Espinheira santa is an undersized, shrub-like evergreen tree that grows up to a height of five meters and bears leaves and berries that resembles a holly. This vegetation is indigenous to several regions in South America, especially the southern areas of Brazil, and is also found growing in urban settings owing to the plant's gorgeous appearance that is akin to holly. In all, there are more than 200 plant species of Maytenus that are spread out in the temperate as well tropical regions all over South America and the West Indies. In fact, numerous Maytenus species are native to the Amazon region and these plants have been used for therapeutic purposes by the native tribes of the region.
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Compared to the other species of Maytenus, espinheira santa has not been utilized as comprehensively by the native tribes of the Amazon area. However, some indigenous groups in Paraguay have been using this Maytenus species. Women in this region use espinheira santa in the form of a contraceptive as well as for controlling fertility, in addition to encourage menstruation as well as abortions.
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People in Brazil brew the leaves of espinheira santa to prepare a tea to treat ulcers, chronic gastritis, indigestion as well as dyspepsia. There is documented evidence of the plant being used for these therapeutic purposes since as early as the 1930s. The tea prepared with the leaves of this Maytenus species is also applied externally to cure rashes, wounds and even skin cancer. In the current Brazilian pharmacies, an ointment meant for external use is prepared with espinheira santa and available commercially as a cure for skin cancer. Espinheira santa is used to treat stomach as well as gastric ulcers, anemia, constipation, liver ailments, cancer and even as a contraceptive in many other herbal medical systems prevailing in South America. In the Argentinean herbal medicine, infusions or decoctions are prepared with the whole espinheira santa or its leaves owing to the antiseptic and wound healing attributes of the herb. In Argentina, herbal formulations prepared with this plant are generally used internally to treat respiratory infections, asthma, diarrhea, infections of the urinary tract. Although this Maytenus species is used to cure skin cancer, the most widespread use of this plant is for treating indigestion, dyspepsia, ulcers and chronic gastritis.
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The leaf as well as the bark of espinheira santa are immersed in aguardiente (rum) overnight and subsequently used in the form of a home remedy to alleviate back pain, rheumatism and arthritis all over South America. In fact, this plant and herbal formulations prepared with it have been also used to treat nervous disorders and it facilitates in easing as well as healing stomach ulcers. In addition, espinheira santa also endorses the adrenal glands which is likely to aid in augmenting the immune response, energy levels as well as digestion.
This Maytenus species helps to control hydrochloric acid production by the stomach and facilitates in healing wounds. This is one reason which explains why espinheira santa is used in traditional Brazilian herbal remedy as an antacid to cure stomach ulcers. Studies conducted on animals have revealed that espinheira santa does not obstruct the normal digestive process and when it is taken orally, it does not have any tranquilizing side effects either. Findings of studies undertaken in laboratories indicate that espinheira santa may be equally effectual as the ordinary prescription drug cimetidine (Tagamet).
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Scientists and herbalists researching the extract obtained from espinheira santa to cure skin cancer have discovered that the herb possesses anti-tumour properties. There are other researchers who have related the anti-tumour properties of espinheira santa to antioxidants and triterpenes isolated from the trunk of the tree. In addition, laboratory studies have suggested that espinheira santa might also have a chemotherapeutic effect on a number of types of lung cancer and that this herb is effective in inhibiting the development of ovarian tumours. Findings of a number of laboratory tests have also discovered that espinheira santa encloses certain chemicals that possess the aptitude to eliminate other forms of cancer cells also.
In addition, espinheira santa is also available in tincture form. While this herb is also commercially available in the form of natural leaf for use as teas, majority of the vendors need to purchase at least 1 kilogram - enough herb to fulfill the requirement of an individual for many years.
Till date, espinheira santa is extensively sold in stores and pharmacies in Brazil for treating stomach ulcers as well as cancer. The popularity as well as the health benefits offered by espinheira santa in South America, in addition to the researches undertaken in the Western countries, this herb is gradually becoming popular and recognized even in the United States. Currently, people are using infusion prepared with espinheira santa leaves, the leaf powder in tablets or capsules to cure ulcers, in the form of an antacid, a laxative, a remedy for colic, with a view to get rid of the toxic substance via the kidneys and skin. In addition, they are also being used to support the adrenal glands, kidneys, digestive functions and also in the form of an added therapy for cancer.
