Kutki (scientific name Picrorhiza kurroa) is one of the most valuable herbs found in the Nepalese part of the Himalaya Mountains. It has been traded as a medicinal plant for a long time and it remains one of the most important exports of the Karnali region and a major source of income for the locals. The reason for its value is the medicinal properties similar to the gentian variety found in India.
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Kutki is a perennial plant covered in hair, which grows in the forest. It emerges from a rhizome that can be between 15 and 20 cm long, with a cylindrical shape and a woody core. The blade is narrow at the base, with jagged edges and a winged petiole. It can have a length between 5 and 10 cm, with a pointy tip. At the base there are a number of shorter leaves with a leathery appearance. The spic only has a few underside bracts and about the same length as the blade. Kutki begins to bloom in June and the fruits become ripe one month later. The fruits look like tiny capsules, no more than 6 mm long. The seeds of kutki have a diameter of about 1 mm and are located in the cracked rooms inside the fruits.
The most valuable part of the kutki plant is the rhizome, which is collected for medical usage during the fall, from October to the end of the year. Overharvesting has made Picrorhiza kurroa a rare herb and it is threatened with extinction today.
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Leaves, bark, roots, rhizomes.
This herb has been used in medicine for thousands of years and it is attested in Ayurvedic medicine, the ancient medical system. According to this tradition, the kutki rhizome was a cure for digestive disorders. It appears to have other health benefits as well and is said to be useful in the treatment of open wounds, vitiligo, asthma and liver issues.
Its ability to shield the liver from damage is quite well-attested and it also supports a healthy spleen. It is particularly good for livers that are damaged by various conditions like inflammation or cirrhosis. It is also able to prevent infection with the widespread hepatitis C virus. Since it has been used for so long, it doesn't appear to be harmful at all.
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Many other medical uses of kutki are known. For a long time, it has been employed as a cure for any kind of respiratory problems. Even today, it serves as an alternative asthma treatment in herbalist medicine. In smaller doses it acts like a laxative, while in larger ones it has a cathartic effect. Other attested effects are: bitter tonic, anticholestatic (it eliminates obstructions caused by bile salts), antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective, antibacterial, antiperiodic and anti-allergic. It also regulates the activity of the immune system and the production of liver enzymes.
This herb's health benefits were so obvious that it has been used in the ancient medical systems of both India and China and was widely traded. In both traditions, it was a key treatment for liver and respiratory diseases. However, the traditional usage was quite varied and included the treatment of chronic diarrhea, constipation, jaundice, tropical fevers and dyspepsia.
A number of modern studies have started to test the effects of the plant on animals. The first ones have confirmed the strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action. Scientists have also tried to find out if kutki can protect the liver, like the ancient doctors believed. The results show that kutki does indeed act against various toxic compounds and prevents their accumulation in the liver.
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Further studies were made on lab rats infected with malaria. Kutki had an antioxidant effect and helped the animals eliminate toxins, while increasing the level of glutathione that were lowered by the disease.
Kutki might be a good cure for vitiligo or psoriasis. These are auto-immune diseases that are caused by the body's internal defence system attacking its own tissues by mistake. The herb is also well-proven as a liver protector. It seems to prevent infection with the hepatitis virus and to stop liver damage caused by powerful toxins, such as ingesting poisonous mushrooms from the Amanita family. These mushrooms can even be lethal to humans. Researchers have isolated curcubitacins from the plant that might be responsible for its influence on the blood, in particular the cholesterol reduction and faster coagulation. These compounds are also believed to kill tumours and have a strong cytotoxic action.
The kutki rhizome can increase both the body's immune response and its defence against toxic agents. One targeted study has confirmed its effectiveness against the tropical parasite Leishmania donovani, which is the cause of the leishmaniasis disease. The rhizome is also a traditional counter for snake venom and poisonous insect stings, like the scorpion one.
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In its native range kutki is also used as a general panacea in the treatment of diseases such as stomach and abdominal pain, low bile production or anemia. It boosts immune reaction which provides overall benefits, reducing allergies or fever and curing hepatitis of various viral types. It has long been used as a defence against jaundice epidemics and also in the treatment of scorpion stings, chronic diarrhea, malaria, rheumatism, skin disorders, infections and epilepsy.
Extracts from the kutki rhizome have powerful choleretic properties that probably explain why the plant protects the liver. It speeds up the elimination of toxins like cholic acid, deoxycholic acid and bile salt, preventing their accumulation in the liver and the potential damage. The extract is also rich in apocynin, a compound that causes minor contraction of the muscles without violent convulsions.
The extract of kutki is also known from in vitro tests to stop the growth of several varieties of fungus that can grow on the skin. Some of the compounds in the extract can reduce oxidation by stopping zymosan-induced chemical reactions of PMN leukocytes and the release of dangerous free radicals.
The plant is native to the Himalayan Mountains and especially in Nepal, were it grows at high altitudes from 3500 up to 4800 m. It can also be found in other parts of the range from Kashmir to Sikkim, starting from 2700 up to 4500 m. Despite growing in very remote locations, that require several days of hiking to get there, it seems to be threatened with extinction due to excessive harvesting.
Chemical analysis of the kutki rhizome has identified kutkisterol, vanillic acid, several steroids, D-mannitol, benetic acid, nine cucurbitacin glycosides as well as kitkin, picrorhizin and other extremely bitter glucosides. Apocynin has also been isolated from kutki, this compound can reduce platelet aggregation and has a strong anti-inflammatory action.
Unlike most medicinal herbs, kutki is rarely brewed as a tea because its active compounds are not very soluble. Kutki is usually ingested as a powdered extract in the form of capsule supplements with a concentration of kitkin of up to 4%.
The dosage depends on the disease, 0.6 - 1.2 gm when administered as a bitter tonic, 3-4 gm when used as an antiperiodic and 400 - 1500 mg daily regular dosage for any other problems in adults. The dose can be increased in cases of fever, when up to 3.5 g can be ingested every day.
Since kutki decreases the level of blood sugar, people who suffer from diabetes or take medication with a similar effect have to be very careful. Many of the herb's effects can overlap with other drugs and caution is needed in such cases. Examples include people who take immuno-suppressants or have a suppressed system for other reasons, as well as people who either have cancer or take anti-cancer drugs. Like most herbs that were not fully researched, it should be avoided by pregnant and lactating women.
Kutki can be a serious hazard to people with low blood sugar levels, it is advised to ask a doctor to monitor serum glucose and tweak the medication as needed.
Kutki is normally harvested by digging during the autumn, then the roots are cut and the rhizome can be cleaned and dried in direct sunlight.