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The rauvolfia genus of plants contains dozens of species, but Rauvolfia serpentina is the most frequently used for medical purposes. Commonly called Indian snakeroot, the plant contains approximately 30 alkaloids, pharmacologically active plant compounds. Rauvolfia has been employed in the Indian Ayurvedic healing tradition for over 2,000 years, primarily for treating mental illness and sleep difficulties. Species of this plant have been used medicinally throughout Asia and Africa for centuries. Since the middle of the 20th century, Western medicine has used an extract from the plant to treat hypertension and certain mental illnesses.
Traditional medicinal uses of rauvolfia vary from treating poisonous snakebites to insomnia. The dried root of the plant is used in traditional healing systems and is believed to contain the most active constituents. Ayurvedic medicine has used the root to treat worms, problems with the gastrointestinal tract and infectious diseases, such as cholera and dysentery, along with insomnia and psychosis. Other traditional uses in Asia include reduction of fever, alleviation of headache, and treatment of venereal diseases and epilepsy. Simulating uterine contractions during childbirth, easing anxiety, and treating liver disorders are additional folk uses.
Modern science has studied the phytochemical constituents of rauvolfia since the middle of the 20th century. Of the alkaloids present in the plant, reserpine, yohimbine, ajmaline and others are believed to be the most pharmacologically active. Research has determined that Rauvolfia serpentina has properties useful for reducing high blood pressure, and the extract reserpine was widely used as a hypertension medication. Reserpine and other alkaloids in the plant’s root act on the central nervous system, causing its anti-hypertensive and sedative effects. Other potential benefits include its antioxidant and anti-tumor effects.
Another species, Rauvolfia vomitoria, is used in traditional African medicine. Although this species may have toxic properties, the plant has wide ranging medicinal uses. Insecticidal potions are prepared with bark and root powder to kill fleas and other pests. The plant is used to treat mental illnesses, leprosy and arthritis in regions of Africa. In addition, this plant is taken to induce vomiting and loosen the bowels.
Severe depression is the primary adverse side effect of rauvolfia, along with fatigue and impaired reaction time. It is advised that patients who are pregnant or may become pregnant and those with chronic gastrointestinal disorders not consume any products containing this plant or its extracts. Interactions with drugs and alcohol have been documented. Alkaloids in the plant may cause angina and arrhythmias if taken with certain heart medications. Interactions occur with ephedrine, propanolol, monoamine oxidase inhibitors and other medications, as well as with herbs containing glycoside compounds.