Ayurvedic Herbs and Medicines

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Ashwagandha
Boswellia
Coleus forskohlii
Ginger
Gotu kola
Guggal (Commiphora)
Gymnema sylvestre
Licorice
Myrrh (guggul)
Phyllanthus niruri
Turmeric (curcumin)

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What is Ayurvedic Medicine?

Ayurveda is a collective practice of the interrelationships of pathology, anatomy, physiology, and diagnostics in the development of treatment strategies. As such, Ayurveda is a system of traditional medicine and has been native to the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years. Some of the practices of ayurveda are seen in various forms of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) utilized around the world. The name of this medical practice consists of the words ayus, meaning "life", and veda, meaning "related to knowledge" or "science".


Ayurvedic Herbs

Many medicinal herbs used in the art of ayurvedic medicine are the same as those that are now commonly sold as dietary herbal supplements. It is not the intention of this page to cover all of the ayurvedic herbs that are known but to focus on the more common ones. All of the medicinal herbs described below are also discussed in the Herbal Supplements page or in the Antioxidants page.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera): Ashwagandha is a shrub that is found in abundance in India and North America. Consumption of the leaves and roots of the plant are purported to be associated with anti-inflammatory action, promotion of overall wellbeing, and improvement in memory. Analysis of the levels of phenolic compounds and flavonoids in ashwagandha indicates that the concentration of these compounds is approximately 4-5 times higher in the roots than in the leaves.

Treatment of diabetic rats with ashwagandha extracts indicated they were as effective as the diabetes drug glibenclamide (also known as glyburide and sold as Glynase®, Diabeta®, and Micronase®) at reducing blood glucose and increasing glycogen stores (the polymeric form of glucose stored in cells) as well as increasing the levels of the antioxidant enzymes superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase, and glutathione peroxidase.

Root extracts from ashwagandha, given orally to mice, were able to increase brain levels of neurotransmitters of the catecholamine family (e.g. dopamine) suggesting that these extracts may be useful in ameliorating some of the effects of Parkinson disease as well as some of the behavioral effects of Huntington disease.

Udayakumar R, Kasthurirengan S, Vasudevan A, Mariashibu TS, Rayan JJ, Choi CW, Ganapathi A, and Kim SC 2010. Antioxidant Effect of Dietary Supplement Withania somnifera L. Reduce Blood Glucose Levels in Alloxan-Induced Diabetic Rats. Plant Foods Hum. Nutr. Feb 26 Epub ahead of print

RajaSankar S, Manivasagam T, Sankar V, Prakash S, Muthusamy R, Krishnamurti A, and Surendran S 2009. Withania somnifera root extract improves catecholamines and physiological abnormalities seen in a Parkinson's disease model mouse. J. Ethnopharmacol. 125(3):369-373.

Kumar P, and Kumar A 2009. Possible neuroprotective effect of Withania somnifera root extract against 3-nitropropionic acid-induced behavioral, biochemical, and mitochondrial dysfunction in an animal model of Huntington's disease. J. Med. Food. 12(3):591-600.

Rajasankar S, Manivasagam T, and Surendran S 2009. Ashwagandha leaf extract: a potential agent in treating oxidative damage and physiological abnormalities seen in a mouse model of Parkinson's disease. Neurosci. Lett. 454(1):11-15.


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Boswellia (Boswellia serrata): Boswellia serrata is commonly known as Indian frankincense or Salai. A gum resin extract of the tree has been used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine for hundreds of years in the treatment of arthritis. In the Ayurvedic tradition of medicine, any resin that is collected by tapping the trunk of a tree is called guggul (or guggal). Many different trees of Indian have resin extracts used in Ayurvedic medical treatments (see below for example).

Boswellia extracts have also been used traditionally to treat arthritis, ulcerative colitis, coughs, sores, snakebite, and asthma. The major bioactive component of Boswellia extracts is boswellic acid, which was shown in animal studies to be a potent 5-lipoxygenase (5-LOX) inhibitor with anti-inflammatory and antiarthritic effects. For more information on the activities of 5-LOX please visit The Medical Biochemistry Page. When tested in humnas boswellic acid appears to have fewer adverse effects than steroids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) drugs. However, its long-term effects on humans are currently unknown. Because bowellic acid is contained in a typical Ayurvedic guggul extract it can thus, be considered a guggul but it should not be confused with guggul or myrrh. The latter extracts represent the guggul extracted from the Mukul myrrh tree of India (see below).

