Pau d’arco, also called Taheebo, is a famous tree that originates from the forests of South America.
Traditionally, the bark of this tree was used to reduce inflammation, help with pain, and clear up infections. It has also been used to ease arthritis symptoms and as a dye for textiles.
This article will look at pau d’arco’s benefits, as well as its safety and history.
Table of Contents
What is Pau d’arco?
The pau d’arco tree is known for its durable and pest-resistant bark.
The scientific name for pau d’arco is Tabebuia avellanedae. It is found in the Amazon rainforests and has traditional roots in many South American cultures.
Traditional accounts recommend this herb for bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections. Native peoples of South America have used pau d’arco for numerous benefits, including for wounds, sore throats, and cancer.
Contemporary research indicates that this herb may exhibit antimicrobial and anti-cancer properties. Studies also show its potential for promoting weight loss.
Pau d’arco’s main active constituents, lapachol and β-lapachone, are thought to be responsible for some of these health-supporting properties.
Health Benefits of Pau d’arco:
A combination of clinical research, traditional knowledge, as well as contemporary herbalist accounts, have observed various pau d’arco benefits.
Below are the primary health benefits of this herb and its main constituents.
1. May Have Anti-Cancer Effects
Various studies and traditional accounts suggest that pau d’arco exhibits anti-cancer properties.
Cancer occurs when cells divide uncontrollably and spread into surrounding tissues. These cells cause damage and disrupt normal organ functioning. This often causes detrimental health problems or death.
Traditional accounts suggest that pau d’arco’s main active constituents, lapachol and β-lapachone, are responsible for the bark’s anti-cancer activities.
A lab-based study discovered that pau d’arco extract inhibits the growth of breast cancer cells. The pau d’arco extract also increased the death of cancer cells, suggesting that this herb could be a potential therapy to treat cancer.
Another lab-based trial observing the effects of β-lapachone found that it helped to inhibit cancer cell activity. Researchers noted that there was no damage to healthy cells during the trial.
A third lab-based study discovered that β-lapachone, in combination with radiation therapy, causes a decrease in tumor growth and increases tumor cell death. The radiation therapy sensitized the tumor cells to the β-lapachone; therefore, these two therapies synergistically worked together to slow and decrease tumor growth.
In a review of pau d’arco, researchers noted that Tabebuia impetiginosa (a cousin and medicinal equal of Tabebuia avellanedae) demonstrates anti-cancer properties for numerous cancer types. They mention that it is essential to administer it as a decoction to extract the active constituents, lapachol and β-lapachone.
In The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety, noted herbalists Kerry Bone and Simon Mills discuss pau d’arco’s anti-cancer and anti-tumor properties. They recall accounts of pau d’arco being used for “the treatment of terminal cancer and leukemia in Brazil in the late 1960s.”
World-renowned herbalist, Rosemary Gladstar, writes that Argentinian and Brazilian doctors use pau d’arco for cancer treatment therapies and that “impressive findings have been recorded on the success of these treatments” in the US.
Summary:Lab-based research has found that pau d’arco may work to inhibit tumors and cancer growth, however, human clinical studies are needed for confirmation of these findings.
2. May Have Antimicrobial Benefits
Lab-based research and contemporary accounts suggest that pau d’arco has antimicrobial properties.
Infections result from viruses, bacteria, fungi, or other microbes infiltrating and attacking the body. Antimicrobial herbs may help reduce and eliminate invading microbes by supporting the immune response or directly inhibiting the invaders.
In a lab-based study, researchers discovered that lapachol has an antimicrobial effect on Leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease found in tropical and subtropical climates. Lapachol reduced parasitic levels internally and on the skin, comparable to the recommended pharmaceutical for this disease.
Another lab-based study found that the lapachol content in this herb exerts antibacterial activity against Staphylococcus aureus. Researchers documented that these results were dependent on lapachol’s antioxidant properties.
A lab-based trial involving Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) observed that lapachol prevented bacterial growth in MRSA-infected wounds. Researchers noted that lapachol had antibacterial activity, but did not eliminate the bacteria cells.
Respected AHG herbalist, David Hoffmann, writes that the naphthoquinones present in pau d’arco, lapachol and β-lapachone, have antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. He recommends pau d’arco powder for vaginitis.
In Pau d’Arco: Immune Power from the Rain Forest, medical writer Kenneth Jones explains that pau d’arco bark is highly effective against E. coli, Candida albicans (a yeast or fungus strain), and Staphylococcus aureus.
Herbal writers Kerry Bone and Simon Mills list pau d’arco as antibacterial, anti-parasitic, and anti-fungal.
Summary:Lab-based studies have found that pau d’arco possesses antibacterial and anti-fungal activities. Human studies are required for verification.
3. May Have Anti-Inflammatory Properties
Animal trials and modern reviews suggest that pau d’arco is beneficial for reducing inflammation and regulating the inflammatory response.
Inflammation occurs as part of the body’s immune system. This response is triggered when the body experiences trauma, infection, toxins, and physical overuse. While short-term inflammation is necessary for recovery, chronic inflammation is the body’s signal that there’s a physiological problem.
A review of pau d’arco states that a tincture from the bark can be taken internally or applied topically to reduce inflammation.
In an animal trial observing rats with edemas, lapachol reduced inflammation on and around the edema site. The researchers noted that lapachol reduced inflammation by 76% with a 100mg dose and by 85% with a 500mg dose.
