The Amazon rainforest, the largest rainforest on earth, has been targeted by pharmaceutical companies for over a century as a rich source of new plant-derived drugs. The Amazon rain forest is even more so a treasure trove of botanicals for the dietary supplement industry. This rain forest stretches over a billion acres in Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, and the eastern Andean area of Ecuador and Peru. It is home to hundreds of thousands of plants, many of which are used as folk medicines.
Among the many beneficial traditional Amazon botanicals which have emerged in recent years, Uña de gato, or Cat's Claw (Uncaria tomentosa), is one of the most beneficial of all. A woody vine, the plant earns its name due to its sharp, claw-like thorns. Dispersed throughout Central and South America, cat's claw has been used for centuries by native tribes. The entire Uncaria genus, of which there are 60 or so known species, occurs in the tropics. These are coarse shrubs which climb by means of sharp spines or thorns. One species, Uncaria guianensis, is also called cat's claw. But this species lacks the same broad use and science as Uncaria tomentosa.
Good Ghost, Bad Ghost
One of the tribes most associated with cat's claw is the Ashaninka. Their tribal name means "belonging to the Inca." Formerly fierce warriors, the Ashaninka served as the last line of stubborn and dangerous defense against the Spanish conquest of Peru and the eventual destruction of the Incan empire. Many Ashaninka people live in the Chanchamayo region of the Peruvian Amazon, an area of hilly and mountainous rain forest. According to the Ashaninka healers, there are two types of cat's claw, good ghost plants and bad ghost plants. The Ashaninka call the good ghost cat's claw Saventaro, meaning powerful plant. You have to be an expert to know the difference. Fast-forwarding to the scientific present, scientists now have identified two distinct chemotypes of cat's claw. The good ghost cat's claw plants contain POA's or pentacyclic oxindole alkaloids. These compounds provide significant benefits to health. But the so-called bad ghost plants contain TOA's, tetracyclic oxindole alkaloids, which actually counteract the beneficial effects of the plant. The Ashaninka explanation of which plants to use and which to avoid are affirmed and explainable by modern scientific analysis. The bridge between traditional knowledge and scientific rigor is being established with thousands of medicinal plants worldwide. Among medicinal plants from Amazonia, Saventaro is a science heavyweight.
On a hot, sunny day, I stood overlooking a long green river valley outside of La Merced Peru with Johannes Keplinger, a bright and talented Austrian familiar with that region, the Ashaninka people, and Saventaro cat's claw. His father, Klaus Keplinger, is a pioneer in the study and promotion of cat's claw, or Saventaro. Klaus Keplinger is a true friend of the Ashaninka people, and has worked hard for decades on their behalf. Elder Keplinger's dedication to the cat's claw cause traces back to an influential meeting with a shaman in 1959, when he took part in a mountaineering expedition in Peru. The Ashaninka shaman told Keplinger about a healing plant. That plant was Saventaro, the POA chemotype, or good ghost cat's claw. In the early 1970's Keplinger was told about a successful cancer treatment of a friend, using cat's claw. Keplinger returned to the Chanchamayo region in 1975, and has worked with the Ashaninka people in the sustainable harvesting and initial processing of the POA chemotype of cat's claw, Saventaro, for eventual manufacture into a standardized extract. Keplinger's son Johannes now is responsible for the project, which operates in Austria under the name Immodal Pharmaka.
Joining Johannes and me were photographer Donna Horn and an Ashaninka Indian named Josias Macuyama. We were together to visit every aspect of the world of Saventaro cat's claw, from the forest to drying harvested material. Donna shot photographs throughout the entire trip, while Josias works directly with the Keplinger family in the Saventaro cat's claw project. Josias is an influential and respected man in the Ashaninka world. As one of the tribe, he knows the challenges his people face. At the same time, Josias enjoys a European education, and a broader world perspective. The four of us made a friendly and cooperative quartet as we travelled throughout the Chanchamyo region of the Peruvian Amazon, meeting with a broad range of people involved with Saventaro cat's claw.
