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Indian Snakeroot

Other common name(s): snakeroot, rauwolfia, rauvolfia, serpentwood, reserpine

Scientific/medical name(s): Rauwolfia serpentina

Description

Indian snakeroot is a plant that grows in India, Thailand, and other parts of Asia, South America, and Africa. There are more than 100 species of Indian snakeroot. Rauwolfia serpentina is the most commonly used species in herbal remedies. Reserpine, a chemical found in the roots, is responsible for most of the plant’s effects on the body.

Overview

Available scientific evidence does not support claims that Indian snakeroot is effective in treating cancer, liver disease, or mental illness. It also has many dangerous side effects and is likely to increase the risk of cancer. The drug reserpine, which is extracted from snakeroot, is used in conventional medicine to treat high blood pressure and agitation.

How is it promoted for use?

According to its proponents, Indian snakeroot lowers high blood pressure (hypertension), eases anxiety and tension, reduces fever, stops diarrhea and dysentery, and can be used to treat some psychiatric illnesses. Some believe that Indian snakeroot stops or interferes with the growth of cancer cells. A few herbalists recommend that it not be used at all because of its hazardous effects.

What does it involve?

Indian snakeroot is on the Commission E (Germany's regulatory agency for herbs) list of approved herbs for treating mild hypertension. In the United Kingdom, it is available by prescription only. In the United States, Indian snakeroot supplements are available as tablets, powder, or in liquid form. Ground or powdered Indian snakeroot can also be brewed as a tea.

Rauwolfia is also offered as a homeopathic remedy (see Homeopathy), using extremely diluted solutions of the herb. Little or no actual snakeroot is ingested when the homeopathic remedy is used.

Reserpine, which is extracted from the rauwolfia root, is a prescription drug approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It may be given as a pill or injection. For the prescription medicine reserpine, the daily adult dose is less than 1 milligram per day.

What is the history behind it?

References to Indian snakeroot were found in Hindu texts dating back to 600 BC. A tea made from the plant has been used for centuries in India for treating insanity, hysteria, and restlessness. Mahatma Gandhi reportedly drank Indian snakeroot tea regularly.

In Western medicine, reserpine was commonly prescribed by physicians for many years to treat high blood pressure and to calm agitated people. However, other equally effective drugs with fewer side effects have since taken its place.

In India, pastes made from the plant are applied as antidotes to bites from venomous reptiles such as snakes. Extracts are sometimes taken as a remedy for constipation, liver diseases, and rheumatism. African serpentwood (Rauwolfia vomitoria), a plant from the same family as Indian snakeroot, has long been used in traditional African medicine to calm mentally disturbed patients.

What is the evidence?

The drug reserpine, which is extracted from Indian snakeroot, is widely known to be an effective tranquilizer and treatment for high blood pressure. Recent studies suggest that Indian snakeroot contains some substances that can reduce the growth of cancer cells in laboratory dishes and in mice, but no human studies have been reported. But the consensus of available scientific evidence does not support claims that traditional preparations of Indian snakeroot can treat liver disease or cancer.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

This product is sold as a dietary supplement in the United States. Unlike companies that produce drugs (which must provide the FDA with results of detailed testing showing their product is safe and effective before the drug is approved for sale), the companies that make supplements do not have to show evidence of safety or health benefits to the FDA before selling their products. Supplement products without any reliable scientific evidence of health benefits may still be sold as long as the companies selling them do not claim the supplements can prevent, treat, or cure any specific disease. Some such products may not contain the amount of the herb or substance that is written on the label, and some may include other substances (contaminants). Though the FDA has written new rules to improve the quality of manufacturing processes for dietary supplements and the accurate listing of supplement ingredients, these rules do not take full effect until 2010. And, the new rules do not address the safety of supplement ingredients or their effects on health when proper manufacturing techniques are used.

Most such supplements have not been tested to find out if they interact with medicines, foods, or other herbs and supplements. Even though some reports of interactions and harmful effects may be published, full studies of interactions and effects are not often available. Because of these limitations, any information on ill effects and interactions below should be considered incomplete.

Indian snakeroot is linked with many side effects, including decreased heart rate, low blood pressure, decreased sex drive and performance, increased appetite, weight gain, swelling, stomach complaints, diarrhea, stuffy nose, nightmares, hallucinations, stomach or intestinal ulcers, poor coordination, dizziness, and dry mouth. Indian snakeroot can also impair physical abilities and occasionally cause depression severe enough that the person loses touch with reality.

People who have had depression, asthma, heart problems, peptic ulcers or ulcerative colitis, and women who have had breast cancer should not take Indian snakeroot. Indian snakeroot should also be avoided by people taking sleeping pills, appetite suppressants, heart medicines, and antipsychotic drugs because of the chance of increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, or uncontrollable muscle movements. When taken with alcohol, it increases impairment and sleepiness. In addition, other potential interactions between Indian snakeroot and other drugs and herbs should be considered. Some of these combinations may be dangerous. Always tell your doctor and pharmacist about any herbs you are taking.

Rauwolfia may affect the fetus in unknown ways. It is known to pass into breast milk. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should not use this herb.

The prescription drug reserpine can interact with other medicines, such as cold remedies, heart medicines, sedatives, and mental health drugs called MAO inhibitors. Talk with your doctor or pharmacist about all medicines and supplements you are taking. Reserpine is also known to cause cancer in mice, and at least one observation study showed that people who had been treated with it had slightly higher cancer rates. Because of this, it is listed as a probable cancer-causing substance by the National Toxicology Program. Since reserpine is a component of snakeroot, it is expected that snakeroot may have some similar effects if enough of it is taken.

Some people can become allergic to rauwolfia. Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

Additional resources

More information from your American Cancer Society

The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).

Guidelines for Using Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Dietary Supplements: How to Know What Is Safe

The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management

Complementary and Alternative Methods for Cancer Management

Placebo Effect

Learning About New Ways to Treat Cancer

Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer

References

Bemis DL, Capodice JL, Gorroochurn P, Katz AE, Buttyan R. Anti-prostate cancer activity of a beta-carboline alkaloid enriched extract from Rauwolfia vomitoria. Int J Oncol. 2006;29:1065-1073.

Blumenthal M, ed. The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; 1998.

Bown D. New Encyclopedia of Herbs & Their Uses. New York, NY: DK Publishing Inc; 2001.

Fetrow CW, Avila JR. Professional's Handbook of Complementary & Alternative Medicines. Springhouse, PA: Springhouse Corp; 1999.

Gruenwald J. PDR for Herbal Medicines. 3rd ed. Montvale, NJ: Thomson PDR; 2004.

Grossman E, Messerli FH, Goldbourt U. Carcinogenicity of antihypertensive therapy. Curr Hypertens Rep. 2002;4:195-201.

Indian Snakeroot. PDRhealth Web site. Accessed at www.pdrhealth.com/drugs/altmed/altmed-mono.aspx?contentFileName=ame0238.xml&contentName=Indian+Snakeroot on June 5, 2008.

Reserpine. Drugs Web site. Accessed at www.drugs.com/pro/reserpine.html on June 6, 2008.

Reserpine: CAS RN 50-55-5. Hazardous Substances Data Bank Web site. Accessed at http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/search/f?./temp/~gIIMg3:1 on June 18, 2008.

Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.


Last Medical Review: 11/28/2008
Last Revised: 11/28/2008