Cuscuta is the name of a group of plants in the morning glory family, of which the species Cuscuta epithymum is most commonly used in healing. A member of the Cuscutaceae family, species of cuscuta are found almost everywhere in the world, although cuscuta is more often called dodder in English-speaking countries. Other names include hellweed, devil's gut, beggarweed, strangle tare, scaldweed, dodder of thyme , greater dodder, and lesser dodder. In Chinese, cuscuta seeds are called tu si zi.
Cuscuta is a parasitic plant. It has no chlorophyll and cannot make its own food by photosynthesis. Instead, it grows on other plants, using their nutrients for its growth and weakening the host plant. Agriculturalists consider cuscuta a destructive weed and attempt to eradicate it. It parasitizes wild and cultivated plants, and is especially destructive to such commercially valuable crops as flax, alfalfa , beans, and potatoes. It also grows on such common ornamentals as English ivy, petunias, dahlias, and chrysanthemums. For medicinal purposes, herbalists prefer C. epithymum that grows on thyme.
Cuscuta is a leafless plant with branching stems ranging in thickness from thread-like filaments to heavy cords. The seeds germinate like other seeds. The stems begin to grow and attach themselves to nearby host plants. Once they are firmly attached to a host, the cuscuta root withers away. The mature plant lives its entire life without attachment to the ground. The stems of cuscuta are used in Western herbalism and the seeds are used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
Despite the fact that cuscuta is unpopular with farmers, it has a long history of folk use. In Western herbalism, cuscuta was traditionally used to treat liver, spleen, and gallbladder disorders such as jaundice ; and to support liver function. It is still used, although rarely, in that way by modern herbalists. It is also a mild laxative. Other traditional Western claims for cuscuta are that it is a mild diuretic, and that it can be used to treat sciatica and scurvy. Externally, it can be gathered fresh and applied to the skin to treat scrofuladerma. Extracts of the herb have a very bitter taste.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the seeds of cuscuta, called tu si zi, have been used for thousands of years. In the Chinese understanding of health, yin aspects inside the person and outside in the environment must be kept in balance with yang aspects. Ill health occurs when the energies and elements of the body are out of balance or in disharmony with nature. Health is restored by taking herbs and treatments that restore internal and external balance.
According to traditional Chinese healers, cuscuta seeds have a neutral nature and a pungent, sweet taste. They are associated with the liver and kidneys and are used in formulas that help both yin and yang deficiencies, depending on the patient's condition and the other herbs in the formula. Cuscuta was considered both an aphrodisiac and a longevity herb because it slowed down the loss of fluids from the body.
Contemporary Chinese herbalists use cuscuta in formulas to treat a range of conditions, including:
- premature ejaculation
- sperm leakage
- frequent urination
- ringing in the ears
- lower back pain
- sore knees
- white discharge from the vagina (leucorrhea)
- dry eyes
- blurred vision
- tired eyes
Cuscuta is one of nine herbs included in the manufacture of Equiguard, a Chinese herbal medicine recommended for kidney and prostate disorders. Research performed at New York Medical College indicates that the combination of ingredients in Equiguard may well be effective in the treatment of prostate cancer . The preparation inhibited the growth of cancer cells, increased the rate of self-destruction (apoptosis) of cancer cells, and prevented the surviving cells from forming colonies.
Cuscuta is also used in the Indian system of Ayurvedic healing to treat jaundice, muscle pain, coughs, and problems with urination.
Little scientific research has been done in the West on cuscuta. A purgative compound has been isolated from the herb, however, that supports its traditional use as a liver and gallbladder tonic. Other research done at Asian universities indicates that cuscuta seeds contain a complex carbohydrate that stimulates the immune system and has some antioxidant properties as well.
In Western herbalism, the entire thread-like stems of cuscuta are used. They are boiled in water along with such herbs as ginger and allspice to make a decoction. In Chinese herbalism, only the seeds are used. They are almost always used in combination with other herbs, as in concha marguerita and ligastrum formulas.
No special precautions are necessary when cuscuta is used in the doses normally prescribed by herbalists.
No side effects have been reported when cuscuta is used in doses prescribed by herbalists.
Cuscuta has been used for centuries with other Chinese herbs without any reported interactions. Studies of interactions between cuscuta and Western pharmaceuticals have not yet been performed.
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American Association of Oriental Medicine (AAOM). 433 Front Street, Catasauqua, PA 18032. (610) 266-2433.
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Rebecca J. Frey, PhD