Since extracts from Boswellia have been shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory activities varies studies have been undertaken to assess the mechanism of action. In one study a crude methanolic extract as well as a purified compound (12-ursene 2-diketone) from the extract were analyzed for their inhibitory effect on tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNFα), interleukin-1beta (IL-1β) and IL-6 when added to cultures of immortalized mouse macrophage cells as well as human peripheral blood mononuclear leukocytes (PBMCs). Results of theses studies demonstrated that all three cytokines are down regulated when cells are cultured in the presence of crude extract or 12-ursene 2-diketone at various time points. The extract and 12-ursene 2-diketone also showed considerable inhibition of nitric oxide (NO) production in lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-activated mouse macrophages, possibly via suppression of inducible NO synthase (iNOS) mRNA expression. These results demonstrated that 12-ursene 2-diketone inhibits the expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines and mediators via inhibition of phosphorylation of the mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinases Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) and p38 while no inhibition was seen in ERK phosphorylation in LPS-stimulated PBMCs. The study results indicate that the crude methanolic extract and 12-ursene 2-diketone are capable of carrying out a natural anti-inflammatory activity at sites where chronic inflammation is present by switching off the pro-inflammatory cytokines and mediators, which initiate the process.

Given the observed ability of Boswellia extracts to inhibit 5-LOX and thus, impart anti-inflammatory effects, a novel formulation has been generated and is referred to as 5-Loxin. This Boswellia extract is enriched in a form of boswellic acid (3-O-acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid, AKBA) and has been tested for efficacy in the treatment of osteoarthritis. Patients in this trial were given two different doses of 5-Loxin once daily for 90 days and then monitored for pain and range of movement of their osteoarthritic knees. Both doses of 5-Loxin conferred clinically and statistically significant improvements in pain scores and physical function scores in the test patients. Of significance there were observable improvements in pain score and functional ability in the treatment group supplemented with the higher dose (250mg) of 5-Loxin as early as 7 days after the start of treatment. In addition to the improvements in pain scores in treatment groups, it was also noted that there was a significant reduction in synovial fluid matrix metalloproteinase-3 (MMP-3). The results of this study indicate that 5-Loxin reduces pain and improves physical functioning significantly in osteoarthritic patients and is safe for human consumption. 5-Loxin likely exerts its beneficial effects by controlling inflammatory responses through reducing proinflammatory modulators, and it may improve joint health by reducing the enzymatic degradation of cartilage.

Boswellic acid has also been tested for its efficacy in treating the clinical manifestations of photoaging of the facial skin. A cream containing 0.5% boswellic acid was tested on 15 females by application once daily for 30 days. In this study there was a statistically significant measureable change in tactile roughness and fine lines on the side of the face treated with the boswellic acid containing cream compared to the side of the face treated with the same cream lacking boswellic acid.

Pedretti A, Capezzera R, Zane C, Facchinetti E, and Calzavara-Pinton P 2010. Effects of topical boswellic acid on photo and age-damaged skin: clinical, biophysical, and echographic evaluations in a double-blind, randomized, split-face study. Planta Med. 76(6):555-560.

Sengupta K, Alluri KV, Satish AR, Mishra S, Golakoti T, Sarma KV, Dey D, and Raychaudhuri SP 2008. A double blind, randomized, placebo controlled study of the efficacy and safety of 5-Loxin for treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee. Arthritis Res. Ther. 10(4):R85

Gayathri B, Manjula N, Vinaykumar KS, Lakshmi BS, and Balakrishnan A 2007. Pure compound from Boswellia serrata extract exhibits anti-inflammatory property in human PBMCs and mouse macrophages through inhibition of TNFalpha, IL-1beta, NO and MAP kinases. Int. Immunopharmacol. 7(4):473-482.


