Lichen belonging to the Parmeliaceae family is called usnea. This genus is found growing throughout the world. Several species of this plant, counting U. barbata, U. bayle, U. dasypoga, U. hirta, U. florida and U. lobata are used for therapeutic purposes. According to available documents, usnea has been used in ancient China, where the lichen was referred to as Sun-lo and employed to calm inflamed systems as well as to treat external infections. In addition, the formulary or Aqrabadhin of Al-Kindi (ca. 850 AD) has reference to this lichen.
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Usnea is the generic as well as the specific name for numerous lichen species belonging to the family Parmeliaceae. Made up of two or more organisms, including a fungus and alga, lichens usually grow on tree branches. They hang from the branches and have an appearance similar to grey or greenish hair. However, it is important that you do not mistake this genus for oak moss belonging to genus Evernia. The physical appearance of oak moss, which is also known as tree moss, is akin to that of lichen.
Similar to other lichens, usnea is also a composite organism, comprising a fungus and one or more partners known as photobionts. While the fungus is a member of the division called ascomycota, the alga belongs to the division called chlorophyta.
Usnea, in the form of fruticose lichen, grows like a shrub on trees that host it and generally replicates asexually through soredia or by vegetative ways through fragmentation. Sometimes, it also reproduces sexually by spermatogonium (wherein immature sperm cells divide into several spermatophytes) and ascogonium (wherein a female reproductive part in a number of ascomycetous fungi develops asci after fertilization). In nature or under normal conditions, lichens' pace of growth is very sluggish. However, scientists have succeeded in accelerating their growth rates using usnea culture in laboratories. It is worth mentioning here that the physical appearance of usnea resembles Spanish moss also. They are so similar looking that the Latin name of Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides, which translated into English denotes "Usnea-like Tillandsia", has been derived from usnea.
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A type of lichen, usnea is found growing all over the temperate zones in the northern hemisphere, particularly in the coastal rainforest and sub-arctic regions. This lichen variety generally prefers old trees. Unfortunately, its habitation is witnessing rapid erosion owing to contemporary logging practices. If you are buying usnea, you should ensure that you purchase it from wild crafters, who are certified and are aware of the ecological cycles. They are unlikely to over harvest this lichen. In addition, usnea is also inclined to amass heavy metals from the atmosphere and, hence, it is advised that you exercise caution while harvesting these plants. It is important to maintain an adequate distance from any major pollution source while harvesting usnea.
Plants belonging to this genus have a greyish-green hue and they grow in the form of a hairy mat. The length of these plants may be anything between one or two inches to two or three feet. Usually, they are found hanging from the branches and trunks of their host trees. When touched they appear to be dry as well as rough. A number of usnea species also possess an internal core made up of white substances, which are bared when you pull both ends of the filament (hair) gently. The tough internal cord comes to view when the external covering gives way. Scientists are of the view that this inner cord not only provides tensile or elastic potency to the strand, but may possibly also be storing polysaccharide food for the sustenance of the plant.
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It is believed that these species whose internal core is white provide us with extremely valuable therapeutic effects. Therefore, when you are purchasing usnea, you should ensure that the lichen contains the white internal core.
People belonging to various cultures throughout the world have been using Usnea spp. for therapeutic purposes. The Haida, natives of the Pacific Northwest Coast, have used Usnea longissima fibers for straining contaminations from a hot pitch prior to it being used in the form of a medicine. In addition, people in the Canary Islands also used Usnea spp. in the form of a common remedy to heal wounds. In Italy, people used this species in the form of a eupeptic (a medicine that promotes digestion), while it was used in the form of an antiseptic in Argentina. Similarly, people in Saudi Arabia used Usnea spp. in the form of an anti-bacterial agent, while in Chile it was used in the form of an anti-tumour medication. Indigenous people of North America extracted a dye from this species, and also it was used to treat abscesses.
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It has been found that Usnea spp. may be employed to develop a topical remedy. The entire lichen is pulverized into powdered form an applied to skin infections by bacteria and fungi or burn injuries. Alternatively, you may also apply the whole plant to treat such infections and burns. In addition, Usnea spp. is also employed to cure internal health disorders, especially those that are related to the respiratory tract. The whole lichen is infused in alcohol to prepare a tincture which is taken internally to treat cold, flu, infections, bronchitis, sinus infections and pneumonia. Alternately, you may also consume the lichen as a whole or even prepare a tea and drink it to treat these conditions.
Usnea works as a tonic for the immune system and it may be used to treat severe conditions. In addition, this herb can be used on a long-term basis for perking up the immune system as well as a remedy to prevent disorders related to the immune system. As the use of this herb does not have any risky adverse effects or cause contraindications, it can be safely recommended for children as well as animals. This herbal medication is extremely beneficial for women suffering from bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, Chlamydia (a widespread sexually transmitted disease caused by Chlamydia trachomatis) and trichomoniasis (a sexually transmitted disease). People suffering from HIV, chronic fatigue, herpes as well as other chronic problems associated with poor immunity may also find this herb useful.
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In addition, usnea may also be used to treat fungal infections, such as athlete's foot, candidiasis and ringworm. It is also effective for curing mastitis, impetigo, boils, pneumonia, bronchitis, strep throat or sore throat, sinus infections, dysentery (but not cholera, typhoid or other infections of the intestine due to gram-negative bacteria), and skin and lung tuberculosis. Using usnea to gargle helps to treat strep or sore throat, while spraying a watered down infusion prepared with the herb helps to cure sinus infections. This herb has been found to be particularly useful for treating infections of the upper respiratory system and urinary tract infections.
