As modern medicine continues to research and define new treatments that can lift the burden of ITP, many often wonder if it’s possible that Mother Nature’s arsenal of compounds might help their condition. Many people with ITP are hoping this is so, and are looking into the holistic herbal therapies used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine as natural treatments that might help them battle the rare bleeding disorder.
Herbal remedies—compounds made from the leaves, stems, bark, flowers, seeds, and roots of plants—often form the basis of treatments used in these traditional medical systems, as well as in other healing systems. Over the years, certain herbal remedies have become mainstream Western medicines as pharmaceutical companies isolated active ingredients, patented them and marketed them as drugs. For example, aspirin was first extracted from the bark and leaves of the willow tree and vincristine, a chemotherapy agent used to treat some chronic cases of ITP, is derived from the rosy periwinkle.
Is herbal therapy a replacement for conventional Western treatment?
No. Chinese herbal therapy cannot replace a conventional medical diagnosis or treatment, but it can complement your conventional treatment plan. Learn more about the credentials and licensing of complementary health practitioners and questions that can be helpful for choosing a healthcare provider.
Are there risks involved with using herbal therapies?
Although Western scientists have studied of number of the herbal compounds used in TCM and Ayurveda medicine, modern science-based research into the effectiveness and safety of most herbal therapies remains limited. The National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine (NCCIH) reports herbal remedies from China or India to be missing listed ingredients or contaminated with potentially harmful drugs, toxins or heavy metals such as lead or arsenic. According to the NCCIH, some of the herbs used in Chinese medicine can interact with drugs, present serious side effects or may be unsafe for people with certain medical conditions.
Moreover, herbal remedies are considered dietary supplements and are not regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For this reason, the NCCIH strongly suggests herbal therapies associated with TCM or Ayurveda be used under the supervision of a professional trained herbalist in “Materia Medica”—a traditional Chinese medicine text that coves thousands of herbs, minerals and other extracts, or under the supervision of your healthcare provider.
Since herbs, like other plants, can vary depending on their growing conditions, handling, and processing, they may contain contaminants3 and toxins,10 in addition to also interacting with conventional medications in ways that may not be obvious. To date there are very few studies that show the effects of mixing herbal preparations with conventional medications. If there are problems, it is difficult to determine the cause,7 and some herbs may also have side effects that could cause problems for people with ITP, such as harming the bone marrow.8 Other herbs have also been shown to cause thrombocytopenia.9
As with all treatments for ITP, it is important to work with health care professional or an expert in herbal medicine who has knowledge and experience with the disease and the herbs prescribed.
Herbal Therapy (China)
TCM practitioners base their treatments of ITP on several key factors they believe to be associated with the condition by dividing ITP into three separate categories: heat (inflammation-related), Qi deficiency (production-related) and blood stagnation (circulation-related).
A heat syndrome associated with inflammation is thought to be linked to the leakage of blood from blood vessels in some patients, necessitating treatment with compounds designed to cool the blood and to stop the leakage. Other compounds are designed to address the deficiency of qi (vital energy) in the spleen, tonifying that organ as well as the kidneys in an effort to boost platelet production. In some patients, medicines are prescribed to nourish the liver and increase blood storage, while others are recommended to increase circulation and counteract blood stagnation In the TCM system of healing, people with different disease characteristics would be treated slightly differently, separating or combining the approaches.
Many studies have been published in Chinese journals showing the effectiveness of Chinese herbal medicine in treating ITP. In his report, "Treatment of ITP with Chinese Medicine" Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon, describes the rationale for the use of various Chinese herbs and summarizes the results of 17 studies published in China.
Ayurvedic Herbs (India)
Practitioners specializing in Ayurvedic medicine often recommend herbal remedies to address ITP. The compounds are used in an attempt to cleanse the body of contaminants that may be associated with illness. The cleansing process, called panchakarma, is believed to help restore the balance between mind, body and spirit that is essential to good health. Each individual is believed to have a unique mix of life forces known as doshas controlling the body’s functions, and treatment plans addressing diseases and disorders must be personalized in order to reestablish a healthy balance between these energies.
