The Holistic Healing Benefits Of Sumac

The holistic healing benefits of sumac

Sumac has a long history of medicinal use and is particularly powerful as a digestion and heart healer.

There are about 250 different species of flowering plants in the Rhus family that grow in subtropical and temperate regions, with a long history of use by indigenous peoples for medicinal and other uses. While many of the species have similar medicinal properties, sumac (Rhus coriaria) is what interests us here. With its tangy lemony flavour it is an excellent souring agent in rich foods and is a main component in the popular Middle Eastern spice mix za’atar.

The juice, the red seeds (known as drupes) and the leaves are used, with the seeds being ground into a reddish-purple powder widely used in cooking throughout the Middle East, the Levant and Central Asia. Sumac is also used to make a “lemonade” drink and was smoked with tobacco in traditional smoking mixtures. It also has a long history as an effective medicinal spice.

Active ingredients

The phytochemicals in sumac include tannins, polyphenols, flavonoids (including luteolin, apigenin and quercetin), organic acids, essential oils and fatty acids. It also contains minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, zinc and boron, as well as vitamins, mainly B6, B1 and B2. The fruit of Rhus coriaria contains some vitamin C (39mg/kg), and the tart flavour comes from the high levels of malic acid.

Therapeutic benefits

Sumac improves appetite, is a tonic for digestion, reduces symptoms of reflux and reduces diarrhoea, gastric ulcers and haemorrhoids. It has also been shown to reduce the symptoms of nausea and vomiting in breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Sumac’s anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial activity is effective in reducing the symptoms of a range of infective and inflammatory bowel diseases.

In laboratory conditions, the fruits of sumac inhibit the free radicals xanthine oxidase and scavenge the lipid-based superoxide free radicals. This research shows the potential for sumac to improve human health and help protect against chronic disease.

Traditionally, sumac was used topically as a paste to treat skin burns and eczemas and to improve wound healing. Research conducted to investigate these claims has found that sumac fruit extracts are useful as a preventative agent in the treatment of skin inflammation by inhibiting the production of the skin’s pro-inflammatory mediators. It also improves would healing and reduces excess bleeding.

Antimicrobial and antiviral
Research on sumac has shown it has a broad antimicrobial activity against both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria, attributed largely to the activity of the tannins, with the ripe fruit having a significantly higher antimicrobial activity than the unripe fruit. Sumac has also shown antiviral and antifungal activity.

Sumac improves appetite, is a tonic for digestion, reduces symptoms of reflux and reduces diarrhoea, gastric ulcers and haemorrhoids.

With its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, sumac has also been shown to be effective in the management of tooth infections and periodontitis. Sumac has also been used in dentistry against tooth decay by reducing bacteria and biofilm formation in the mouth. Sumac was used traditionally as a teeth-cleaning agent.

Sumac has potential uses in breast cancer as it suppresses angiogenesis, metastasis and tumour growth. In vivo studies have shown promising results in modulating triple negative breast cancer growth. Sumac also has an antioxidant activity that is protective against genotoxic carcinogens, including DNA-protective activity.

The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of sumac have been shown to improve ischaemic optic neuropathy in rats. Sumac also reduces the symptoms of opthalmia and conjunctivitis.

Sumac has powerful cardioprotective effects, particularly effective in patients with abnormal lipid profiles, increasing the HDL fraction as well as decreasing the more dangerous LDL cholesterol levels. When prescribed with lovastatin, the LDL levels are significantly lower than with lovastatin alone. The tannins in sumac have a significant effect in inhibiting vascular smooth muscle cell migration, thus being very effective in the prevention and treatment of atherosclerosis. Sumac has also been shown to reduce high blood pressure.

Sumac has been shown to be hypoglycaemic and to reduce insulin resistance and CRP in type 2 diabetes. Oral administration of the plant extract causes a significant decrease in HbA1c and α-glucosidase. Three grams of sumac per day for three months has reduced the susceptibility of diabetic patients to cardiovascular disease. In rat studies measurable weight loss also occurred, along with a significant decrease in blood glucose and lipid profiles.

Athletic muscle performance
A clinical trial was conducted studying the effect of sumac juice on pain during acute intense exercise of 30 days. Compared with placebo it was effective in reducing muscle pain. The protective activity of muscle may relate to the antioxidant activity of phenolic components in sumac juice, suggesting that sumac may have a beneficial effect on muscle performance in athletes.


Some species of Rhus are toxic and can cause severe allergic reactions; these poisonous sumacs are visually recognisable as they have white (not red) drupes.

Dr Karen Bridgman

Dr Karen Bridgman

Karen Bridgman is a holistic practitioner at Lotus Health and Lotus Dental in Neutral Bay.

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