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Sutherlandia as Support for Immune Dysfunction

by Salmaan Dalvi PhD(more info)

listed in herbal medicine, originally published in issue 85 - February 2003


The body's wisdom and ability to function, adapt and heal is nothing short of miraculous. To make these things possible, the body is blessed with an immune system that through a series of complex manoeuvres, involving many internal organs and chemistries, constantly monitors, deciphers and acts to provide a healthy, balanced and harmonious internal environment. This is often accomplished even in the midst of an outside environment that may be less than friendly.

Being the cornerstone of good health, the immune system is the first line of defence that interacts with germs to eliminate infections, with carcinogens to eliminate cancer and allergens to prevent adverse reactions. It is potentially confronted with two problems: under-activity, which predisposes it to infections and cancer, and over-activity, which encourages allergic reactions and autoimmunity (what happens when the system does not properly recognize parts in the body that are safe, and attacks them as if they were an enemy).

As incredible as the immune system is, it can only work as it should if it is properly cared for. In today's world, the body is exposed to many stresses of psychological, physical and chemical origins, many of which it has never had to deal with in the entire human existence. It is these stresses that can cause the immune system to go awry.

Proper immune function is a delicate balancing act. Eliminating as much of the current day stresses is an obvious beginning, but is easier said than done. Adding immune-enhancing foods and nutrients to the diet is the other side of the coin, and much easier to put into action.

To this end, there are many choices. A promising new area of study is that of the potent herbals from the continent of Africa. The second largest of the earth's seven continents and covering about one-fifth of the total land surface, it is a host to untold thousands of botanicals, many with medicinal qualities. For the most part, these are still widely known only by the sangomas (traditional healers) and have yet to be recognized fully by scientific based western medicine. Because of the improper use of medicinal plants, the lack of regular farming and therefore consistent availability of such plants, and credible documentation and study of these pharmacies of nature, Africa's healing botanicals have largely been ignored. This, however, is changing. As the veil is lifted, many spectacularly potent plants are coming to light.

A Traditional Remedy

One of the plants under study is Sutherlandia (Sutherlandia microphylla and S. frutescens). A traditional herbal remedy that has a recorded history dating back more than 100 years in South Africa, Sutherlandia has been used for so many human ailments that its useful healing purpose might seem too good to be true. With a long history of safe use (a recent study of toxicity from the Medical Research Council of South Africa and the National Research Foundation dated April 2002 showed no toxicity), Sutherlandia seems to assist the body in mobilizing its own resources to cope with diverse physical, mental and chemical stresses. Traditional healers call it Phetola, meaning that the plant changes the course of many illnesses into a favourable outcome. Phetola is a strong word, referring to change which is fundamental, not merely ornamental. The North Sotho name Lerumo-lamadi, indicates it as a powerful blood purifier and all-purpose tonic. Nigel Gericke MD writes in his book, People's Plants, that "these plants (Sutherlandia frutescens and S. microphylla) are amongst the most multi-purpose and useful of the medicinal plants in South Africa".

Over the years, local healers have used Sutherlandia for:

  • Enhancing well-being;
  • Immune support, treating opportunistic fungal, viral and bacterial infections;
  • Stress, depression and anxiety;
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome;
  • Wasting from cancer, AIDS and TB;
  • Appetite stimulant for severely ill patients, but not in healthy people;
  • Influenza;
  • Asthma and bronchitis;
  • Type 2 diabetes;
  • Rheumatoid arthritis;
  • Peptic ulcer, gastritis and reflux oesophagitus;
  • Hot flashes and irritability in menopausal patients.

Bringing this plant's healing properties into modern science is Professor Ben-Erik van Wyk, Carl Albrecht MD and Nigel Gericke MD. In their several years of studying this plant, some major compounds have been isolated giving scientific validation of the traditional uses mentioned above. These compounds include the following.


This is a potent non-protein amino acid and L-arginine antagonist with documented anti-viral,[1] anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-cancer[2] activites. It is also a selective inhibitor of inducible nitric oxide synthase, making it potentially applicable in the treatment of septic shock and chronic inflammation.[3] Canavanine biochemist Gerald A. Rosenthal of the University of Kentucky found canavine was "shown to exhibit significant antineoplastic activity against MIAPaCa-2, a human pancreatic cancer".

Found in seeds of many common plants, in hundreds of legumes (beans) and other arginine-rich foods such as garlic and onions, canavanine is a natural toxin that serves as a storage protein, a growth inhibitor and a natural defence against predators. It is common to find traces of toxins in plants and foods that are healing and nutritious. For example, potatoes contain solanine, mushrooms have strychnine, apples and apricots have cyanide. The presence of such chemicals in these plants is not to kill (which has no useful purpose to the plant) but to prevent over-consumption. With less than that found in an equivalent amount of alfalfa, but unusually high in its leaves, Sutherlandia has about 2 mg canavine per dry gram of leaf material. If one were to extrapolate from toxicity studies done in mice, a 150 lb human would have to consume 14,000 mg (more than 6 lbs!) of pure canavinine at once for it to be considered toxic. Consuming enough Sutherlandia to equal this dose is physically impossible. Just the same, these small amounts of canavanine seem to be enough to yield its potential healing benefits.


