Suma is the common name for a tropical ground vine native to the Amazon rain forest of Central and South America. Its botanical name is Pfaffia paniculata, and it belongs to the Amaranthaceae family. Referred to by the people of the rain forest as para todo, which can be translated "for all things," the herb has been used for 300 years in the Amazon for many different ailments. It is sometimes called Brazilian ginseng. Aside from suma's reputation as an energy booster, aphrodisiac, and wound healer, it has also been used to treat a wide range of medical conditions such as diabetes, cancer , and various skin conditions. Despite suma's traditional use as a folk remedy, its medicinal properties are not widely recognized around the world. While suma is on the list of about 600 Brazilian medicinal plants published by Brazil's Department of Health in the early 1980s, the herb is not included in most of the well-known compilations of herbs outside of South America. Only the dried root of the suma plant is used as a drug. According to tradition, the root is also used in cooking and has a mild flavor resembling that of vanilla.
Suma is often marketed to the public as Brazilian ginseng, which is misleading because the two herbs are not related in any way. Panax ginseng, which is cultivated in several parts of the globe outside of South America, is a popular herbal stimulant and adaptogen in the United States, Asia, and Europe. Like ginseng, suma is described as an adaptogen. This drug class was first defined over 50 years ago by a Russian scientist to describe Siberian ginseng's broad therapeutic effects. In simple terms, an adaptogen acts nonspecifically to optimize function and help the body to adapt to physical and mental stress (infection, hot or cold temperatures, physical exertion, and emotional distress). In order to meet the stricter definition of this concept, an adaptogen should lack side effects, be effective against a wide range of diseases or disorders, and restore the body to a healthy equilibrium regardless of the cause of the disruption.
While it is not known exactly how suma produces its effects, researchers have identified some of the herb's chemical constituents. These include pfaffosides A, B, C, D, E, and F; sitosterol; stigmasterol; allantoin; and germanium. As of 2000 a significant amount of research is still required to confirm suma's indications and mechanisms of action, as well as safety data. The ideal dosage of the herb has also yet to be determined.
While not approved as a medication by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), suma has been reported to have a number of beneficial effects. There is, however, little scientific evidence to support these claims. Aside from its use as an energy booster, some people use the herb to treat chronic fatigue syndrome , ulcers, anxiety , menstrual problems, impotence , and menopausal symptoms. Olympic competitors from Russia have used suma in conjunction with other adaptogens to enhance athletic performance. The herb is also used to strengthen the immune system and fight infection. Like Panax ginseng, suma is purported to be an aphrodisiac.
While suma's effectiveness is based mainly on its history as a folk remedy, a few preliminary studies suggest that it may have potential as a cancer drug and anti-inflammatory. In one in vitro investigation, several chemicals in suma (pfaffosides) blocked the growth of melanoma tumors. These findings do not prove, however, that suma is effective in preventing or treating cancer in people. Even if certain chemicals in suma have the ability to fight cancer, it is not known if these can distinguish cancerous cells from healthy ones. Further studies are required to determine whether suma can shrink tumors safely without harming normal tissue. In a pharmacological study conducted by Italian researchers, an extract made from suma appeared to have mild anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects. Interestingly, suma did not seem to alleviate pain that was unrelated to inflammation.
Some of the most intriguing research regarding suma is difficult to verify. At the center of this research is Dr. Milton Brazzach of Sao Paulo University in Brazil, who has reportedly treated several thousand patients with suma after his wife was cured of breast cancer using the herb. He has prescribed suma in dosages as high as 28 g daily for periods of months and years to treat diabetes and various cancers such as leukemia and Hodgkin's disease . While Brazzach has reported that he achieved good results with suma, the full details of his research have not been published in peer-reviewed journals. Until these studies have been published and reviewed by other experts, the evidence of suma's effectiveness in the treatment of these diseases cannot be authenticated.
Not all practitioners of alternative medicine agree when it comes to the virtues and possible dangers of suma. In The Way of Herbs, Dr. Michael Tierra compares the herb to Siberian ginseng and Korean ginseng in terms of effectiveness. He reports that suma increased the sense of overall well-being in one elderly patient with cancer and had beneficial effects on a teenager with leukemia. Suma appears to have the most consistent effect in people who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome or lack of energy, states Tierra. By contrast, prominent pharmacologist Dr. Varro Tyler emphasizes safety concerns in Tyler's Honest Herbal. Even without extensive scientific testing, many folk remedies are considered relatively safe due to the fact that they have been used without apparent harm for centuries or even millennia, according to Tyler. It is not certain, however, that suma falls into the category of time-proven natural remedies. The claims that suma has been used for centuries in the Amazon are mainly derived from marketing material as opposed to recognized herbal literature. Due to concerns regarding the safety and effectiveness of suma, Tyler does not recommend using the herb for any purpose.
The optimum daily dosage of suma has not been established with any certainty. The typical dosage is 1000 mg daily, taken in divided doses. Much higher dosages have also been recommended.
Suma is not known to be harmful when taken in recommended dosages, though it is important to remember that the effects of taking the herb (in any amount) are unknown. According to a report published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in 1991, one person who inhaled powdered suma root (for use in the making of suma capsules) developed asthma . This case, however, does not necessarily mean that swallowing suma in recommended dosages will produce similar problems.
Due to lack of sufficient medical study, suma should be used with caution in children, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, and people with liver or kidney disease.
When taken in recommended dosages, suma is not associated with any bothersome or significant side effects.
As of 2004, Suma is not known to interact adversely with any drugs or dietary supplements.
Foster, Steven and Varro E. Tyler. Tyler's Honest Herbal. Binghampton, NY: Haworth Herbal Press, 1999.
American Botanical Council. PO Box 144345, Austin, TX 78714-4345.
Discovery Health. http://www.discoveryhealth.com.