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What Are the Medical Uses of Taxus Baccata?

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  • Written By: Dan Harkins
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 08 August 2014
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The yew, or Taxus baccata, has been viewed as a poisonous and mystical tree throughout human civilization. Though some ancient cultures have used the bark and spiny leaves of this evergreen conifer for several medicinal remedies, its benefits were largely overlooked by mainstream medical institutions until recent generations due to its highly toxic nature. Much of the focus in the 21st century regarding the yew tree concerns a chemical derived from its bark called taxine — the precursor to potent chemotherapy drugs like paclitaxel and docetaxel.

Perhaps the most notable medical use for Taxus baccata is the discovery of its anti-cancerous qualities, particularly in treating cancers of the ovaries and breasts. Though the bark of the tree has been distilled in order to produce taxine and its chemotherapy byproducts, such as docetaxel, many environmentalists lament the amount of yew bark needed for just one patient's dose. The yew tree is not in danger of extinction, but as of 2011 this could result from the increased demand for the bark.

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According to the U.K. nonprofit Plants For a Future (PFAF), which features Taxus baccata in its online medicinal plant database, the yew tree has been used in Indian Ayurveda and Native American folk remedies for centuries. Herbalist catalogs describing those traditions credit the tree with various medicinal strengths. As seen in these catalogs, all but the trees' fruits have been used as a laxative to treat irritable bowel syndrome, as a diaphoretic to quell excessive sweating, as a treatment for respiratory ailments, and as a cardiotonic to strengthen heart function. PFAF also found reference to the drug in uses for treating conditions like indigestion, joint pain, epilepsy and even hiccups.

These medical uses should be considered suspect, however, due to the extremely toxic nature of all parts of Taxus baccata — except for the fruits. Even herbalists recommend consulting a doctor first. This is due to several suicides and accidental deaths being registered around the globe as a result of yew ingestion.

According to a 2010 study by the Italian Bergamo Poison Control Center, published online by the National Institutes of Health, this tree's leaves and bark will alter sodium and calcium channels in the bloodstream, causing symptoms like nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, cardiac arrest and eventual death. The study concluded, however, that clinical treatments, such as aortic ballooning, heart medication, pacemakers and even life support, can save the life of those who have consumed a lethal dose.

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Discuss this Article

SZapper
Post 6

I definitely do not think that any derivative of the yew tree should be available for sale over the counter. It sounds pretty dangerous to me. If people are still dying of accidental over-ingestion, obviously the use of this substance should be regulated!

It sounds like the main benefit of this tree is in treating cancer anyway, which you need a doctors assistance for. Pretty much all of the other health benefits of the yew tree can be achieved with other (less toxic) substances.

Monika
Post 5

@JessicaLynn - Well, hopefully someone will channel that environmental angst into finding a way to synthesize the cancer treating compound found in taxus baccata. That would be the sensible thing to do.

Anyway, I have to wonder how ancient cultures figured out how to use this tree for its medicinal properties. I mean, it's highly poisonous. So if you use too much, you'll die! But I suppose if you use the right amount, it has a bunch of medicinal benefits. There's definitely a fine line to walk when it comes to using the yew tree as medicine!

JessicaLynn
Post 4

@ysmina - I don't mean to nit pick, but the morning after pill most certainly does not cause abortion. It prevents a woman from getting pregnant in the first place.

Anyway, I find it a little ridiculous that some environmentalists are worried that it takes so much yew tree bark to treat a cancer patient. They should be rejoicing that a yew tree might be able to save someone. We can always plant more yew trees! I'm sure if doctors start widely using this treatment, many more yew trees will be planted in anticipation of need.

ysmina
Post 3

@simrin-- Indians, Chinese and Japanese are not the only ones who use Taxus baccata medicinally. Native Americans have also been using the plants for hundreds of years for various ailments. They used to use the fruits as a laxative and cough suppressant, as well as a contraceptive. They could induce abortion by causing menstruation much like the 'morning after pill' that is used today.

They would also make extracts of the tree to treat more serious conditions like the flu and arthritis.

candyquilt
Post 2

@simrin-- As far as I know, the fruits of Taxus baccata are not poisonous (not the N. American, European and Japanese species anyway). And most cultures who have benefited and who continue to benefit from Taxus Baccata use the fruits, not any other part of the tree.

The fruits are said to have laxative and diuretic properties and are probably used most commonly for this reason.

I have no idea how the rest of the tree is used for medical reasons by homeopathy practitioners. The anti-cancer properties are found in the bark, which is poisonous unlike the fruit. So unless it is made into medication in laboratories by medical professionals, it's not safe to consume it in any way.

Plus, there are more than 3 types of Taxus Baccata and while one species' fruits might not be poisonous, another one could be. I've only heard that some animals like deer have been seen feeding on its fruits in North America without getting sick. But there is no consensus or guarantee for human consumption.

SteamLouis
Post 1

That's interesting! I've always known that yew tree is poisonous since I have a yew tree bonsai at home. When I saw it at a nursery, I just loved it and decided to buy it. The nursery worker told me that I have to be very careful since it's poisonous. I never handle it without gloves and I don't let any of my pets get near it.

I had no idea that yew actually has medicinal properties though. I think that quite a few poisonous plants do. It must be God's joke on us though because we have to figure out how to reap the benefits without getting poisoned.

How exactly are the medicines from yew obtained? What kind of a process does it go through?

I know that in places like India and China, people still largely rely on herbal remedies. And if they use yew regularly, they must have figured out a way to get rid of its toxicity, right?

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