Cat's Claw

Cat's claw has many different medicinal uses, from common colds to joint pain. Learn more about its history and uses here.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Cat's claw, katzenkralle (German), uña de gato (Spanish)
  • Scientific nameUncaria tomentosa
  • Geographic distributionAmazon
  • Plant typeVine
  • Main producer(s)Brazil, Peru
  • Main Economic UseMedicinal
Cat's Claw

Cat's claw is a vine native to South America and grows mainly in tropical and subtropical areas of Bolivia and Peru. The Ashaninka and other indigenous Amazonian tribes have utilized it for millennia as an immune system regulator, using it to treat serious and mild diseases alike. However, despite its natural prevalence, the herb was not discovered by the Western world until the 1970s, when ethnologist Klaus Keplinger documented its potential applications. His work over the following two decades led to a significant demand for cat's claw throughout Europe, and by the 1990s, the U.S. had also recognized its healing powers. Today, research is ongoing into cat's claw and its medicinal properties.

Medicinal and Nutritional Information

Quick Facts (Medicinal and Nutritional Information)
  • Medicinal actionAnti-inflammatory, Immunomodulant
  • Key constituentsPentacyclic oxindole alkaloids, proanthocyanidins
  • Medicinal rating(3) Reasonably useful plant
  • Safety rankingSafety undetermined
Cat's Claw

Health Benefits of Cat's Claw

The anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, antioxidant, and immunomodulatory properties of cat's claw have been used in folk medicine for centuries, and scientific studies have validated some of these applications. Cat's claw have been shown to be useful for:

  • Reducing inflammation. Cat's claw has been traditionally used to alleviate a number of inflammatory processes in the human body.

  • Balancing immune system activity. The plant contains bioactive substances that interact with the immune system, improving its functioning and shielding the body against harmful microorganisms. 

While further research is needed to corroborate these findings, preliminary studies suggests that cat's claw can also be useful for:

  • Treating viral infections like dengue fever. It may help eliminate the presence or viruses and reduce the rate of infections caused by these pathogens.

  • Repairing skin damage done by ultraviolet (UV) rays. The herb contains antioxidants that may help protect cell membranes, thus reducing the damage caused by sun exposure.

  • Preventing degenerative diseases like dementia and Parkinson's. One of the alkaloids in cat's claw, uncarine E, is thought to be responsible for the herb's beneficial effect on memory impairment

  • Eliminating oral bacteria, especially Staph infections. Cat's claw has been effective at inhibiting Staph strains in test tubes.

How It Works

Recent research into cat's claw's healing properties has revealed several potent phytocompounds. Pentacyclic oxindole alkaloids (POA) affect immune system activity and may also have neuroprotective effects. The herb also contains proanthocyanidins, a class of antioxidant that is also thought to be related to its anti-inflammatory activity. The plant also contains phenolic acids, including caffeic acid.

Pentacyclic oxindole alkaloids (POA) affect immune system activity and may also have neuroprotective effects.

Anti-inflammatory properties are also present in peony and rose, whereas kiwi and noni can provide immune benefits.

Cat's Claw Side Effects

While cat's claw toxicity has not been extensively studied, it appears to have few side effects. Some people have reported nausea, dizziness, and diarrhea while taking cat's claw. These side effects go away in many people after their body gets used to the herb.

Cautions

Though the herb appears to be safe, moderation should be exercised, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid it. People with autoimmune diseases, skin grafts, kidney or liver disease, tuberculosis, leukemia, or low blood pressure should refrain from taking this herb. Cat's claw may interact with immunosuppressant drugs, blood thinners, diuretics, and blood pressure medications.

How to Consume Cat's Claw

Due to growing interest the medicinal properties of cat's claw, many different preparations have become available. Research on these preparations is still just beginning.

Remedies

Main preparations: Tinctures, capsules, liquid extract, tea

  • Tinctures and liquid extracts. Alcohol- and water-based extracts of cat's claw are the preparations most widely used in scientific studies. These extracts are typically standardized to contain 3% alkaloids and 15% phenols.

  • Capsules. Likewise, capsules are often standardized, though their dosage in milligrams may vary.

  • Tea. An infusion can be brewed from the crushed and powdered bark of the plant. However, because the phytonutrient content of the plant can vary depending on when it is harvested, infusions are likewise variable in their alkaloid content.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buyBig online retailers, Specialized health stores

Raw and Simply Processed Cat's Claw Bark

Cat's claw bark can be difficult to find in temperate climates, though select specialized health food stores may carry it in either powder form or as a premade tea. Online retailers, however, provide the best chance of encountering supplies to fit individual wants and needs. Consuming raw cat's claw bark allows for a greater flexibility when it comes to homemade preparations, although there is a significant risk of accidentally lowering the herb's potency by destroying some of its compounds during the preparation process.