Very few of the herbal remedies used in Ayurveda have been studied for safety and effectiveness, and are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Among those compounds that have been subjected to scientific scrutiny, many have been found to be ineffective, and even harmful. The FDA has warned that one in five Ayuredic products may contain mercury, lead, or arsenic that can damage health, and has banned a number of the remedies from importation into the U.S. For this reason, it’s especially important to work closely with your medical care provider or a professional who is knowledgeable about Ayurvedic medicine before you begin taking any herbal remedies.
Research into Ayurvedic herbal remedies conducted by Western scientists include the following:
Amrit Kalash and MA631
Herbal mixtures Amrit Kalash tablets and nectar (MA4, MA5) modulate the immune system,4,5 exhibit strong antioxidant properties1,2,11 and help protect against neuro-degenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.12 These are all features that can improve platelets and the difficulties of living with ITP.
Papaya Leaf (Malaysia)
Researchers at the Asian Institute of Science and Technology in Malaysia found that papaya leaves and pegaga (Centella asiatica) juice can increase the platelet count of people diagnosed with dengue fever, a mosquito-transmitted viral disease affecting many millions and characterized by persistent thrombocytopenia. The initial study, done in mice, comparing papaya leaf to a placebo, demonstrated that the papaya leaf suspension was responsible for raising the platelet count.6 More research on Papaya Leaf for low platelets is underway.
1. Cullen WJ et al. “Effect of Maharishi AK-4 on H2O2-induced oxidative stress in isolated rat hearts.” J Ethnopharmacol. 1997 May;56(3):215-22. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9201611
2. Dwivedi C et al. “Antioxidant and protective effects of Amrit Nectar tablets on adriamycin- and cisplatin-induced toxicities.” J Altern Complement Med. 2005 Feb;11(1):143-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15750373
3. Gershwin ME et al. “Public safety and dietary supplementation.” Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2010 Mar;1190:104-17. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20388141
4. Inaba R et al. “Effects of Maharishi Amrit Kalash 5 as an Ayurvedic herbal food supplement on immune functions in aged mice.” BMC Complement Altern Med. 2005 Mar 25;5:8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15790423
5. Inaba R et al. “Immunomodulatory effects of Maharishi Amrit Kalash 4 and 5 in mice.” Nihon Eiseigaku Zasshi. 1995 Oct;50(4):901-5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8538064
6. Kathiresan S et al. “Thrombocyte counts in mice after the administration of papaya leaf suspension.” Wiener Klinische Wochenschrift. Volume 121, Supplement 3, 19-22, 2009. http://www.springerlink.com/content/u324w41p1mx1245x/
7. Lai JN et al. “Should herbs take all the blame? Causality assessment of a serious thrombocytopenia event.” J Altern Complement Med. 2010 Nov;16(11):1221-4. Epub 2010 Oct 27. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20979526
8. Pyatt DW et al. “Hematotoxicity of the chinese herbal medicine Tripterygium wilfordii hook f in CD34-positive human bone marrow cells.” Mol Pharmacol. 2000 Mar;57(3):512-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10692491
9. Royer DJ et al. “Thrombocytopenia as an adverse effect of complementary and alternative medicines, herbal remedies, nutritional supplements, foods, and beverages.” Eur J Haematol. 2010 May;84(5):421-9. http://ouhsc.edu/platelets/MSDITPHerbal.pdf.pdf
10. Saper RB et al. “Lead, mercury, and arsenic in US- and Indian-manufactured Ayurvedic medicines sold via the Internet.” JAMA. 2008 Aug 27;300(8):915-23. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18728265
11. Sharma HM et al. “Inhibition of human low-density lipoprotein oxidation in vitro by Maharishi Ayur-Veda herbal mixtures.” Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1992 Dec;43(4):1175-82. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1475302
12. Vohra BP et al. “Dark neurons in the ageing cerebellum: their mode of formation and effect of Maharishi Amrit Kalash.” Biogerontology. 2002;3(6):347-54. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12510173