Pau d’arco for healing
Pau d’arco is a tree (Tabebuia avellanedae) that is also known as lapacho. Pau d’arco is the Portuguese name, lapacho the Spanish. The tree is native to South America, where its bark has been used to treat a wide range of conditions, including pain, arthritis, inflammation of the prostate gland (prostatitis), fever, dysentery, boils and ulcers, and various cancers.
Pau d’arco is an evergreen tree that today grows in the warm parts of Central and South America. It is a broad-leaf that grows to a height of about 40m and has pink to violet coloured flowers. The tree’s extremely hard wood makes it resistant to disease and decay. It is its inner bark that is used medicinally.
It has been reported that Brazilian-based indigenous healers brew a herbal tea using the inner bark of pau d’arco that is useful in the treatment of cancer. However, as we shall see, there are concerns and limitations in the use of pau d’arco and, although it does show anti-cancer potential, its most popular modern use is in the management of conditions such as thrush (candida).
The two prime active chemicals in pau d’arco are both naphthoquinones: lapachol and beta-lapachone. In lab tests, these chemicals kill some bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites. They also have anti-inflammatory properties. The antioxidant quercetin is also present, along with other flavonoids. In addition, pau d’arco contains coumarins, iridoids and the antioxidant carnosol. Unfortunately, the bark contains the toxic chemical hydroquinone as well.
The fungus Candida albicans can cause the uncomfortable condition of vaginal or oral thrush as well as affect the gut, upsetting the balance of its flora. The napthaquinones, especially lapachol, from pau d’arco have anti-fungal properties and work particularly well against Candida albicans. Pau d’arco is a very popular remedy with herbalists for long-term “candidiasis” (overgrowth of Candida albicans).
Pau d’arco has a reputation as a natural antibiotic and is used traditionally for infections of the nose, mouth and throat. One study showed that a tea made from pau d’arco inhibited a penicillin-resistant strain of golden staph (Staphylococcus aureus).
Pau d’arco contains anti-inflammatory compounds so is beneficial for inflammatory conditions, particularly of the stomach and intestines. Other inflammatory conditions pau d’arco may help include cystitis (bladder infections) and prostatitis.
The chemical compound known as lapachol does have some inherent anti-cancer properties. Brazilian research from the 1960s aroused interest in pau d’arco as an anti-cancer treatment. It emerged that lapachol could stop the growth of tumour cells by preventing them from metabolising oxygen. However, the level of lapachol required to achieve this effect also produced unacceptable symptoms as side-effects. These symptoms included nausea, vomiting and bleeding. Not surprisingly, interest in lapachol and pau d’arco as anti-cancer agents waned and more research needs to be done in this area before it may be safely used.
Taking pau d’arco
Pau d’arco is sold as tablets, capsules, dried bark tea and tincture (contains alcohol). Some of the chemicals that give pau d’arco its medicinal effects don’t dissolve well in water, so a tea is not always going to be as effective as other delivery methods. It’s important to carefully read the label to make sure that the product actually contains Tabebuia avellanedae (and not other species) as an ingredient.
Given the potentially irritating nature of some pau d’arco compounds, it’s best taken at doses prescribed by a health professional. The risk of side-effects seems to be greater when the dose of lapachol is more than 1.5g (NOTE: That dose is of isolated lapochol, not of the whole bark) per day. However, it can be hard to determine how much lapachol the powdered bark contains.
Since the pau d’arco tree is not cultivated, the bark is harvested from wild trees. The increasing popularity of pau d’arco is putting pressure on the species and it is becoming endangered. So while it is a useful herbal remedy, we need to be mindful of overuse.
Do not give pau d’arco to infants or children. It should also be avoided by all women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Pau d’arco thins the blood and so might increase the risk of bleeding during, as well as after, a surgical procedure and may decrease blood clotting speed. It should not be used for a minimum period of two weeks before having surgery. Talk to your practitioner and surgeon and let them know if you have been taking pau d’arco at all, even if it was before the two-week period leading up to the scheduled procedure. If you are on any blood-thinning medications such as aspirin or warfarin, or blood-thinning herbal supplements or fish oil, discuss with your healthcare practitioner before taking pau d’arco.
References available on request.