Thunder on the Mountain

Walking and hypertension

Whoever named “thunder god vine” obviously had a flair for the dramatic. Or maybe the name was simply intended to alert the unwary that they were dealing with something powerful and dangerous.

I recently received this question about thunder god vine from an HSI member named Kathy:

“I have severe rheumatoid arthritis and have been searching for some natural relief for years. Nothing seems to really show it down. However, I recently came across some information about a Chinese herb called Thunder God vine. It is being used in China for autoimmune diseases with great success. I have read that the National Institute of Health is currently conducting some studies with this herb.

“Can you check this out? And if these results are true, where can I purchase this substance? I have read that it is a poisonous vine and the part that is used medicinally has to be harvested carefully in a special way.”

An exotic name, a poisonous vine, and a root extract that relieves rheumatoid arthritis? This is a botanical with quite a story to tell.

Handle with care

“Walk seven steps and die” is one of the Chinese folk names given to thunder god vine. Another folk name is “intestine breaking plant,” according to the Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. This is obviously not a vine to be trifled with.

Thunder god vine (TGV) grows only in the mountains of China, Taiwan, and Burma. For several hundred years, the pulp of the root has been used to treat inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), lupus, and other autoimmune diseases.

Just one little problem: With the exception of the root pulp, virtually all parts of the plant – leaves, flowers, skin of the root, pollen, and even honey made from the pollen – are poisonous enough to cause death. Which apparently occurs in about the time it takes to walk seven steps.

In 2002, the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (a division of the National Institutes of Health) funded a U.S. study in which 35 patients with longstanding RA were divided into three groups. One group received a high dose of TGV (360 mg per day), one group received a low dose (180 mg per day), and the third group received a placebo.

After four weeks, clinical response was reported by eight subjects in the high-dose group, and four subjects in the low-dose group. Clinical response was defined as a minimum of 20 percent improvement in symptoms. No one in the placebo group reported any improvement in symptoms. Three subjects dropped out of the study due to side effects. The most common side effect reported throughout the study was diarrhea.

In an NIH report, lead author of the study, Peter Lipsky, M.D., called TGV extract a “particularly promising” RA treatment. Dr. Lipsky stated that he planned further studies, but so far no additional research on humans has been reported.

Take care

Kathy can find a source for thunder god vine extract with a Google search, using the plant’s botanical name: Tripterygium wilfordii. But given its highly toxic nature, I would strongly urge anyone interested in trying TGV to do so only under the strict supervision of an experienced and dependable herbalist. Many acupuncturists are also knowledgeable in the use of traditional Chinese medicines.

But TGV isn’t the only natural way to treat RA.

In the e-Alert “Liquid Gold” (11/16/05), I told you about a study that demonstrated how four teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil taken daily for 12 weeks reduced pain and morning stiffness among RA patients. Researchers believe the key to olive oil’s effectiveness is oleocanthoal, a compound that has been shown to inhibit two inflammation triggers: COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes. (For more about the benefits of extra virgin olive oil, see yesterday’s e-Alert: “Extra Special” 9/26/06.)

And in the e-Alert “Burning Down the House” (3/25/03), I told you about a supplement called Wobenzyme, which contains a blend of pancreatic enzymes that reduce RA symptoms by lowering abnormally high levels of antibodies (produced by an overactive immune system) that prompt RA inflammation. You can find that e-Alert at this link:

“Benefit of an Extract of Tripterygium Wilfordii Hook F in Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study” Arthritis & Rheumatism, Vol. 46, No. 7, July 2002,
“Chinese Thunder God Vine Gives Relief from Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms” Elizabeth Freedman, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, October 2002,
“Thunder God Vine” Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine,
“Mandarins ‘Cut Liver Cancer Risk'” BBC News, 9/11/06,