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Managing Inflammation by Harnessing the Power of the Amazon Rainforest

Author: Dr. Mark Miller

I was delighted to see in a recent article in Food Navigator about which botanicals are experience a surge of interest, and that Cat’s claw was included. Yes there were the usual subjects that we are familiar with, but few know cat’s claw and it has been a passion of mine for over 20 years following my many excursions into the Amazon Rainforest in search of new therapeutics for diseases and disorders.

A focal point of my academic research was to listen to how the locals manage their health (note little is written in the Amazon, experience is passed on orally) and with thousands of questions I could decipher not only potential mechanisms of action but also the general properties of the active ingredients (chemical). It was journey of discovery and more than a few misadventures. For those that are not familiar with it, Cat’s claw is a vine in the jungle whose bark is made into a tea (decoction) and consumed for inflammation. There are two active subspecies, Uncaria tomentosa and Uncaria guianensis, and with the latter being more potent (NF-kB inhibition , Antioxidant & ANti-inflammatory properties of Cats claw subspecies). They are readily differentiated by the shape of the “claw” in the vine with U. tomentosa being sharp, like a cat’s, and U. guianensis being curled up.

Cat’s claw was my first success on this journey of discovery. Indeed, I was able to crack the code of exactly how it works within 6 weeks. More important than our expediency (it was not always like that) was the mechanisms of action, which was a Holy Grail target for chronic inflammation – suppression of the master gene switch, NF-kB. This switch controls thousands of genes that contribute to inflammation and it was a highly sought after developmental target in drug development. Not only did Cat’s claw work via this marvelous action, it was magnificently potent and from my reading it remains the most potent inhibitor of this switch. It is able to prevent macrophage production of TNFalpha (regulated by NF-kB) with an IC50 of 10 ng/ml, which is much more potent than the more popular botanical anti-inflammatories Cat's claw & TNF)

While this discovery was being unraveled and published in various studies (Cartilage health & Repair) the entire pharmaceutical industry turned on its head, specifically in terms of managing inflammation. At this time the first “biologics” came out. These are engineered antibodies that are administered into the circulation by injection and soak up major mediations of inflammation like a massive paper towel soaking up a spill. Indeed, the initial target for years was TNFalpha, the same mediator that cat’s claw was switching off at the gene level (suppressing production vs binding & elimination). These new pharmaceuticals were very effective, and the copycat nature of the industry, given risk aversion, the gene switch approach dried up in terms of pharmaceutical development. Biologics continue to rule the roost.

One door closes, another opens. Without a deliberate intent, the nutraceutical industry flourished with this gene switch approach – but it took time. Certainly, strategically I was remained active in nutraceutical development of this approach. Using a foundation base of cat’s claw, I did multiple clinical trials on the management of osteoarthritis (Uncaria guianensis & OA , Herbal-Leucine OA Clinical Trial). These ended up being game changers. They were the first to have a claim for benefits within 7 days (previously it was 2-3 months with glucosamine or chondroitin), a claim that was reviewed and found to be supported by my research. This changed the joint health industry and the claim is often repeated in subsequent studies on other products as long as they share this common mechanism of action of suppressing gene switches that drive chronic inflammation.

The “mechanism of actions” divergence between nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals persists to this day. Both approaches are experiencing successful outcomes with patients. Personally, my research was helpful for me. After some decades of doing triathlons, marathons, martial arts I was broken and missing an ACL in my right knee. Arthritis was crippling my active lifestyle. Shying away from knee reconstruction surgery I journeyed into a sustained treatment with cat’s claw (and other additions) and now some 20 years after I cancelled the knee surgery my knee cartilage remains healthy and fully functioning, despite no ACL and age. Bottom line the Amazonians knew what they were talking about, and here I am some decades later still touting their knowledge and experience.

However, there was an underlying spark for this article, beyond the opportunity to define some nutraceutical industry history, and that is to correct a misinterpretation as to how to classify botanicals. The article referred to cat’s claw as an adaptogen, and specifically contrasted it to botanicals like curcumin that are called anti-inflammatories. A wrongful classification means that many will not use cat’s claw appropriately and not get the benefits that they are expecting or need.

For clarity, adaptogens are botanicals that help you cope and manage environmental challenges. Often, they grow in pretty inhospitable climates. Mechanistically they possess an important action that is only recently being appreciated. They stimulate the production of “Heat Shock Proteins”. These proteins act like a cellular Fire Marshall whose responsibility is to tell everyone to proceed in an orderly manner to the fire exit. A calming but authoritarian role. There are some overlaps with NF-kB and inflammation, but this is indirect. So, just to set the record straight, the correct classification of Cat’s claw is as an anti-inflammatory and examples of adaptogens are Ashwagandha or Rhodiola rosea. Think of adaptogens as anti-stress botanicals, as they calm your cellular defenses they calm you: “Chill out” botanicals.

Both adaptogens and anti-inflammatories that work through gene switches have their important roles in maintaining health and wellness. Understand how they work, and you are better able to harness their natural benefits.