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Coleus forskohlii: Coleus forskohlii is a member of the mint and lavender family which grows in the mountains of Asia. The primary active chemical found in this herbal medicine is a labdane diterpene called forskolin (chemical name 7β-acetoxy-8, 13-epoxy-1α,6β,9α-trihydroxy-labd-14-en-11-one). The labdane class of chemicals is so-called because the original compound was isolated from labdanum which is a sticky resin obtained from Cistus ladanifer and Cistus creticus (commonly known as rockrose).

Forskolin has been studied in the laboratory for many years due to its ability to increase the level of the second messenger molecule, cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cyclic AMP, cAMP) in cells in culture. Intracellular production of cAMP results in the activation of an enzyme called cAMP-dependent protein kinase. Kinases are enzymes that incorporate phosphate onto their substrates which results in altered activity of the phosphorylated substrate. For more information on the role of cAMP in metabolism visit The Medical Biochemistry Page. As an Ayurvedic medicine Coleus forskohlii has been used in the treatment of allergies, respiratory problems, cardiovascular diseases, glaucoma, psoriasis, hypothyroidism and weight loss.

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Ginger (Zingiber officinale): Zingiber officinale is commonly known as red ginger. Ginger is the rhizome (the horizontal stem of a plant found underground) of the plant. The characteristic odor and flavor of ginger is the result of a mixture of volatile oils that includes zingerone, shogaols and gingerols. Gingerols have been shown to increase the motility of the gastrointestinal tract and have analgesic, sedative, antipyretic and antibacterial properties when assayed in laboratory animals.

Red ginger has been prescribed as an analgesic for arthritis pain in Indonesian traditional medicine. The surface color of the rhizome is purple because of the anthocyanidins (polyphenolic antioxidants) in its peel. Dried red ginger extract has been evaluated for its anti-inflammatory activity using acute and chronic inflammation models. The anti-inflammatory mechanism of red ginger extracts were tested by examining their effects on prostaglandin and nitric oxide (NO) production from mouse leukemic monocytes that had been stimulated by treatment with lipopolysaccharide. Ginger extracts (3 and 10 micrograms/milliliter, μg/mL) significantly suppressed PGE2 production, while it also suppressed NO production at 100μg/mL. By separating the bioactive compounds in red ginger extract it was found that 6-shogaol and gingerdiols suppressed NO production. Fractions presumed to be proanthocyanidins also suppressed NO production at 100μg/mL. These results demonstrated a potent suppressive effect of red ginger extract on acute and chronic inflammation, and inhibition of macrophage activation seems to be involved in this anti-inflammatory effect. The compounds 6-shogaol, gingerdiols, and proanthocyanidins were identified as constituents that inhibited NO production.

Shimoda H, Shan SJ, Tanaka J, Seki A, Seo JW, Kasajima N, Tamura S, Ke Y, and Murakami N 2010. Anti-inflammatory properties of red ginger (Zingiber officinale var. Rubra) extract and suppression of nitric oxide production by its constituents. J. Med. Food. 13(1):156-162.


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Gotu kola (Centella asiatica): Gotu kola is a member of the parsley family that thrives in and around water. It is a perennial plant native to India, Japan, China, Indonesia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and the South Pacific. The leaves and stems of the gotu kola plant are used for medicinal purposes. Historically, gotu kola has also been used to treat syphilis, hepatitis, stomach ulcers, mental fatigue, epilepsy, diarrhea, fever, and asthma.

Today, gotu kola is most often used to treat psoriasis and help heal minor wounds and to treat chronic venous insufficiency (a condition where blood pools in the legs). Clinical studies done in accordance with standardized scientific criteria have shown gotu kola to have a positive effect in the treatment of venous insufficiency and abdominal stretch marks caused by pregnancy (clinically referred to as striae gravidarum). The use of gotu kola for the treatment of hemorrhoids and varicose veins (conditions related to venous insufficiency) is supported by current clinical studies but is not yet proven to be truly beneficial for these conditions. In addition, good clinical data shows that gotu kola is effective in the treatment of wound healing disturbances. However, clinical studies, in humans, aimed at investigating the sedative, analgesic, antidepressive, antimicrobial, and antiviral effects are still lacking even though there is available animal and cell culture data for some of these uses.

