Cistanche is a worldwide genus of holoparasitic desert plants in the family Orobanchaceae. They lack chlorophyll and obtain nutrients and water from the host plants whose roots they parasitize.
Along with other members of the genus, Cistanche deserticola is the primary source of the Chinese herbal medicine cistanche (Chinese: 肉苁蓉, pinyin ròucōngróng). The main sources of cistanche are Cistanche salsa and Cistanche deserticola, although it may also be obtained from Cistanche tubulosa, Cistanche sinensis, and Cistanche ambigua. The drug, known in Chinese as suosuo dayun, is collected in spring before sprouting, by slicing the stems of the plant. Cistanche deserticola has been placed on CITES Appendix 2, a list of endangered species not banned from trade but requiring monitoring. With increased consumption of cistanche, the population of the species has decreased and its area of distribution has shrunk. Aside from over-collection or indiscriminate collection, an important factor in the diminished supply of cistanche is a loss of the saxaul host, Haloxylon ammodendron, which is widely used for firewood.
Cistanche has been used as a medicine for about 1800 years and is recorded in the Shennong Bencao Jing and Bencao Gangmu as a tonic. Most of the medicinal claims have never been evaluated through clinical testing, and those claims that have been examined under controlled medical study are not supported.
Research in laboratory animals
A variety of pharmacological effects of Cistanche extracts or chemical compounds isolated from Cistanche have been demonstrated in in vitro studies or in rodent models, but none of these effects have been demonstrated in clinical study in humans. The chemical constituents responsible for these effects include acteoside, echinacoside, and cistanosides (A, B, C, D, E, F, G and H).
Some of these effects include:
Cistanche tubulosa extract "exhibits hypocholesterolemic activity in diet-induced hypercholesterolemia mice."
Polysaccharides isolated from Cistanche deserticola have in vitro immunomodulatory effects in high doses, "promoting the phagocytic and secretory functions of the phagocytic ability of peritoneal macrophage".
Cistanche salsa extracts enhance antibody production in isolated human lymph node lymphocytes in vitro.
High doses of the chemical compound acteoside, isolated from Cistanche tubulosa, affected biomarkers related to aging in mice.
Anti-fatigue properties have been shown in mice. Cistanche deserticola extracts "appeared to enhance the swimming capacity of mice by decreasing muscle damage, delaying the accumulation of lactic acid and by improving the energy storage."
A laboratory study in mice found that high doses of Cistanches Herba extract (CHE) "significantly enhanced learning and memory, as demonstrated by passive avoidance test and novel object recognition test". These results were determined to be the result of its action in upregulating nerve growth factor.
^C.Z. Zhang, S.X. Wang, Y. Zhang, J.P. Chen, X.M. Liang. 2005. In vitro estrogenic activities of Chinese medicinal plants traditionally used for the management of menopausal symptoms. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 98: 295-300.
^Analysis of chemical constituents in Cistanche species. Yong Jiang and Peng-Fei Tu, Journal of Chromatography A, Quality Control of Traditional Chinese Medicines, 13 March 2009, Volume 1216, Issue 11, Pages 1970–1979, doi:10.1016/j.chroma.2008.07.031
^The hypocholesterolemic effects of Cistanche tubulosa extract, a chinese traditional crude medicine, in mice Shimoda H., Tanaka J., Takahara Y., Takemoto K., Shan S.-J., Su M.-H. American Journal of Chinese Medicine 2009 37:6 (1125-1138)
^The effect of Cistanche deserticola polysaccharides (CDPS) on marcrophages activation Wang X.-Y., Qi Y., Cai R.-L., Li X.-H., Yang M.-H., Shi Y. Chinese Pharmacological Bulletin 2009 25:6 (787-789+790)
^Cistanche salsa extract enhanced antibody production in human lymph node lymphocytes Maruyama S., Hashizume S., Tanji T., Yamada K., Tachibana H. Pharmacologyonline 2008 2 (341-348)
^Effect of Cistanche tubulosa (Scheuk) Whight acteoside on telomerase activity and immunity of aging mice Zhang H.-Q., Weng X.-J., Chen L.-L., Li X. Chinese Journal of Pharmacology and Toxicology 2008 22:4 (270-273)
^Cai, RL; Yang, MH; Shi, Y; Chen, J; Li, YC; Qi, Y (2010). "Antifatigue activity of phenylethanoid-rich extract from Cistanche deserticola". Phytotherapy research : PTR24 (2): 313–5. doi:10.1002/ptr.2927. PMID19610039.
^Choi, JG; Moon, M; Jeong, HU; Kim, MC; Kim, SY; Oh, MS (2011). "Cistanches Herba enhances learning and memory by inducing nerve growth factor". Behavioural brain research216 (2): 652–8. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2010.09.008. PMID20849880.