People in different parts of the world have been using usnea for medicinal purposes for more than 1600 years. Usnic acid is a very strong antibiotic as well as an anti-fungal agent and is present in all usnea species. Usnic acid and the hair-like constitution of this lichen denote that usnea served well as an effective medication for curing external wounds in earlier times, before the advent of sterile gauze and contemporary antibiotics. In fact, traditionally people have been using usnea internally as well as externally. However, a number of medical literatures recommend that usnea should only be used externally, because it has the potential to be toxic for the liver.
In contemporary American herbal medicine, practitioners use a lichen species called Usnea barbata in the form of an antibiotic, especially to treat infections of the lungs and the upper respiratory tract as well as urinary tract infections. It is worth mentioning that practitioners of herbal medicine have employed usnea in the form of an antibiotic against gram-positive bacteria and in the form of an antifungal agent to neutralize Candida albicans. However, usnea has not been used in any clinical trial on humans so far, and, hence, it is neither possible to corroborate or reject any of the practices mentioned above. Nevertheless, findings of in vitro research have strongly endorsed the fact that usnea possesses anti-microbial attributes.
In 1989, the Commission E in Germany has approved the use of usnea for treating mild inflammations related to the oral as well as pharyngeal mucosa.
It may be noted that usnea has also demonstrated anecdotal effectiveness in treating fish infections in ponds and aquariums - a very difficult task indeed.
Earlier, usnea was used as a major ingredient in a medication called Lipokinetix, which was prescribed to promote weight loss by means of an enhanced rate of metabolism. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned against the use of Lipokinetix, as this medication may result in side effects, especially hepatotoxicity (toxicity of the liver). However, it is yet to be ascertained if the toxicity caused by this medication is in any way related to usnea. In addition to the lichen, the other ingredients of Lipokinetix included caffeine, PPA, diiodothyronine and yohimbine.
Usnea is also used to prepare a homeopathic remedy, which is effective for treating sunstroke and headache. Traditionally, usnea has been used in the form of a bitter tonic. The herb was also used therapeutically in Rome, Greece, ancient Egypt and China since much before Christ was born.
It is interesting to note that the external part of usnea possesses anti-bacterial properties, while the internal part contains polysaccharides and may also work to perk up the immune system.
In addition to their therapeutic value, different species of usnea have also been used to produce dyes and also to make deodorants and preservatives. Different dyes, including green, purple, orange, yellow and blue, were made from many different usnea varieties. People have been using a specific lichen species Usnea barbata as an ingredient in cosmetics, as it possesses antifungal and anti-microbial properties. This particular usnea species has also been used to make deodorants as well as preservatives.
The lichen species Usnea spp. grows in all regions of the world, ranging from places at sea-level to the elevated sub-Alpine regions. On the other hand, another variety called Usnea wirthii is often found growing on coniferous trees in the open forest lands in the plains. This species is especially found growing on lofty white oaks in Eugene, located in the Pacific Northwest region. The lichen species Usnea longissima grows best when it is cultivated on shrubs and trees in forests having old trees.
Scientists undertaking research to find new antibiotics became interested very early on as plants belonging to this genus have a history of being used in the form of anti-microbial agents by natives of different cultures. By 1944, scientists discovered that more than 50 percent of the lichens they studied enclosed lichen acids, which have various degrees of antibiotic actions. The lichen acids are especially active in combating gram positive bacteria, for instance mycobacteria, staphylococcus and streptococcus. However, these substances are usually not effectual against gram negative bacteria like E. coli and salmonella.
Chemical analysis of Usnea spp. has revealed that its main constituents include usnic acid as well as its derivates. Scientists believe that Usnea spp. is effective in counteracting gram positive bacteria and work by disturbing functions of the cell membrane of these bacteria, thereby helping to prevent the formation of ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) as well as oxidative phosphorylation. However, usnic acids do not affect the human cells as much, because the human cells do not allow usnic acids to penetrate easily. It is worth mentioning here that the level of vitamin C in usnea is very high.
Traditionally, usnea has been used to treat open wounds or those that have been infected by bacteria and fungi. The entire herb is powdered and applied directly to the affected skin. In addition, the herb has also been used to prepare potent decoctions and infused in alcohol with a view to maximize the immune enhancing actions of the herb.
Tincture: The standard dosage of usnea tincture for adults is 3 ml taken thrice every day. The frequency of the dosage of this tincture may be increased to treat severe conditions. To treat tuberculosis, take usnea two to seven drops of tincture thrice every day continuously for a period of six months.
Although usnea is effective for treating a number of conditions, it is advised that you exercise caution while applying the herb to the skin directly. This is necessary because the direct application of the herb on the skin may result in allergic contact dermatitis. In case, you suffer from this side effect of usnea, you should stop applying the herb directly to the skin. Instead, you may use it internally.
However, the tincture or decoction prepared from usnea does not have any known side effect. Several herbalists are of the view that usnea is a safe herb for treating autoimmune conditions, especially in instances where the immune system is hyper-active and assaults specific body tissues.
Here is a word of caution: usnea should never be recommended for women during pregnancy.