et al. Age-related immune clearance of hepatitis B virus infection requires the establishment of gut microbiota. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2015 Feb 17;112(7):2175-80. doi:10.1073/pnas.1424775112

  4. Kassuya CAL, Silvestre A, Menezes-de-Lima O, et al. Antiinflammatory and antiallodynic actions of the lignan niranthin isolated from Phyllanthus amarus. Evidence for interaction with platelet activating factor receptorEur J Pharmacol. 2006;546(1-3):182-88. doi:10.1016/j.ejphar.2006.07.025

  5. Eweka AO, Enogieru A. Effects of Oral Administration of Phyllanthus Amarus Leaf Extract on the Kidneys of Adult Wistar Rats - A Histological Study. Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med. 2011;8(3):307-11.

  6. Gajalakshmi S, Iswarya V, Ashwini R, et al. Evaluation of heavy metals in medicinal plants growing in Vellore District. Eur J Exper Biol. 2012, 2 (5):1457-61.

Additional Reading