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Rauwolfia serpentina is a small, woody shrub that originated in South Asia whose roots contain reserpine, a milky substance used medically for its reported sedative effects. The plant is also known as serpentwood, snakeroot and rauvolfia, among other names. The root extract is thought to have a bitter taste, and some practitioners of herbal medicine advise against using rauwolfia serpentina because of its reported side effects.
In India, rauwolfia serpentina is called the insanity herb, because it is used to treat mental disorders such as anxiety, paranoia and nervousness. It is also used as a topical medicine for snakebite and insect stings. Indian folk remedies tout the reserpine from rauwolfia serpentina as a cure for cancer and liver ailments as well, but there is no scientific proof of its efficacy for those diseases.
Its earliest use was reported in Indian medical texts dating to 600 BCE. The plant's roots were ground into a powder and made into a tea to treat hysteria and mental disorders. It was called snakeroot tea, and centuries later, Mahatma Gandhi was reported to drink it on a regular basis. It was also mixed into a paste to treat constipation and rheumatism. In the mid-1940s, American doctors began to use rauwolfia serpentina as sedative medicine to replace lobotomy surgery and electroshock therapy for mentally-ill patients.
Rauwolfia serpentina is presently approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as both a prescription pill and a liquid that can be injected—it is also permitted in the United Kingdom and Germany. In the US, the rauwolfia serpentina powder, as well as the raw root, is sold as a nutritional supplement in some health food stores and holistic pharmacies for external applications and internal use. It is also used in homeopathic medicine using extremely diluted amounts of the herb. It is not recommended as a cure for depression, and people presently on anti-depressants are strongly discouraged from taking it in any form.
There are also reported unwanted side effects, such as elevated blood pressure, dizziness and impairment of motor skills, when rauwolfia serpentina is mixed with cold medicine or alcohol. Side effects of taking it on its own include depression, weight gain and erectile dysfunction. Pregnant women or women who breast-feed should avoid the medicine, as it has been shown to pass through the system to a fetus with unknown results. A physician should always be consulted before taking any herbal medicine as part of a wellness program.
sarpagandha means Raowolfia serpentina has a variety of alkaloids so research would reveal other values.