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When I was a child, a popular programme on BBC radio was Desert Island Discs, a show in which various celebrities chose the ten gramophone records they would want to have when marooned on a desert island. I have often amused myself picking my ten Desert Island Herbs, and Punarnava is certainly among them. The name Punarnava means, quite literally, the Renewer, for local tribal folk observed that the dead, dry plant would spring again to new green life. On the theory of signatures, they took this to mean that the plant was rejuvenative--a fact now supported by rigorous scientific research.
Punarnava, boerhaavia diffusa in Latin, is known in English as Spreading Hogweed. It is an abundant weed, found growing in poor soil and native to both India and Brazil, where it is known as Erva tostão. It belongs to the Four o'clock family or Nyctaginaceae. The flowers are red, pink or white in colour. Supplies of Punarnava are often contaminated with a similar looking white flowered plant of the trianthema species, which does not contain punarnavine. For this reason, it is essential to be sure of obtaining certified organic Punarnava, as this will have a more reliable potency. Rasa is sweet and bitter, virya is heating and vipak is pungent. It reduces vata and kapha and may stimulate pitta in excess, though modest amounts will reduce pitta through sweet rasa. Active chemical components include flavonoids, alkaloids, steroids, triterpinoids, lipids, lignins, carbohydrates, proteins and glycoproteins. Some of the most important active components include puranavine and punarnavoside.
Punarnava is a folk medicine and super-food as well as a classical Ayurvedic Rasayana. In India, it is used by traditional tribal healers in Chhattisgarh, Bagbahera and Pithora regions. Healers apply Punarnava to the vagina to hasten delivery and also tie the roots, wrapped in red cord, around the woman's waist. They also apply Punarnava mixed in whey to breast abscesses. For eye sties they use Punarnava mixed in ghee, and for conjunctivitis, Punarnava in honey. They make Punarnava oil with Nirgundi to ease arthritic aches and pains. The Bhil tribal folk use Punarnava roots for blood dysentery. Country folk plant Punarnava in their gardens to repel poisonous snakes and scorpions and in West Bengal and Assam, Punarnava leaves are eaten as a potherb and are understood to prevent renal calculi. In other areas, the entire plant, including the root, is eaten in curries and soups, while the seeds and roots are used in cereals and pancakes.
In South America, Erva tostão or Punarnava has long been used by traditional healers for maladies of the liver and kidneys.
In Ayurveda, Punarnava acts on the rasa, rakta and mamsa dhatus.It is used as a rasayana for lungs, heart, and kidneys as well as a diuretic, expectorant, and anti-diabetic. It reduces lung and peripheral oedema, is anti-rheumatic in painful and swollen joints, improves renal function, breaks up renal calculi, and is valuable in nephrotic syndrome. As a bronchodilator and expectorant it is used in congestive cardiac failure, chronic bronchitis, bronchectasis and plural effusion. As an eye medicine, it is used in glaucoma and night blindness. Punarnava is frequently cited in the texts. Dhanvanthari Nighantu states,
Tiktaa rooksha Kaphaapaha
Sasopha Paandu hrid roga
"Punarnava is bitter and heating. It is drying. It checks Kapha. It is useful in the treatment of diseases with swelling, anaemia, heart diseases, cough, blood spitting, and colic."
In skin diseases, a paste of the root with dadhimanda (water floating on curd) is used topically. (Chikitsa-Ch. 7. Charaka.) In urinary calculus, Punarnava decoction is recommended. (Chikitsa-Ch. 7. Sushruta). Sushruta also recommends milk boiled with Punarnava in fevers, and application of Punarnava paste in swelling of the testicles. In eye diseases, Bhavprakash says,
Dugdhena kandoom kshoudrena netrashravancha sarpisha pushpam, thailena thimiram, kanjikaena nisandhatam, Punarnava haratyaasu bhaskarasthimiram yatha.
"With milk in itching of the eyes, with honey in discharges, with ghee in white patches, with oil in immature cataracts, with rice washing water in night-blindness, Punarnava is useful in eye diseases."
In nephrotic oedema, a tea is made with Punarnava, ginger, khus and vetiver. In night blindness, a cup of cow's milk with a teaspoon of Punarnava is taken at bedtime. In enlarged spleen use one teaspoon Punarnava with Aloe Vera gel. In congestive cardiac failure give one teaspoon Punarnava and one teaspoon Arjun in honey. In oedema a paste of Punarnava can be applied to the swollen areas. This is particularly useful in angioneurotic oedema of the face and eyes due to an allergic reaction, since Punarnava is anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory as well as reducing swellings. In itchy allergic eye conditions, bathe the eyes with Punarnava eyewash and in glaucoma use Punarnava eyedrops twice daily.
In asthma, a teaspoon of Punarnava and half teaspoon Pippali can be given in honey. In epilepsy Punarnava can be combined with Vacha and Brahmi to reduce brain swelling and have an anticonvulsant effect. In allergic rashes, mix Punarnava with ghee and honey. In urinary tract infection, Punarnava tea is beneficial.
Compounds of Punarnava include Punarnavadyarishta, Punarnava Mandura and Punarnava Guggulu. Punarnavadyarishta, a medicated wine, is used in heart disease, anaemia, severe swelling, splenomegaly, fever, anorexia, cough and numerous other conditions. (Chikitsasthanam 12 37, Charaka). Punarnava Mandura, containing iron, is especially valuable in anaemia though it is also recommended for malaria, piles and intestinal parasites. (Chikitsasthanam 16 98, Charaka). More readily available in the US and of outstanding value is Punarnava Guggulu. This is the most valuable herbal compound for kidney stones and should be taken daily on a preventative basis by anyone with a history of kidney stones. It is also useful for obesity, goitre, water retention, glaucoma, diabetes and kapha type arthritis.
Punarnava has been extensively researched, with findings backing up its traditional uses. It has been demonstrated that punarnavoside is diuretic, (Gaitonde et al 1974) anti-inflammatory, (Bhalla et al 1968) anti-fibrinolytic, (Jain and Khanna 1989) antibacterical (Olukoya et al 1993) and anti-convulsant ( Adesina 1979). Punarnava has also been shown to be hepatoprotective and choleretic, cardiokine, anti-cancer and anti-oxidant. It should always be considered in Hepatitis C because it has demonstrable hepato-protective action. Sony and Bhatt demonstrated effectiveness of an herbal mixture containing Punarnava in entamoeba histolytica (1995). It is also anti-fungal.
Pari and Sateesh ,2004, demonstrated the effectiveness of Punarnava in diabetes and its ability to lower blood lipids in diabetes, as well as showing the antioxidant impact this herb has in diabetes. In cancer, Punarnava is anti-metastatic (Leyon et al 2005), as well as cancer preventive.
This immensely useful herb offers hope for many otherwise incurable or difficult to treat conditions including cancer, diabetes, obesity, kidney stones, renal failure and hepatitis C. It is also of great use in common conditions such as allergies and conjunctivitis. Hence, Punarnava is near the top of my list of Desert Island Herbs.