An Old Herb Makes A New Debut
Andrographis promises enhanced immunity, heart health, liver function and more!

By Stephanie Gailing

Credited with curing the 1919 Indian Flu Epidemic and revered as the King of Bitters, its history of use dates back to 175 B.C. The list of andrographis' (Andrographis paniculata) traditional health care applications reads like a who's who of botanical medicine. And mounting scientific research confirms such health benefits. Chances are this may be the first time you have heard of nature's pharmacopoeia jewel, but it's probably not the last.

While just appearing on the Western natural medicine radar screen, andrographis is an herb that enjoys a long-standing tenure in not one, but two, traditional healing systems. Known as chuanxinlian in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and kalmegh in Ayurvedic medicine, andrographis is revered by modern herbalists. According to Mindy Green of the Herb Research Foundation, it is "one of those fabulous hidden herbs with a long history that has become newly rediscovered."

Traditional Uses
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, andrographis is used to treat a host of conditions including colds and flus, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal complaints, and snakebites. In the Ayurvedic medical system, it is used to treat intestinal worms, bronchitis, malaria, liver conditions such as hepatitis, and illnesses that feature compromised immune systems. The beauty of andrographis is not just that it has far-reaching health potential but that many of its traditional uses are now supported by modern scientific research.

To date there have been six double-blind clinical research studies, involving 600 subjects, and all have supported andrographis' ability to reduce the severity and duration of the common cold. In one study conducted at the University of Chile, significant improvements in earaches, nasal drainage and sore throats were evidenced after just two days of treatment with 1,200 mg per day of standardized andrographis (Phytomedicine, 1999, vol. 6, no. 4). In another study, researchers at Mahidol University in Bangkok compared the effect of 6 g of andrographis to acetaminophen in people with pharyngotonsilitis where sore throat and fever were the presenting symptoms. The results were impressive, showing that the herbal treatment was as effective as the over-the-counter remedy in relieving these symptoms (Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand, 1991, vol. 74, no. 10). Yet, since andrographis does not have the liver-compromising effects that acetaminophen does, it may serve as a safer alternative.

In addition to being able to treat colds, there is preliminary evidence that andrographis may also be able to prevent colds from starting. In a study conducted in association with the Swedish Herbal Institute, researchers observed two groups of healthy students, one that was given an herbal formula containing 200 mg of standardized andrographis and the other placebo. By the end of the third month, andrographis' effectiveness became apparent, with those in the treatment group two times less likely to catch a cold (Phytomedicine, 1997, vol. 4, no. 2). While research up to this point has not concluded the exact mechanisms by which andrographis may treat or prevent colds, it is suggested that it exerts its effects through its ability to stimulate a variety of different components of the immune system.

A Versatile Herb
Andrographis has also gained recent attention for its ability to support the health of the cardiovascular system. This is not surprising for an herb whose Chinese name means "penetrate the heart lotus." In numerous animal studies, andrographis extract has been shown to have antioxidant capabilities, along with conferring protection against the aggregation of platelets—an activity that leads to thrombosis and atherosclerosis. In a study conducted by researchers at the Tongji hospital in China, this antiplatelet-aggregation potential was also evidenced in persons with cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease (Zhongguo Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi, 1994, vol.14, no. 1). In addition, animal research also suggests that andrographis may have blood pressure-lowering effects.

There is also a lot of attention focused on andrographis' role in liver health. Scientific studies have shown that it can protect liver cells from the damaging effects of toxic chemicals. In fact, in this capacity andrographis has been found to be equal to, and sometimes more effective than, the popular herb milk thistle. This application is of paramount importance today because we are exposed to an array of toxic chemicals daily via our air, water and food.

The scientific research on andrographis continues, with preliminary evidence supporting its use as an antimalarial remedy, blood sugar-lowering agent and immune system support agent for persons with HIV.

Proper Use
Andrographis, like many other Asian herbs, was traditionally made into a tea by itself or in combination with other herbs. It is currently also available in pill form, which may be preferable, since andrographis is true to its name as the King of Bitters; many people, according to Matt Ferguson, LAc, manager of the Chinese Herb Dispensary at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health, "find its taste too strong when decocted as a tea."

While clinical trials of andrographis featured dosages ranging from 200 mg to 6 g, it is best to consult with a knowledgeable health care practitioner who can prescribe the dosage most appropriate for your individual health profile.

The large majority of evidence points to andrographis' safety. In fact, there has been a lack of significant adverse events in clinical trials and in toxicity tests. Andrographis has not been shown to negatively affect body weight, blood profile, tissue structure, or liver or kidney function.

Yet, a few recent scientific studies have raised the question of andrographis' effect on fertility. Two studies on male rats suggested that the herb could potentially cause the arrest of sperm production and degeneration of testicular structure. However, a follow-up study did not find that the herb had any negative effect on testicular health. In a separate study, female mice given andrographis were not able to get pregnant, although some medical experts question this study's relevance to humans, since the dosages received by the mice were thousands of times higher than the normal dosage a person would consume. Given these mixed results and the fact that andrographis has enjoyed traditional usage for thousands of years, it seems that more scientific research is needed to conclusively determine the potential of andrographis' effect on fertility.

As with many other herbs, safety has not been established in pregnancy or lactation or for persons with kidney or liver disease. In addition, because of its bile-stimulating properties, persons with gallbladder disease should consult their health care practitioner before taking andrographis.

Stephanie Gailing, M.S., C.N., is a freelance writer and researcher specializing in natural health topics.