TCM’s thunder god vine is packed with unique health benefits, just don’t go overboard

Thunder god vine (Tripterygium wilfordii) is a medicinal plant that grows in the eastern and southern parts of China. Known locally as lei gong teng, it is used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to address autoimmune disorders. According to studies, thunder god vine can suppress the immune system, prevent tumor growth and reduce pain and inflammation. This is why it is commonly used to treat inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

In an article published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, researchers from the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine evaluated the safety of thunder god vine preparations by looking into the incidence rate of nephrotoxicity associated with their use. Nephrotoxicity is often caused by exposure to harmful drugs or toxins, which can damage the kidneys and impair kidney function. However, thunder god vine preparations are approved for use by the China Food and Drug Administration.

To determine their clinical safety, the researchers searched several databases for articles that reported on the nephrotoxicity of thunder god vine preparations. They found 36 studies involving a total of 2,017 participants and used data from them for their meta-analysis.

The researchers found that the nephrotoxicity of thunder god vine is a little over five percent. Subgroup analysis revealed that possible risk factors, such as disease type, combined medication, treatment duration and study design, had no influence on the incidence of nephrotoxicity. But the researchers acknowledged that this may be an overestimation as their meta-analysis was limited by the scarcity of research articles and other methodological shortcomings. Despite this, the results of previous studies all agree that thunder god vine is effective in alleviating symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.


The clinical applications of thunder god vine

Thunder god vine is a well-known and widely used herb in TCM. It is used to treat a wide spectrum of autoimmune and inflammatory disorders, such as ankylosing spondylitis, nephrotic syndrome, systemic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis. According to studies, thunder god vine is rich in beneficial compounds with anti-inflammatory, immunodepressant, anti-tumor, anti-fertility and cartilage-protective properties. In fact, the multiglycosides derived from this herb are sold in China as over-the-counter medicine for autoimmune diseases, particularly rheumatoid arthritis.

A review published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine evaluated the safety and efficacy of thunder god vine preparations for the management of rheumatoid arthritis. Chinese researchers reported that, besides decreasing markers associated with inflammation, thunder god vine also reduced the risk of adverse events. The herb also proved more effective in alleviating rheumatoid arthritis symptoms than conventional Western medicine and Chinese patent medicines. In terms of safety, thunder god vine exihibited relatively low toxicity.

Two separate studies also reported similar results when they compared thunder god vine with conventional drugs. In one of the studies, American researchers found that rheumatoid arthritis patients responded better to thunder god vine treatment than to sulfasalazine. Sulfasalazine is a drug that helps reduce joint pain and prevents further joint damage. Meanwhile, in the other study, Chinese researchers found that the combination of thunder god vine and methotrexate — one of the most effective medications for rheumatoid arthritis — induced the best response in patients, suggesting that thunder god vine can also be used as a complementary medicine.

Besides rheumatoid arthritis, thunder god vine can also be used to treat cancer. Studies show that the herb contains plenty of terpenoids — plant lipids with antioxidant properties — most notably a compound called triptolide. Triptolide is an anti-cancer agent that can induce apoptosis in human cancer cell lines. Several studies have found that it can prevent the development of tumors in animal models of breast cancer. Triptolide has recently entered Phase I clinical trials as a potential chemotherapeutic agent for the treatment of solid tumors.

While thunder god vine has many therapeutic properties and is generally considered safe to use, scientists still recommend caution when using it. The root of thunder god vine may cause side effects like upset stomach, skin reactions and temporary infertility. The leaves and flowers of this plant are also highly toxic, so use only preparations made by a certified TCM practitioner or herbalist.

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