The primary bioactive compounds found in gotu kola are pentacyclic triterpenoid saponins, collectively known as centelloids. These terpenoids include asiaticoside, centelloside, madecassoside, brahmoside, brahminoside, thankuniside, sceffoleoside, centellose, asiatic-, brahmic-, centellic- and madecassic acids. The triterpenoids from gotu kola can be regarded as phytoanticipins due to their antimicrobial activities and protective role against attempted pathogen infections in the plant. Gotu kola extracts also contain numerous polyphenolic antioxidants with the highest amounts being quercetin, myricetin, and kaempferol.

Asiaticoside is one of the major triterpenoid saponin components isolated from gotu kola and it has been shown to exhibit antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities. The anti-inflammatory activity of gotu kola asiaticoside was recently assessed in a mouse model of septic lung injury. In this study, mice were pretreated with asiaticoside (45mg/kg) alone or with asiaticoside along with the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-gamma (PPARγ) inhibitor GW9662 and examined for survival, lung injury, inflammatory mediators, signaling molecules, and PPARγ levels. Results of the study showed that asiaticoside significantly decreased treatment-induced mortality, lung pathological damage, infiltration of mononuclear, polymorphonuclear (PMN) leucocytes and total proteins. In addition, asiaticoside inhibited treatment-induced activation of mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs) and nuclear factor-kappaB (NFκB), the expression of cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) and inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) protein in lung tissues, and the production of serum tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α) and interleukin-6 (IL-6). Of significance, the expression of PPARγ protein in lung tissue was up-regulated by asiaticoside and reversed by co-treatment with GW9662 (the PPARγ inhibitor). These results suggest that asiaticoside may be useful in the protection from inflammatory injury via its ability to up-regulate of PPARγ expression which in turn inhibits the MAPKs and NFκB signal transduction pathways.

Zhang LN, Zheng JJ, Zhang L, Gong X, Huang H, Wang CD, Wang B, Wu MJ, Li XH, Sun WJ, Liu YJ, and Wan JY 2010. Protective effects of asiaticoside on septic lung injury in mice. Exp. Toxicol. Pathol. May 12 Epub ahead of print.


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Guggal (Commiphora wightii and Commiphora mukul): In the Ayurvedic tradition of medicine, any resin that is collected by tapping the trunk of a tree is called guggul (or guggal). The cholesterol lowering action of the guggul from the Mukul myrrh tree of India is that a lipid component of this extract called guggulsterone (also called guggul lipid) is an antagonist of a class of receptors called the farnesoid X receptors, FXRs. The FXRs belong to the superfamily of nuclear receptors (see The Medical Biochemistry Page) that includes the steroid/thyroid hormone receptor family (see The Medical Biochemistry Page) as well as the liver X receptors (LXRs), retinoid X receptors (RXRs), and the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors (PPARs).

Like all receptors of this superfamily, ligand binds the receptor in the cytoplasm and then the complex migrates to the nucleus and forms a heterodimer with other members of the family. FXR forms a heterodimer with members of the RXR family. Following heterodimer formation the complex binds to specific sequences in target genes called hormone response elements (HREs) resulting in regulated expression. One major target of FXR is the small heterodimer partner (SHP) gene. Activation of SHP expression by FXR results in inhibition of transcription of SHP target genes. Of significance to the effects of guggulsterone on cholesterol levels, SHP represses the expression of the cholesterol 7-hydroxylase gene (CYP7A1). CYP7A1 is the rate-limiting enzyme in the synthesis of bile acids from cholesterol (for more on cholesterol and bile synthesis and regulation visit The Medical biochemistry Page). In addition to its effects on FXR function, guggulsterone has been shown to activate the pregnane X receptor (PXR) which is another member of the nuclear receptor superfamily. PXR is a recognized receptor for lithocholic acid and other bile acid precursors. PXR activation leads to repression of bile acid synthesis due to its physical association with hepatocyte nuclear factor 4α (HNF-4α) causing this transcription factor to no longer be able to associate with the transcriptional co-activator PGC-1α (PPARγ co-activator 1α) which ultimately leads to loss of transcription factor activation of CYP7A1.

