Medicinal plants of Nigeria: Tribulus terrestris (Puncture vine)

This week, I want to start by thanking those who sent text messages asking for Picralima nitida (Abere) seedlings to be planted in their homes. This shows that my discussion of having orchards at home is bearing fruit. Do you know about this medicine commonly prescribed to men with low sperm count called Manix capsules? Most men know this. Tribulus terrestris is one of its ingredients and it is the plant I am going to talk about today. It is among the plants I saw in the Medicinal Plant Gardens of the Department of Pharmacognosy, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, when I visited there last year. I don’t have the local names but among its many English names I chose puncture vine. If you Google Tribulus terrestris, you will see pictures of the plant.

Let me share a story with you before continuing. A relative of mine had a pelvic scan during medical checkups in 2016 because she was unable to conceive for a long time. The scan result showed a cyst on her right ovary. I started a treatment on her with spices like ginger, turmeric and other things found in nature. As they say, a prophet has no honor in his own country. Our closeness must have made her doubt the treatment and she had unprotected sex when she shouldn’t. The next thing we saw was pregnancy! Yes, ovarian cysts can be treated without surgery!

Now back to Tribulus Terrestris. It is a plant of the Zygophyllaceae family. In Ayurveda, the root and fruit are used for male virility and general vitality. People suffering from health problems and diseases such as hormonal imbalance, sexual problems, heart problems and various kidney and skin diseases use the plant. There is something important I would like to address here, despite marketing claims the plant does not appear to increase testosterone in men. This conclusion is based on studies in men and women of different health states and ages. One review analyzed the results of 12 major studies on the herb’s effects in men and women between the ages of 14 and 60. The studies lasted from 2 to 90 days and participants included healthy people and people with sexual problems. Researchers found that this supplement did not increase testosterone. Other researchers have found that Tribulus Terrestris can increase testosterone in some animal studies, but this result is not usually seen in humans. Some researchers have found that when men with reduced libido took 750-1500 mg of tribulus terrestris daily for two months, their sexual desire increased by 79%. Also, 67% of women with low libido experienced an increase in sexual desire after taking supplements of 500-1500mg for 90 days. This therefore means that Tribulus improves libido and sexual well-being without increasing testosterone. Athletes who use it to build muscle because they believe it increases testosterone levels may need to look for other testosterone boosting supplements.

Tribulus is used for kidney stones, painful urination, a kidney disorder called Bright’s disease, and as a “water pill” (diuretic) to increase urination. It is used for skin conditions such as eczema (atopic dermatitis), psoriasis and scabies. It is used for male sexual problems, such as erectile dysfunction, involuntary release of semen without orgasm (spermatorrhea) and to increase sexual desire. It is used for heart and circulatory problems like chest pain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and “tired blood” (anemia). It is used for digestive problems like colic, intestinal gas (flatulence), constipation and to expel parasitic intestinal worms. It is used for pain and swelling (inflammation) of the tissues lining the mouth (stomatitis), sore throats and cancer, especially tumors of the nose.

Women use tribulus to tone muscles before childbirth, to induce abortion and to stimulate milk flow. Some people use tribulus for gonorrhea, liver disease (hepatitis), inflammation, joint pain (rheumatism), leprosy, cough, headache, dizziness (vertigo), chronic fatigue syndrome and improving athletic performance. It is also used to stimulate the appetite and as an astringent, tonic and mood enhancer. The root and fruit of the plant have been used in traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurvedic medicine.

Although people often take tribulus terrestris for its potential effects on sexual function and testosterone, it has also been studied for other important effects. Animal studies have shown that tribulus terrestris can lower blood sugar levels, help protect against damage to blood vessels, and help prevent increased blood cholesterol. One study looked at the effects of taking 1,000 mg of tribulus terrestris daily in 98 women with type 2 diabetes. After three months, the women taking the supplements experienced lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels compared to those taking a placebo. Some studies have proven that these extracts also have cytotoxic and antimicrobial activities.

In Bulgaria the plant is used as a folk medicine to treat impotence. In addition to all these applications, the Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia of India attributes its cardiotonic properties to the root and the fruit. In traditional Chinese medicine, the fruits were used for the treatment of eye disorders, edema, abdominal distension, emission, morbid leucorrhoea and sexual dysfunction. It is described as a very valuable medicine in the Shern-Nong Pharmacopoeia (the oldest known pharmacological work in China) in the restoration of depressed liver, for the treatment of fullness in the chest, mastitis, flatulence, acute conjunctivitis, headaches and vitiligo. In Unani medicine (traditional Arabic medicine), it is used as a diuretic, mild laxative and general tonic. Tribulus is also marketed as a dietary supplement to improve sexual function and for bodybuilding due to the belief that it acts like testosterone in the body.

The leaves and shoots are eaten in East Asia. Stems have been used as a thickener, added to diluted buttermilk to give it the appearance of undiluted buttermilk. The dried fruit of the herb is effective in most disorders of the genitourinary tract. It is an essential constituent of Gokshuradi Guggul, a powerful Ayurvedic medicine used to support the proper functioning of the genitourinary system and to eliminate urinary stones.

In a phytopharmacological overview of Tribulus terrestris Chhatre et al, the different parts of Tribulus are said to contain a variety of medically important chemical constituents, such as flavonoids, flavonol glycosides, steroidal saponins and alkaloids. The plant has diuretic, aphrodisiac, antiurolithic, immunomodulatory, antidiabetic, absorption enhancing, hypolipidemic, cardiotonic, central nervous system, hepatoprotective, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antispasmodic, anticancer, antibacterial, anthelmintic, larvicidal and anticariogenic activities.

Cyclophosphamide is the most commonly used anticancer and immunosuppressive drug that causes several toxic effects, especially on the reproductive system. In a study titled “Tribulus terrestris protects against cyclophosphamide-induced male reproductive damage in mice”, by Pavin et al, the study highlighted the role of Tribulus dry extract in improving the induced alterations by administration of CP in testis mice.

You can buy Tribulus terrestris in major pharmacies. I saved the shocking part until the end, Tribulus terrestris is a weed!

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Alvin J. Chase