Native to South America, pau d’arco (Tabebuia spp.) is found in various parts of the tropical/subtropical world. Its range includes areas of southern Florida and northern Mexico to northern Argentina, including the Caribbean Islands. Also known as tahibo or trumpet tree, the pau d’arco grows from 16 to 160 feet tall, depending on the species. Some species are deciduous and some are evergreen and they produce flowers from 1-4 inches in a variety of bright colors. However, it is the inner bark of the Tebebuia impetiginosa species of this complex tree that interests us.
The inner bark of pau d’arco brews a tea that tastes a bit like teaberries with a pleasant aroma and reddish color. Because of the benefits of the two phytochemicals lapachol and beta-lapachone found in this bark, taking the tea or tincture is prescribed by herbalists for a variety of ailments and benefits. Let’s look at a few here.
One of the most popular uses for pau d’arco is yeast infections. Often a result of using broad-spectrum antibiotics, vaginal yeast infections, oral thrush, or rashes in moist places occur from the overgrowth of Candida albicans in our bodies. Fortunately, phytochemicals found in pau d’arco have an anti-yeast action comparable to some prescription anti-yeast medications. To treat a yeast infection with pau d’arco, drink the tea liberally, add the powdered bark to a salve, or cook up a concentrated decoction and apply frequently. You may also use these treatments for other fungal issues like ringworm, athlete’s foot, or nail fungus.
According to James A. Duke, PhD, in his book The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook, low doses of isolated formulations of the two phytochemicals, lapachol and beta-lapachone, will boost the body’s immune system. This, coupled with its antiviral properties, makes it appropriate for use with influenza, Epstein-Barr virus, chronic fatigue syndrome, and mononucleosis.
Another active constituent found in pau d’arco is quercitin. Quercitin is a plant-derived flavonoid known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Herbalists and physicians alike frequently prescribe quercitin for inflammatory conditions. According to The Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine by Andrew Chevallier, FNIMH, “Lapacho reduces and relieves inflammatory problems, especially in the stomach and intestines.” This action would make it an appropriate herb for colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. Other uses include treatment for fibromyalgia and rheumatism.
Like many herbs used widely in the past, pau d’arco is now under scrutiny and its use is controversial. Known side-effects include nausea and gastro-intestinal distress. Although the toxicity of Tabebuia impetiginosa is relatively low, often other species are found in over-the-counter products. According to Dr. Duke, “The whole bark presents no known threat of serious side effects, although some people might get nauseous. Isolated lapachol and beta-lapachone do pose grim risks.” Pau d’arco also has blood-thinning properties. So if you take anticoagulant medication or use any other anticoagulant herbs like garlic, I would find an alternative. If using this herb interests you, proceed cautiously or consult a natural health care provider.
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