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Gymnema sylvestre: Gymnema sylvestre is a member of the plant family Asclepiadaceae. It grows in the tropical forests of central and southern India. Due to its ability to induce a reduction in blood glucose levels it is used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat diabetes. In India the plant is referred to as gurmar which means sugar destroyer in Hindi. One of the active compound from this plant is actually a group of acids termed gymnemic acids. Gymnemic acids have antidiabetic, antisweetener and anti-inflammatory activities. The plant is also used for controlling obesity in the form of Gymnema tea. This herbal supplement is also used in the treatment of asthma, eye complaints, inflammations, and snakebite. In addition, it possesses antimicrobial, antihypercholesterolemic, hepatoprotective and sweet suppressing activities.

Extracts from the leaves Gymnema sylvestre contain triterpene saponins belonging to oleanane and dammarene classes. Oleanane saponins are gymnemic acids and gymnemasaponins, while dammarene saponins are gymnemasides. Besides these compounds, the plant contains flavones, anthraquinones, hentri-acontane, pentatriacontane, α and β-chlorophylls, phytin, resins, d-quercitol, tartaric acid, formic acid, butyric acid, lupeol, β-amyrin related glycosides and stigmasterol. The plant extracts also test positive for alkaloids. Leaves of this species yield acidic glycosides and anthroquinones and their derivatives.

The anti-obesity related actions of gymnemic acid formulations is attributed to the ability of gymnemic acids to delay the absorption of glucose into the blood. Gymnemic acid molecules resemble glucose molecules, thus these acids fill the receptor locations on the taste buds thereby preventing its activation by sugar molecules present in the food, thereby curbing the sugar craving. Similarly, gymnemic acid molecules fill the receptor location in the absorptive external layers of the intestine thereby preventing the absorption of sugar molecules by the intestine, which results in a reduction in blood sugar levels.

Al-Romaiyan A, Liu B, Asare-Anane H, Maity CR, Chatterjee SK, Koley N, Biswas T, Chatterji AK, Huang GC, Amiel SA, Persaud SJ, and Jones PM 2010. A novel Gymnema sylvestre extract stimulates insulin secretion from human islets in vivo and in vitro. Phytother Res. 24(9):1370-1376.

Ahmed AB, Rao AS, and Rao MV. 2010. In vitro callus and in vivo leaf extract of Gymnema sylvestre stimulate β-cells regeneration and anti-diabetic activity in Wistar rats. Phytomedicine. 17(13):1033-1039.

Yadav M, Lavania A, Tomar R, Prasad GB, Jain S, and Yadav H 2010. Complementary and comparative study on hypoglycemic and antihyperglycemic activity of various extracts of Eugenia jambolana seed, Momordica charantia fruits, Gymnema sylvestre, and Trigonella foenum graecum seeds in rats. Appl. Biochem. Biotechnol. 160(8):2388-2400.


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Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra, Glycyrrhiza uralensis): The medicinally used part of licorice is the root and dried rhizome of the plant. Licorice is widely used in the Indian system of medicine. Licorice root has been used as a dietary supplement for stomach ulcers, bronchitis, and sore throat, as well as infections caused by viruses, such as hepatitis. Most licorice nowadays is produced in Greece, Turkey, and Asia. Licorice extracts are purported to be active as anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, spasmolytic, mild laxative, antistress, antidepressive, antiulcer, liver protective, estrogenic, emmenagogue (herbs which stimulate blood flow in the pelvic area and uterus), and antidiabetic substances. Clinical trials have found that glycyrrhizin might reduce complications from hepatitis C in some patients. However, there is not enough evidence to confirm that glycyrrhizin has this effect. There are insufficient clinical data to establish whether licorice is effective for stomach ulcers.

The major bioactive constituent is glycyrrhizin (or glycyrrhizic acid). However, chronic licorice consumption can lead to serious side effects due to the presence of considerable quantities of glycyrrhizin, which causes severe hypokalaemia and hypertension. Licorice root supplements are available as capsules, tablets, or liquid extracts. Because of the toxicity of glycyrrhizin some licorice supplements are prepared with the glycyrrhizin removed. These products are referred to as deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL).