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Encouraged by the effectiveness of espinheira santa in curing ulcers and also some forms of cancer, the herb has now become the subject of several clinical researches worldwide, with the initial research commencing way back in the mid-1960s. Findings of toxicity studies undertaken in 1978 and 1991 have not shown any toxicity in rats and mice when the herb was given to them a maximum dose of 1 gram for every kilogram of their body weight. Owing to the documented traditional therapeutic use of espinheira santa as an aid for abortion as well as contraceptive, scientists and herbalists have especially studied these factors, but have not been able to corroborate these uses of the herb clinically. According to one study, when the water extract was fed to pregnant mice every day, it did not persuade abortion and did not result in any change in the fetus.
In another research group pregnant rats were injected with the leaf extracts of espinheira santa (in the maximum dosage of 100 mg/ kg) and it reported that the herb did not result in any abortive impacts or toxic influences on the fetus, but it did obstruct fertilization and implantation in rats that were not pregnant. Another research undertaken in 2002 corroborated these effects of the herb, reiterating that the extract of espinheira santa leaves has estrogenic actions, suggesting that the anti-fertility effect might be the intervention of uterine accessibility to the embryo. However, it noted that the herb did not encourage abortions or possess any embryo-toxic consequences. The same scientist again reported in 1998 that the leaf extract of espinheira santa did not have any effect on male mice as far as sperm production was concerned.
Initial research undertaken in Brazil as early as in the beginning of the 1970s showed that espinheira santa and a number of other Maytenus species enclosed maytansinoid chemical compounds that demonstrated powerful anti-leukemic and anti-tumour activities in vitro and in vivo when very low dosages of this chemical were administered. The National Cancer Institute organized a plant screening program in 1976, wherein a water extract from espinheira santa leaves and an alcohol was recorded having toxic effects on cancer cells when used in very low doses. This finding encouraged the pharmaceutical companies in the United States as well as in Europe to show interest in the herb.
Later, in the 1970s, two chemicals called maytansine and mayteine were extracted from espinheira santa leaves and examined in patients enduring cancer in the United States and South America after the findings of the research by the National Cancer Institute were made public. While there were a number of notable degenerations in the ovarian carcinoma as well as some lymphomas with the use of maytansine, no further research was undertaken on this subject owing to the toxicity of the doses used during the experiments. On the other hand, studies with the chemical compound mayteine showed slight or no toxicity and corroborated the use of mayteine in traditional herbal medicine for treating different forms of skin cancers. More recently, in the 1990s, Japanese scientists found a dissimilar group of compounds called triterpene chemicals in espinheira santa and they named these chemicals cangorins (precisely speaking, cangorin A through J). The new chemical compounds found in espinheira santa demonstrated cytotoxic and/ or inhibitory actions against different cancer and leukemia tumour cells. Since then, the researchers have published over eight studies on their findings and consequences.
While espinheira santa continues to be extensively used in South American traditional medicine to treat different types of cancer, the most popular use of this herb and its extract has been for treating ulcers as well as digestive disorders. A study undertaken in 1991 showed that the herb possessed powerful anti-ulcerous properties. This study demonstrated that an ordinary hot water extract obtained from the leaves of espinheira santa was equally effectual as two of the major anti-ulcer drugs - cimetidine (Tagamet®) and ranitidine (Zantac®). Findings of the same study also showed that espinheira santa resulted in an augmentation in volume as well as pH of gastric juices. Later, in 1997, a Japanese research group submitted a patent application on the biologically dynamic anti-ulcer chemical compounds present in espinheira santa as a novel anti-ulcer drug.
Chemical analysis of espinheira santa has revealed that it is an excellent resource of a group of familiar chemical substances, which are known as maytansinoids - found in the bark, root and stems of the tree. The chemicals present in different parts of espinheira santa actually signify a collection of substances that have been researched ever since the early 1970s owing to their anti-cancerous actions. Presently, they are being developed into drugs for chemotherapy. Another category of chemical compounds present in espinheira santa - triterpene chemical substances known as cangorins, have also been proved to have important anti-leukemic, anti-cancerous and anti-tumorous attributes.
The major plant chemicals found in espinheira santa comprise: