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Gotu Kola

Heals wounds, improves circulation in the legs, relieves anxiety, promotes sleep

This creeping, marsh-loving plant isn't well known outside its native range of China, India and the South Pacific. In those regions, however, gotu kola has quite a reputation. In China, it's considered the herb of choice to promote longevity, in part because it was used regularly by the Chinese herbalist LiChing Yun, who, legend says, lived to celebrate his 256th birthday.

In India, gotu kola is known as the herb of enlightenment. "This plant is called bramhi, or 'greatest of the great,' " says Jay L. Glaser, M.D., medical director of the Maharishi Ayurvedic Health Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts. (Ayurvedic medicine is the traditional medicine of India.) "Gotu kola's most important use is to bring the nervous system to such an extreme degree of refinement that the individual can see his or her nature as unbounded and infinite — in other words, to become enlightened," says Dr. Glaser.

Gotu kola is also used in Ayurvedic medicine as a cure for agitation, memory loss, anxiety, insomnia, epilepsy and hyperactivity, Dr. Glaser says.

As intriguing as these claims and uses may sound, gotu kola has yet to be checked out in any organized way or with modern scientific techniques. But the two most common forms of the herb, Centella asiatica and Hydrocotyle asiatica, are known to contain several active ingredients that apparently do offer anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and sedative effects.

"This herb has been described as representing an entire apothecary shop, and indeed it has many, many uses," says Daniel B. Mowrey, Ph.D., director of the American Phytotherapy Research Laboratory in Salt Lake City, Utah, and author of The Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine. In India, Indonesia and Europe, gotu kola has traditionally been used (and is still employed) to promote healing of tissue, including surgical wounds, burns, tears that occur during childbirth, anal fissures and skin ulcers, Dr. Mowrey says. "Clinical studies done overseas indicate that standardized extracts of gotu kola can greatly aid wound repair," he says. And, he says, it works equally well when taken orally or put on the skin. The herb apparently enhances cells' ability to manufacture protein and thus stimulates the growth of new tissue.

Gotu kola also seems to help improve blood flow through the veins in the legs. In one study, it improved such symptoms as heaviness in the lower legs, numbness, nighttime cramps, swelling and distended veins. "It's thought to help keep veins strong and resistant to bulging by promoting the growth of connective tissues, which helps keep vein walls strong," Dr. Mowrey says.

Gotu kola contains compounds that researchers are very interested in right now-flavonoids, or terpenes. Some of this group of biochemicals are known to have anti-cancer activity. "Whether gotu kola contains those particular flavonoids that offer protection from cancer remains to be seen," Dr. Mowrey says.

Putting the herb to work

You can find gotu kola at many health food stores. Capsules containing powdered H. asiatica, the weaker variety of gotu kola, are most commonly available. "People using this herb for health maintenance usually take two to four 400-milligram capsules a day of H. asiatica, which is the cheaper variety," Dr. Mowrey explains. The stronger kind, C. asiatica, is available as capsules or extract. "The extract is more expensive and is usually reserved for treating serious illness such as epilepsy," Dr. Mowrey says. People using the extract for a medical condition generally take one to two ounces a day, Dr. Glaser says.

The Food and Drug Administration considers gotu kola an herb of "undefined safety." Two side effects are possible — sedation and skin rash. If you are thinking about taking gotu kola for a medical condition, it's best to talk with a health professional who's familiar with herbs to determine whether it is a wise choice for you, Dr. Glaser says.

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