In case you really want to know the technical nitty-gritty: the plant also contains arginine, which is known to lessen the toxic effects of canavanine by blocking cellular arginyl-tRNA synthetase, which in turn causes the erroneous formation of canavanyl-tRNA at the outset of protein synthesis.

Arginine has been shown to retard the growth of tumours and cancer (by enhancing immune function), increases the size and function of the thymus gland[4] (which manufactures T-cells) and therefore may be beneficial for those suffering from AIDS and other malignant diseases that suppress the immune system. It also has a positive effect on liver disorders such as cirrhosis and fatty liver, aiding detoxification by neutralizing ammonia.[5]

In a small study of older people, 17 g per day was shown to preserve lean muscle tissue, raise blood readings of insulin-like growth factor[6] (a measure of human growth hormone) and lower LDL cholesterol. It has also been shown to speed the healing of wounds, fractures and diabetes-related foot ulcers[7] and may heal and regenerate nerves.[8]

One downside to straight arginine supplementation is that it is contra-indicated in herpes and other viral infections. Sutherlandia however, seems very beneficial in these cases, being strongly anti-viral, indicating that the quantity of arginine is not enough to adversely affect such conditions or, that there are other components working to lessen this potential. Such a buffering of the downsides is often found with a whole plant herb versus a herb's isolated components thought to be the key constituents at work.


A naturally occurring sugar found in pine tree shoots, alfalfa, soybeans and other legumes. Pinitol may stimulate glucose transport into isolated muscle cells. A trade-marked product of d-pinitol called Inzitol, was shown by a study at St Johns University in New York to do just that. Other research demonstrated that a metabolite of Inzitol (a form that Inzitol takes once in the body) improved insulin resistance in polycystic ovary syndrome.[9]

In addition, the St Johns University study found Inzitol also increased glycogen formation in isolated muscle cells.[10] Glycogen is a valuable storage of glucose, which is necessary for muscle fuel, growth and recovery. This would also help glucose to be stored as ready fuel for muscles rather than stored as body fat. Nigel Gericke MD advises patients using Sutherlandia who are also on antihypertensive or on diabetic medication to have their healthcare provider monitor them closely for the possible need to reduce the dosage of such medicines.

Pinotol also seems to have clinical application in treating the wasting in cancer and AIDS patients.[11] This is significant since "it is a well established fact that anorexia and cachexia (weight loss in patients with chronic illnesses) are directly associated with survival rates in patients with HIV infection and cancer", says Alvan Fisher MD, Medical Director of the Coastal Medical/Reservoir in Providence, Rhode Island and Associative Director of the Brown University AIDS Program. "These conditions affect up to 87% of patients with malignant disease. They are involved in 80% of all cancer deaths. Cachexia is the cause of death in 22% of all cancer deaths." In a recent study of HIV patients taking highly active antiretroviral therapy, 42% experienced clinical wasting. Most wasted patients show an increase in weight within six weeks of starting Sutherlandia. Weight gains of 10-15 kg within six weeks have been documented in cancer and AIDS patients. Interestingly, weight gain is not seen in people without underlying wasting conditions. It appears mainly to assist in weight gain in patients with a catabolic (self-destructive) metabolism, not in those with a normal, anabolic metabolism. Sutherlandia's success with illness-related wasting should be of strong interest to healthcare providers using anabolic agents (to increase muscle mass) and drug appetite stimulants.


GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid) is both an amino acid and a neurotransmitter. It is a thoroughly safe nutritional relaxant and anxiolitic (that won't knock you out) that some people need to control seizures or rise above depressive feelings.[12] Low levels of GABA can cause a decrease in serotonin levels, making normal sleep difficult, and contributing to feelings of anxiety, panic, loss of control and irrational thoughts.

In cases of emotional upset and or hormonal imbalance, depression has been associated with low levels of GABA.[13] One study found that women whose hormone changes corresponded to depressive feelings had lower GABA levels than women whose moods were unaffected by menstrual changes.[13] Restoring GABA levels seems to elevate mood.

In clinical use, 2 g a day of GABA has helped to improve speech and restore memory loss in people who have had a stroke, while the same amount has been found to decrease blood sugar, and a 3 g dose appeared to reduce blood pressure.[14] This dose also had a positive overall effect on heart function.[15] Found in the leaves of Sutherlandia at about 14 mg per gram of dry weight, GABA could be the reason individuals experience relief from anxiety and stress, and elevation in mood, which is so often a critical component in any healing process.


Also found in Sutherlandia, asparagines is a non-essential amino acid that is interrelated with the amino acid aspartic acid. Low levels of Asparagine may indicate poor metabolism or synthesis of aspartic acid, which can result in the inability to properly excrete urea, the major waste product of excess dietary protein. Without proper urea excretion, a build-up of nitrogen-containing toxic metabolites may occur leading to confusion, depression, irritability and headaches.

