Cat's Claw: An Herbal Treatment For Parkinson's Disease?
Can you tell me about the Chinese herb gou teng, which I understand is helpful in treating some symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Do you think it’s worth a try?
Andrew Weil, M.D. |November 15, 2016
Gou teng, also known as cat’s claw, (Uncaria rhynchophylla) is reputed to have anti-spasmodic properties and has been used in China for more than 2,000 years to treat “the shakes,” a common symptom of Parkinson’s disease (PD). Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects nerve cells in the part of the mid-brain responsible for muscle movement. Degeneration of these cells results in a reduction in levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine causing the tremors, rigidity, slow movements and difficulties with balance characteristic of PD. Parkinson’s progression can be slowed and symptoms managed with the drugs L-Dopa (Levodopa) and Sinemet (Carbidopa). L-Dopa is converted to dopamine in the brain, and Sinemet prevents L-Dopa from being broken down before it reaches the brain.
One Chinese study of gou teng’s effects on Parkinson’s symptoms included 55 patients who were randomized to take a combination of traditional medicinal herbs including gou teng or a placebo for 24 weeks. Results showed that the participants who took the herbs were able to sleep better and had more fluent speech than those who took the placebo.
The Chinese investigators suggested that gou teng may ease PD symptoms by helping rid brain cells of an accumulation of a protein called alpha-synuclein. Too much of this compound may be to blame for the nerve cell degeneration. The drugs currently used to treat Parkinson’s don’t reduce or eliminate alpha-synuclein accumulations.
The researchers reported that a gou teng component, called isorhy, was able to help reduce cellular levels of alpha synuclein, and that it worked as well for this as rapamycin, an immunosuppressant drug being studied for Parkinson’s treatment. Unlike rapamycin, which can have serious side effects, the Chinese researchers note that gou teng has been used for centuries with no apparent detriment.
Another Chinese study published in 2013 found that a combination of 11 herbs including gou teng taken three times a day for 12 weeks effectively improved sleep dysfunction in PD patients, and that the improvements lasted for an additional four weeks.
A 2015 review of 27 published studies involving data on 2,314 patients explored the effectiveness and safety of traditional Chinese medicine as an adjunct to conventional treatment of Parkinson’s disease. It concluded that the Chinese therapy was generally safe, well tolerated and could significantly reduce the side effects of conventional treatments. However, the authors concluded that more well-designed studies are needed to clarify the exact effect of traditional Chinese medicine on PD patients.
Based on what I’ve read, gou teng appears to be safe for use with Parkinson’s disease. If you’re interested in taking it for relief of symptoms, I recommend consulting a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to help determine the optimal dosage.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Li Min et al, “Treatment of Idiopathic Parkinson’s Disease with Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine: A Randomized Placebo-Controlled Pilot Clinical Study”, Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2011,
Dingfang Cai et al, “Therapeutic effect of Yang-Xue-Qing-Nao granules on sleep dysfunction in Parkinson’s disease.” Chinese Medicine, July 27, 2013, DOI: 10.1186/1749-8546-8-14