Could a medicinal herb native to California treat Alzheimer’s?

The medicinal herb called yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) contains a compound that may be able to reduce harmful swelling in the brain. Researchers said the plant-based chemical shows promise as a potential natural treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

Native to California, yerba santa means “holy herb” in Spanish. Yerba santa is traditionally used as a natural remedy for headaches, fevers, and other illnesses.

Recently, a research team from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California tested its ability to alleviate cerebral inflammation in patients with dementia. Their findings indicated that yerba santa could contribute to the treatment of millions of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Led by Professor Dave Schubert, the Salk team discovered the presence of sterubin in yerba santa extracts. The molecule is the most active chemical component of the herb.

They applied sterubin to nerve cell cultures obtained from mice and compared the results with other herbal extracts. (Related: Gardenias prevent Alzheimer’s disease.)

Yerba santa contains sterubin, a flavonoid that protects nerve cells from inflammation

The results of the Salk experiment showed that sterubin possesses powerful anti-inflammatory activities. The plant compound affected microglia, the primary immune cells of the brain.

Microglia protect the brain from harmful substances by triggering inflammatory responses. However, excessive amounts of inflammation helps bring about Alzheimer’s disease.

Sterubin could regulate the inflammatory activity of microglia. It also proved effective against multiple inducers of nerve cell death.


Furthermore, it can efficiently remove iron. Although the mineral, in general, benefits the body, it also contributes to nerve cell damage in aging and neurodegenerative diseases.

Given their findings, the Salk researchers concluded that sterubin can successfully protect nerve cells from cell death caused by inflammation and iron. The molecule outperformed the other extracts the researchers tested.

“This is a compound that was known but ignored,” explained Salk senior researcher Dr. Pamela Maher. “Not only did sterubin turn out to be much more active than the other flavonoids in Yerba santa in our assays, it appears as good as, if not better than, other flavonoids we have studied.”

The next step for Maher, Schubert, and their colleagues is to test the effectiveness of sterubin in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. The data will help them determine the pharmacological characteristics of the compound and its potential toxicity to living organisms.

The anti-inflammatory properties of yerba santa may help treat Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease

Depending on the outcome of the animal study, the Salk researchers may eventually be able to test sterubin in human clinical trials. Before that, they intend to use only high-quality flavonoids extracted from yerba santa grown in a standardized and regulated environment. They also hoped to synthesize sterubin in the future.

“Alzheimer’s disease is a leading cause of death in the United States,” Maher remarked. “And because age is a major risk factor, researchers are looking for ways to counter aging’s effects on the brain.”

In addition to Alzheimer’s disease, sterubin might also alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, the illness that brought down the famous professional boxer Muhammad Ali.

Parkinson’s affects one out of every 500 people in the world. The U.K. has reported 127,000 cases so far while the U.S. has identified a million cases of the neurodegenerative disease.

Parkinson’s disease damages and destroys brain cells. The progressive condition targets neurons that regulate the movement of body parts.

Researchers have not yet come up with a cure for Parkinson’s disease. However, yerba santa and sterubin may also provide a means of halting this chronic neurodegenerative disease.

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