Asparagine maintains balance in the central nervous system, providing balance between anxiety and apathy. As it converts back into aspartic acid, asparagines releases the energy the brain and nervous system use for metabolism. Because aspartic acid increases stamina, it is good for fatigue, chronic fatigue and depression, as well as increasing the production of immunoglobulins and antibodies.[16]

Other components are surely at work here to give the tremendous healing benefits that Sutherlandia seems to offer. Many other amino acids are now being isolated for example, and as the herb gains popularity, scientific studies are sure to prove Sutherlandia's many applications conclusively.


Preliminary scientific research, published peer reviewed scientific research and clinical experience suggest that key phyto- chemicals in Sutherlandia are:

  • Immunomodulatory;
  • Anti-inflammatory;
  • Vaso-dilatory;
  • Analgesic;
  • Anti-viral, fungal and bacterial;
  • Anti-cancer;
  • Inhibitors of Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF). (Excess production of TNF is known to drive the wasting process in cancer, TB and AIDS patients).

In keeping with World Health Organization guidelines of the assessment of herbal medicines, Sutherlandia is generally regarded as safe on the basis of its long history of safe use in South Africa. The only side effects known include occasional mild diarrhea and dry mouth. The only real caution is during pregnancy, as teratogenicity [foetal malformations] and abortions are reported to have occurred.[17] A detailed toxicity study in Vervet monkeys, dated April 2002 by the Medical Research Council of South Africa and the National Research Foundation, using a variety of biochemical, haematological, physiological and physical variables and using control doses of 1x, 3x and 9x dose of the equivalent recommended dose, showed no toxicity of Sutherlandia use.

While Sutherlandia is in no way meant to be portrayed as a cure-all', it certainly has a tremendous amount of anecdotal evidence and recent scientific information making this a very interesting new addition to the healthcare professional's arsenal of healing botanicals. An increasing number of western-trained doctors are using Sutherlandia in their daily practice in South Africa, with encouraging feedback.


1. Green MH. Method of treating viral infections with amino acid analogs. US Patent. 5110,600. Filed Jan 25, 1988.
2. Swaffar DSet al. Combination Therapy with 5-fluorouracil and L-Canavanine: in- vitro and in-vivo studies. Anticancer Drugs. 6(4): 586-93. 1995.
3. Anfossi G. et al. 1999; Levy B. et al. 1999.
4. Hampel G. et al. Biochemica et Biophysica Acta. 1006: 151-58. 1989.
5. Bach F et al. Prescription for Natural Healing. Avery Publishing. New York. pp45-46. 2000.
6. Hurson M et al. Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. 19(3): 227-30. 1995.
7. Steed D et al. Diabetes Care. 18(1): 39-46. 1995.
8. Cestaro B. Acta Neurological Scandinavia. 154:32-41. 1994.
9. Nestler J et al. New England Journal of Medicine. 340(17): 1314-20. 1999.
10. Raymond OS, Report on the actions of Pinitol. Internal document from Humanetics Corporation. 1999.
11. Ostlund RE and Sherman WR. Pinotol and derivatives thereof for the treatment of metabolic disorders. US Patent. 5,882,896. Filed March 4, 1996.
12. Petty F et al. Biological Psychiatry. 38(9): 578-91. 1995.
13. Halbreich U et al. American Journal of Psychiatry. 153(5): 718-20. 1996.
14. Gillis R et al. Federal Proceedings 43(1): 32-38. 1984.
15. De Feudis F. Experientia. 39: 845-49. 1983.
16. Bach F et al. Prescription for Natural Healing. Avery Publishing. New York. pp45-46. 2000.
17. Van Wyk B-E and Gericke N. People's Plants - A Guide to the Useful Plants in South Africa. Briza. Pretoria. p148. 2000.

Further Information

Further information on Sutherlandia, African Ginger for immune boosting, Warburgia as an anti-candidal and Rooibos antioxidant are available from Revital Ltd, who exclusively distribute the product to Health Foods, Pharmacies and by mail order to the general Public Tel: 0800 252 875;


  1. Moipone Seutloali said..

    Can it boost ones appetite

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About Salmaan Dalvi PhD

Salmaan Dalvi (PhD Nutritional Medicine) has been working with African herbs for the last few years and believes that the quality of Bioharmony African herbs far supersedes that of any other company from Southern Africa. He also adds "a percentage of all profits of the products go to help a leading under-privileged children's fund and to help promote sustained development of herbs and rural communities in South Africa. This makes me feel like working with this ethical set-up of Bioharmony - Foremost and Revital." Sutherlandia tablets are now available in the UK from Revital Ltd Tel: 0800 252 875 and have been successfully used to help with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in the Nutritional Salmaan Dalvi's Health Screening clinic. Dr Dalvi can be contacted on

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