Research & Education

Cat’s Claw: New Tool to Fight Lyme Disease

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the US. The incidence of Lyme disease has approximately doubled since 1991: 3.74 to 7.95 reported cases per 100,000 people between 1991 and 2014. This may seem small, but the increase is staggering in regions where Lyme is most common, such as New England and the mid-Atlantic: New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Delaware now report 50 to 100 more cases per 100,000 people than in 1991.

Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses come with a host of debilitating symptoms which, over the long term, can progress to affecting neurological and cognitive function. These illnesses are notoriously difficult to treat and can greatly diminish quality of life. Anything that can make a dent in these otherwise intractable conditions would be most welcome among doctors and their Lyme-affected patients. Uncaria tomentosa, better known as cat’s claw, appears to fit the bill.

Cat’s claw is a plant indigenous to the Amazon rain forest and other tropical areas of South and Central America. It goes by the Spanish name “uña de gato,” owing to a hook-like thorn that grows along the vine and resembles a cat’s claw. The use of cat’s claw for medicinal purposes dates back at least as far as the Inca civilization, where it was used as an anti-inflammatory, to fight viral infections and to stimulate the immune system. Cat’s claw remains a sacred plant among several indigenous Peruvian and Amazonian tribes. A review of antiviral and immunomodulating properties of plants native to the Peruvian rainforest noted, “From the perspective of ethnobotany, the higher a plant’s status among native peoples, the more potent it often proves to be medicinally.”

Cat’s claw preparations are made from the plant’s roots and the vine bark, which are crushed and made into tea or into standardized extracts. These extracts contain a host of compounds shown to be immunomodulating, and to have antimutagenic, cytoprotective, antioxidant and antihypertensive properties.

In vitro studies indicate cat’s claw may stimulate the immune system, help relax smooth muscles (including the intestines), dilate blood vessels, and act as a diuretic. Promising research shows that cat’s claw may be an effective addition to Lyme protocols. Cat’s claw extract was shown to reduce both spirochetes and rounded forms of the Lyme transmitting organism (Borrelia burgdorferi) in vitro, as well as disrupting and reducing the size of the biofilm.

A study of 28 patients with advanced Lyme demonstrated the potential for cat’s claw to be a powerful intervention for this condition. Lyme diagnosis was confirmed by the presence of IgG and IgM antibodies to Borrelia burgdorferi as well as via clinical evaluation. Each subject had had the disease for over 10 years, had experienced progressive deterioration, and had little to no clinical improvement with repeated courses and/or long-term use of antibiotics.

The study ran for 26 weeks, during which subjects in the control group continued treatment with antibiotics and/or symptomatic medications in accordance with their treatment protocol. In the intervention group, “all prescription antibiotics were discontinued before the start of the study, and during the study most other pharmaceuticals were dramatically reduced or discontinued.” During weeks 1 and 2, treatment included general body detoxification using diet and supplements. Cat’s claw was not introduced until week 3, at 600mg three times daily. Subjects were instructed to increase their dosage incrementally: by the end of week 4, all were taking 1800mg three times daily for a total of 5400mg/d. This dose and supportive remedies were continued for weeks 5 through 8. During weeks 9 and 10, cat’s claw was continued at 5400 mg/d, but supportive remedies were used only minimally. After week 10, most supportive remedies were discontinued, and cat’s claw was continued at 3600-5400mg/d for an additional 16 weeks.

By the end of the study, subjects in the control group self-reported improvements in most symptoms, but the cat’s claw group experienced greater improvements. (Symptoms included fatigue, joint pain, muscle pain, headache, peripheral neuropathy, sleep disturbances, memory impairment and cognitive dysfunction, digestive disturbances and more.) The rate of improvement in all clinical symptoms was substantially higher in the intervention group compared to the control group—2.2 to 3.6 times as much.

Routine clinical bloodwork (comprehensive metabolic panel, CBC, WBC differential) showed no adverse impacts from cat’s claw among the intervention subjects. In fact, slight improvements to the lipid panel were noted, including decreased triglycerides and increased HDL. The overall results with regard to improving clinical biomarkers and subjective symptoms of Lyme led the researchers to write that cat’s claw “is a safe and efficient method for improving the health and quality of life in patients with Chronic borreliosis, and surpasses the effectiveness of standard antibiotics for the treatment of this condition.”

By Amy Berger, MS, CNS