Cistanche is a plant with a yellow flower with health benefits

Cistanche Benefits: Overview, Uses, and More

It's an exotic plant—technically, a perennial parasitic herb—that you can find in desert environments. With its bright yellow blooms and rugged shape, it almost looks like a pineapple that got...confused.

But cistanche is more than something pretty to look at. This herb has a long history of use in traditional Chinese regimens and has grown in popularity recently as a dietary supplement. So what is cistanche, exactly? And why might you want to supplement with the extract of this funky-looking plant?

What is cistanche?

Cistanche, also called Rou Cong-Rong in Chinese, is an endangered wild desert plant. You can mainly find this herb in arid regions of northwestern China. And, yes, it's true that it's a parasitic plant! This sounds like a bad thing, but it's only because Cistanche tubulosa gets the nutrients and water it needs from whatever host plant it becomes a parasite of…and those, in turn, can get passed along to you.

There are many different species of cistanche: Cistanche deserticola, Cistanche tubulosa, Cistanche sinensis, and Cistanche ambigua are among the ones used most often for their health benefits. While they share many similarities, Cistanche tubulosa is one of the most studied. So is Cistanche deserticola (but it's an endangered plant, which is why many cistanche supplement manufacturers do not use Cistanche deserticola).

Cistanche contains many bioactive compounds, including phenylethanoid glycosides and lignans. One of the main phenylethanoid glycosides is echinacoside.

Researchers have learned how to harvest the healthy compounds from the plant so that it can be used in a variety of health-promoting ways. In traditional Chinese regimens, the herb is applied as a tonic or is included as one nutrient in a formula. These traditional remedies aside, cistanche has applications in modern science as well—a standardized extract of cistanche may help support your health in numerous ways.

Health benefits of cistanche

Now, let's get into the specific health benefits of this gift from Mother Nature. Please note that most of cistanche's demonstrated benefits are preclinical.

1. Cistanche could support healthy aging

Preliminary research tells us that the extract from the cistanche plant could improve your ability to learn and memorize things, support you as you age, and even potentially help prolong your lifespan. It could support your cognitive function and keep your brain nice and sharp as you collect more years, too!

Furthermore, as your body gets older, it gets harder for it to fight off potential immune challenges. Cistanche extract might help make it easier for your immune system to do its job, keeping you feeling young and healthy.

2. Cistanche supports optimal immune function

Preclinical research tells us that cistanche can support youthful immune function and decrease cytokines. In other words, it has immunomodulating effects and antioxidant effects. But what does that mean, exactly?

Well, as we age, our immune systems need support to protect us from possible immune challenges. We don't make as many antibodies (which are like little soldiers that keep us safe) as when we were younger.

How can cistanche help support against age-related decline of your immune response? Cistanche can increase the natural "killer" cells (also called NK cells) in your body, which means they'll defend you against threats. In addition, it might increase the production of T cells and B cells which are an important part of your arsenal. The herb encourages a healthy inflammatory response and supports against cytokine interleukin-6.

All of this means that cistanche extract can help support your immune system!

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3. The extract of cistanche may be good for bone health

You probably don't need us to tell you that as we age, our bones also need more support, particularly their bone mineral density. But experimental research has shown that cistanche might help keep your bone tissue healthy and strong over time.

In fact, in one fascinating study with rats, those that were treated with cistanche herb extract exhibited enhanced bone mineral density and bone mineral content (plus other benefits) compared to the other group.

Other cistanche benefits

There certainly may be other reasons beyond these to supplement with cistanche. For instance, cistanche can encourage liver health, may help support already-healthy glucose metabolism, and could support physical function. Research is ongoing.

This list of health benefits isn't exhaustive, but it hopefully gives you a good idea of why taking a cistanche extract supplement can be so great for your body.

Cistanche vs. Ginseng

Some people refer to cistanche as the "ginseng of the desert," due to the benefits it provides. (Fun fact: Ginseng comes from the root of plants that belong in the genus Panax. It's most commonly found in North America and the northern part of eastern Asia—think Korea, Bhutan, and the eastern region of Siberia.)

While both herbs support wellness in a variety of important ways and have roots in Chinese practice, they are not the same.

How does cistanche work?

Cistanche is able to work its magic in many ways. The extract is thought to help keep your cells strong, healthy, and ready to do their jobs.

Then there's the fact that cistanche has immunomodulation properties. This essentially means that the herb helps your immune system run optimally.

Finally, the herb has antioxidant properties, protecting you from free radicals, which can have an impact on your cells.

What is the best form of cistanche?

Standardized cistanche is the most reliable way to get a studied dose of cistanche. Most commonly, cistanche supplements come in capsule form. However, you can also find them as a powder that you mix into a liquid and drink.

While it's typically the stem of the plant that's used to make supplements, the leaves can also be utilized. Note that various parts of the plant may have varying levels of phenylethanoid glycosides and other bioactives.

Amazingly, there are over 20 species of cistanche! Some have been studied more than others. For example, Cistanche tubulosa is well-studied and often makes a reliable extract ingredient in dietary supplements (like ours!).

How to take cistanche

You should take cistanche according to the product label instructions, with food or as recommended by your healthcare provider. Again, your best bet is to choose standardized cistanche. Do not exceed the recommended dose of Cistanche tubulosa extract (or any cistanche supplement for that matter!). Look for a supplement that is gluten-free, vegetarian, and non-GMO.

Could a Cistanche tubulosa extract supplement be the right fit for you? Before trying any new dietary supplement, speak with your healthcare provider and find out if this "ginseng of the desert" is a good addition to your other healthy habits.

About the Author: Megan Grant has a degree in communications from University of Michigan. She has been writing professionally for 15 years, with a focus on nutrition, fitness, and general health. A lifelong competitive athlete, she's fascinated by how the human body responds to food and movement.

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