We hiked into the hot rainforest to see cat's claw plants with a couple of native Ashaninka harvesters named Mario and Nestor, and a local medicine man Manuel Harena. There we witnessed first hand how Ashaninka people harvest Saventaro cat's claw in three ways that set them apart from others. First the harvesters visually determining whether a plant is the right chemotype. Secondly, they harvest root material instead of bark, which is more common. Additionally, they maintain a sustainable harvesting project in thousands of acres of rain forest, protecting the natural habitat and preventing depletion of cat's claw supplies. The Ashaninka use GPS units to identify exact locations of cat's claw plants, which can be huge, twining through an acre or more of forest, winding around trees, taking over a lot of ground. Each plant is tagged with an identification code. Up to one third of the lateral roots of a plant is harvested, and then that plant is left alone for ten years before any further harvesting takes place. This enables new lateral roots to grow, and contrasts sharply with harvesting of cat's claw in many other regions, where plants are cut down and ripped up, dried and ground, decimating forest and depleting supplies of this potent rain forest medicine.
Compounds in Cat's Claw
The phytochemistry of cat's claw, Uncaria tomentosa has been very well studied. Uncaria tomentosa contains numerous phytochemicals that account for the plant's traditional and current uses. The highly studied oxindole alkaloids, notably the POA's, demonstrate immune-modulating and antileukemic activity. Other constituents called quinovic acid glycosides show anti-inflammatory and antiviral activity. Antioxidant phenols and plant sterols contribute to the plant's anti-inflammatory properties. Yet another group of cat's claw compounds called carboxyl alkyl esters demonstrate immune-enhancing, anticancer, and anti-inflammatory activity, as well as cell-repairing properties.
In his Amazonian Ethnobotanical Dictionary, botanist Dr. James A. Duke describes the use of cat's claw in Peru for anti-inflammatory, and cytostatic (retards tumor cells) purposes. In popular literature, cat's claw is increasingly promoted for its well established immune enhancing properties. Studies support the traditional use of cat's claw for anti-inflammatory and immune-enhancing purposes. By helping to prevent and repair damage to DNA, cat's claw may possibly prove to be a bonafide life extender.
Cat's Claw Benefits
Studies conducted with the POA chemotype of cat's claw show that these agents possess anti-inflammatory, antimutagenic, antiviral and immune-stimulating properties. The POA alkaloids in the vine demonstrate immune-enhancing activity by producing an increase in phagocytosis, a process by which potentially harmful materials are "eaten" by protective cells. In studies of quinovic acid glycosides in the plant, researchers observed significant anti-inflammatory activity. Additionally, these same compounds were shown to inhibit several types of common viruses. In studying triterpenoid saponins, scientists observed that these chemical agents inhibited the growth of some tumor cells. In Austria, Saventaro cat's claw extract is prescribed by physicians under the name Krallendorn for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. In many cases, it enables sufferers of this disease to gradually ease off of medication and live normal lives. The extract demonstrates benefit as an adjunct to chemotherapy and radiotherapy in cancer treatment, and improves overall parameters of health in cases of various cancers. Saventaro cat's claw also helps to treat viral infections including Herpes simplex and Varicella zoster, and improves immune function and several parameters of life quality in cases of HIV and Aids. This phytochemical-packed Amazonian plant has become a highly studied and effective medicine.
Cat's Claw and Sustainability
One challenge we face in the era of modern plant medicine is how to engage in herbal work in a manner that sustains plants, people and the natural environment. In addition to harvesting Saventaro cat's claw root in an eco-friendly way, the collaboration between Immodal and the Ashaninka people provides other benefits. Harvesters of Saventaro cat's claw root are paid a fair daily wage that exceeds local wages. They are additionally paid per kilo of lateral roots harvested. After that, additional funds accrue to the Ashaninka villages for medicine and education. This type of green business bodes well for the future.
Some people state that the Amazon rain forest should be better protected, because someday we may find an extraordinary rainforest remedy that is a true lifesaver, one that treats serious diseases and provides extraordinary health benefits. We don't need to wait for some future discovery to start taking better care of one of the greatest geographic resources on earth. The traditional native medicine cat's claw is that extraordinary rainforest remedy. The POA chemotype of cat's claw, called Saventaro by the Ashaninka Indians, demonstrates profound medicinal value. Its immune-modulating, antiviral, antitumor and anti-inflammatory effects make Saventaro a medicine deserving of greater recognition and more widespread use.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter, author and educator. Chris has conducted medicinal research in over 20 countries including India, China, Siberia, Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Chile, Vanuatu South Pacific, Lebanon, Syria, Ghana, Austria, Germany, Thailand, Malaysia, South Africa, Morocco and the United States.