Although licorice extracts are known to exhibit anti-cancer activities, the potential side-effects of chronic licorice consumption, due to the presence of glycyrrhizin, make this dietary supplement unacceptable as an adjunct to therapy. Studies using a hexane-ethanol extract of licorice, which lacks glycyrrhizin, demonstrated a reduction in the metastatic characteristics of human prostate cancer cells in culture. The active compound in this hexane-ethanol extraction of licorice was shown to be licoricidin. The treatment of these cancer cells with licoricidin induced a reduction in cell migration and the secretion of matrix metalloproteinase-9 (MMP-9), tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase (TIMP-1), urokinase-type plasminogen activator and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), as well as in the expression of adhesion molecules. These results indicate that licoricidin is a potent anti-metastatic agent, which can markedly inhibit the metastatic and invasive capacity of malignant prostate cancer cells.

The potential for licorice extracts to be used as adjuncts in the treatment of type 2 diabetes was demonstrated when it was shown that compounds in the extracts can activate peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-gamma (PPARγ). PPARγ is the target of the thiazolidinedione (TZD) class of type 2 diabetes drugs (for more information of the action of the TZDs see The Medical Biochemistry Page). Characterization of the alcohol extraction products from licorice found that at least 39 different phenolic compounds can identified. Of these, 12 were shown to bind to PPARγ. Oral administration of glycyrrhizic acid to high-fat diet-induced obesity rats resulted in a significant reduction in blood glucose levels and improved insulin sensitivity. In addition, the level of lipoprotein lipase, LPL (the blood vessel enzyme that removes fatty acids from circulating lipoproteins such as LDLs) was increased in numerous tissues such as skeletal muscle and adipose tissue but reduced in the liver. The significance of the increase in LPL activity in the various tissue was evidenced by a reduction in circulating free fatty acids, triacylglycerols, and LDL cholesterol. An additionally significant observation in this study was that the levels of HDL cholesterol (so-called "good cholesterol") increased suggesting there may be antiatherosclerotic properties of glycyrrhizic acid.

Eu CH, Lim WY, Ton SH, and bin Abdul Kadir K 2010. Glycyrrhizic acid improved lipoprotein lipase expression, insulin sensitivity, serum lipid and lipid deposition in high-fat diet-induced obese rats. Lipids Health Dis. 9:81

Park SY, Lim SS, Kim JK, Kang IJ, Kim JS, Lee C, Kim J, and Park JH 2010. Hexane-ethanol extract of Glycyrrhiza uralensis containing licoricidin inhibits the metastatic capacity of DU145 human prostate cancer cells. Br. J. Nutr. May Epub ahead of print.

Kuroda M, Mimaki Y, Honda S, Tanaka H, Yokota S, and Mae T 2010. Phenolics from Glycyrrhiza glabra roots and their PPAR-gamma ligand-binding activity. Bioorg. Med. Chem. 18(2):962-970.


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Myrrh: Myrrh refers to the aromatic resin (guggul) isolated from the Mukul myrrh tree (Commiphora mukul) of India. See above for a description of the activities associated with the guggual lipids isolated from the myrhh tree.

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Phyllanthus niruri: This herb is more commonly known by the common names stone-breaker, chanca piedra and quebra pedra. The herb also has many other common names in assorted languages, including dukong anak, dukong-dukong anak, amin buah, rami buah, turi hutan, and bhuiaonla. One of the principal uses of Phyllanthus niruri is in the treatment of kidney stones (urinary calculi) and in individuals prone to stones, hence the common name of stone-breaker.

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Turmeric (Curcuma longa): Turmeric is derived from the rhizomes (the horizontal stem of a plant found underground: picture the ginger root you find in the grocery store) of the perennial herb, Curcuma longa Linn, which is a member of the ginger family (Zingerberaceae). Curcumin is the yellow compound found in turmeric. For a more complete description of the activities of curcumin see the Antioxidants page.

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Last modified: July 20, 2017