Another animal study involving mice with eczema discovered that Tabetri™, a pau d’arco extract, reduced skin inflammation and irritation. The extract achieved these results by reducing and regulating the pro-inflammatory response.
A second animal study observing the effects of the pau d’arco extract Tabetri™ on osteoarthritis discovered that this pau d’arco extract helped to reduce inflammation.
Summary:Animal research indicates that pau d’arco may have anti-inflammatory effects. Clinical trials are needed to confirm these findings.
4. Other Benefits
Other purported pau d’arco health benefits include:
- May Prevent Weight Gain: In an animal study observing mice, a pau d’arco extract prevented the accumulation of fat cells and, therefore, weight gain after the mice were over-fed for 16 weeks.
- May Provide Pain Relief: An animal study involving rats with edemas found that pau d’arco bark extract reduced pain caused by edemas.
- Antioxidant Properties: A lab-based study found that lapachol’s antioxidant activity supports its antibacterial effects against Staphylococcus aureus.
Summary:Pau d’arco has been tied to a wide variety of health benefits. Human clinical trials are needed to verify these findings.
Pau d’arco Safety:
Safety Class: 1
Interaction Class: A
Pau d’arco is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the FDA.
The FDA recognizes pau d’arco as a dietary supplement under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act.
Woodworkers in close contact with the dust of this herb have reported occupational asthma and “allergic contact dermatitis,” although these cases are mild and rare, according to the Botanical Safety Handbook.
Pregnancy & Lactation:
It is not recommended to use pau d’arco during pregnancy and lactation due to limited safety data.
Standard dosing for pau d’arco is as follows:
Decoction (tea): Add 1 cup of boiling water to 2-3 teaspoons of dried bark. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. Drink 1 cup, 3x per/day.
Tincture (1:5): 1-2 mL, 4x/day.
Capsule/Supplement: 500 mg, 1-2x/day.
Liquid Extract (1:1): 1-2 mL, 3x/day.
Lapachol (active constituent) intake should not exceed 1.5 g/day as it may cause nausea and vomiting. The Botanical Safety Handbook states that “[a]n analysis of commercial pau d’arco wood and bark products [reported] that the lapachol content in the wood was 0.001%…no lapachol was identified in an aqueous extract of pau d’arco inner bark.”
Pau d’arco is not on the United Plant Saver’s “at-risk” list, implying that human activities do not impact this herb.
Although the tree can self-heal, it is essential to take a small strip of the inner tree bark so it can heal quickly. If the tree has too many “wounds,” it cannot self-heal and will die.
Proper sourcing of pau d’arco is essential as some products are a by-product of the logging industry and deforestation.
Naming & Taxonomy:
Pau d’arco’s scientific name is Tabebuia avellanedae. This herb is also commonly called “taheebo” and the “lapacho tree.”
Tabebuia avellanedae is medicinally synonymous with the species Tabebuia impetiginosa and Tabebuia ipe, and many other Tabebuia spp. have similar active constituents.
The scientific name Tabebuia comes from the indigenous Brazilian Tupi language and means “ant tree.” Native peoples use the tree’s wood to make traditional bows, giving it the name “bow tree,” or in Portuguese, “pau d’arco.”
Pau d’arco is in the Bignoniaceae (i.e. bignonias or trumpet vines) family and is considered a tropical tree. It is native to the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, where it displays its flowers in the top canopy.
Pau d’arco’s flowers are trumpet-shaped, and the tree’s outer bark is durable. The inner bark is a lighter color and more soft and moist than the outer bark. The tree can grow to be 125 feet tall.
There are around 100 Tabebuia species, and although Tabebuia avellanedae is native to South America, the species can thrive in other humid, tropical climates.
Common names of pau d’arco include: Ipé Roxo, Lapacho tree, Lapacho Colorado, Lapacho Morado, Pau d’Arco, Red Lapacho, Taheebo, Trumpet Trees, Ipé, Tajy (strength and vigor in Tupi).
Other plants in the Tabebuia species include:
- Tabebuia serratifolia
- Tabebuia impetiginosa
- Tabebuia heptaphylla
- Tabebuia ipé
- Tabebuia myrtifolia
- Tabebuia orinocensis
- Tabebuia pallida
- Tabebuia rosea
History & Traditional Use:
Pau d’arco use dates back thousands of years to the indigenous peoples of Brazil, northern Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru. These cultures use a medicinal pau d’arco preparation that potentially pre-dates the Incas and Mayas.
Along with the bark’s therapeutic use, pau d’arco is also used to dye textiles giving the fabric a yellowish color. The local South American tribes have used the tree’s wood to make efficient and durable bows for centuries.
Word of the tree’s medicinal use gained traction in the late 19th century when physician Dr. Joaquin Almeida Pinto mentioned its therapeutic properties in his notes. In the 1960s, a Brazilian news magazine called O’Cruzeiro highlighted the “miraculous” anti-cancer benefits of the bark.
The United States picked up on this news, and the use of pau d’arco spread throughout the country in the late 20th century. Pau d’arco is now widely distributed worldwide and can be found in pharmacies and stores selling herbal supplements.
Pau d’arco is considered a versatile staple for indigenous South American peoples and is now globally renowned for its medicinal qualities.
Although most existing trials have been done with lab-based models, accounts in both traditional and modern herbal medicine attest to the tree bark’s therapeutic benefits for humans.
Consult a health care professional if you’re considering taking any pau d’arco dietary supplements for medicinal use. It is important to conduct a skin patch test to check for allergies before using pau d’arco topically.
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