Cat's Claw Supplements

Herbal supplements that feature cat's claw are becoming more prevalent on today's market. These can often be found in capsule, tincture, and liquid extract forms by many major wholesale retailers. Online outlets also provide information which allows consumers to check concentrations, dosages, and price points.

Most supplements provide standardized cat's claw dosages, although it is important to look for a reputable and reliable company before making any purchase, as many do not observe the appropriate manufacturing standards. Which species to buy depends on the objective of medicinal use. For example, thanks to its unique alkaloids, U. tomentosa is the cat's claw species with the most immune-enhancing properties, whereas U. guianensis is more for anti-inflammatory purposes.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cyclePerennial
  • Harvested partsRoots
  • Light requirementsPartial shade
  • Soil pH5.6 – 6.0 (Moderately acidic)
  • Growing habitatTropical rainforests

A woody, tropical vine, Uncaria tomentosa is not frequently grown outside of its native environment, in the tropical and subtropical areas of Peru and Bolivia. In order to increase the chances of growing cat's claw successfully, some conditions are necessary.

Growing Guidelines

  • Cat's claw prefers high humidity and temperatures between 77 - 95°F (25 - 35°C)

  • Heavy precipitation, ranging from 60 - 160 inches (1,500 - 4,000 mm) each year, also plays a vital role in the development of the plant.

  • Soil drainage is not an issue, as the plant can withstand several days of flood conditions, but a nutrient rich area is recommended.

  • Cat's claw also requires partial to full shade in order to properly mimic the conditions found in the wild.

  • The plant tolerates the acidic soils that are typical of its tropical native region.

  • Roots are no longer harvested in order to protect against plant's extinction, but bark is generally stripped from wild specimens for export after three years of growth.

  • Like with all other creeping vines, growing cat's claw should be done in association with trees to act like trainers, or artificial support should be used in order to train the plant.

  • It is best to develop cat's claw cultivation as part of an agroforestry system - for example, associating it with timber - instead of attempting to force it in a conventional field.

Additional Information

Plant Biology

Cat's claw is a climbing vine that can grow up to 100 feet (30 m), with stems that feature sharply-hooked thorns and flowering stalks that act as tendrils. Cat's claw flowers can range in color from cream to bright yellow, and simple, grooved leaves grow in opposite pairs.

  • Classification

    Cat's claw (Uncaria tomentosa) is a member of Rubiaceae family, which comprises about 13,000 species, including coffee and cleavers.

  • Related Species

    Since Uncaria tomentosa is traditionally not cultivated, but rather harvested in the wild, no subspecies, varieties, or cultivars have been identified or developed yet. The Uncaria genus covers 40 different species around the world, many of which are locally referred to as "cat's claw," even though their connection is minimal. The species U. guianensis is sometimes used for medicinal purposes.

Economic Data

The economic importance of cat's claw lies in its high nutritional and healing properties. Initially, cat's claw supplements were manufactured from the roots of the plant. However, as the herb grew in popularity, government regulations in Peru - its top producing country - banned the direct harvest of cat's claw roots to prevent it from becoming an endangered species.

The bark of the plant has been shown to contain the same beneficial qualities as its roots, and indirect harvest remains alive and well. In 2000, it yielded an export of almost 96 tons to the U.S. alone and generated $178,000 USD. Now, as resources become restricted, cat's claw prices have skyrocketed: in 2008, the powdered bark cost $9.50 per kilogram.

Bibliography

  • Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, p. 280
  • Medicinal Plants of the World, p. 330
  • FAOSTAT, NWFP-Digest-L: Non-Wood Forest Products
  • American Cancer Society, Cat's Claw
  • International Immunopharmacology, Immunomodulating and antiviral activities of Uncaria tomentosa on human monocytes infected with Dengue Virus-2, 2008
  • Phytochemistry, Ethnobotany, phytochemistry and pharmacology of Uncaria (Rubiaceae), 2005 ; DNA repair enhancement of aqueous extracts of Uncaria tomentosa in a human volunteer study, 2001
  • University of Maryland Medical Center, Cat's claw
  • Brazilian Oral Research, Antimicrobial activity of Uncaria tomentosa against oral human pathogens, 2007
  • Anticancer Research, The antiproliferative effects of Uncaria tomentosa extracts and fractions on the growth of breast cancer cell line, 2001
  • International Trade Centre, The North American Market for Natural Products: Prospects for Andean and African Products
  • TED Case Studies, Cat's Claw: Possibilities for a Peruvian Geographic Indicator