What is Cinchona?
Most everybody will be familiar with quinine as one of the main drugs used to treat malaria but how many people know where quinine came from in the first place? The answer lies in an accidental discovery made by a Jesuit Priest working as an apothecary in Peru during the early 17th century.
The Priest noted that the bark of the cinchona tree had a very beneficial effect on fevers in the indigenous population. The local Quechua people had long been using the bark of the tree to treat fever and relieve shivering.
Shivering is one of the major symptoms of the deadly mosquito borne illness we now know as malaria. Doctors in Europe had long been looking for a cure for the disease without luck. Based on observations in the local people, the Spanish colonists decided to give their new found remedy a try.
The find was even more fortunate considering that the shivering in the locals was completely unrelated to malaria since the disease was note native to South America. Knowing this to be the case, there was little reason to expect the cinchona bark treatment to work on malaria. Incredibly however, the bark had an amazing effect both in terms of malaria prevention and cure.
The Spanish quickly realized that they were onto a very profitable thing and proceeded to build a huge industry around the tree. Large scale logging began and fleets of boats transported the bark across to Europe to be sold.
A huge number of people were saved from the killer disease. Doctors who were skeptical at the outset were forced to change their mind when confronted by the overwhelming evidence of its effects. Not only did cinchona bark save the lives of people living in Europe, it also allowed people to survive in parts of Asia and Africa where the disease was even more rampant.
Although the Spanish tried desperately to hang onto their monopoly, eventually British and Dutch explorers were able to smuggle the trees away from South America. This allowed many countries to start cultivating their own cinchona.
Quinine was eventually isolated from the bark in 1820 and synthetic quinine was produced.
These days, synthetic quinine is no longer the first-line of treatment for the disease but it is still sometimes used when artemisin (the most effective medicine for malaria) is not available.
While its antimalarial properties remain the tree’s best-known benefit, the cinchona tree may also have a number of other medicinal uses. These include treating fevers, boosting digestive health, anemia, varicose veins and irregular heartbeat. However, there are a number of potentially serious side effects from its use.
There are at least 38 species of cinchona belonging to the genus. They are native to the Andes mountain area of South America but are now cultivated in many other parts of the world. Three of the species are known to contain quinine alkaloids in a sufficiently high concentration to cultivate commercially for medicinal use. Those three species are Cinchona officinalis, Cinchona ledgeriana and Cinchona succirubra.
All species of the cinchona tree are evergreen. They have dark green, waxy leaves similar to other members of the Rubiacea family like coffee plants. They can be either trees or shrubs and grow up to a height of 15 meters. The trees produce flowers which vary in color from red and pink to white depending on the exact species.
Only the bark of the trees is used to make herbal medicines and commercial drugs. The bark gets stripped from the trees before being dried and ground to make a powder. In commercial cinchona plantations, the trees which get stripped are allowed to regrow some bark before being harvested again and finally cut down.
Health Benefits of Cinchona
before the advent of synthetic quinine, cinchona bark was used to treat malaria. Although both the natural quinine and the synthetic variety were effective, quinine is no longer the recommended treatment for malaria. These days artemisin is considered to be the more effective malaria remedy.
Cinchona is however used to treat a range of other conditions.
The bark is used to improve digestive health in general and to help treat various common digestive complaints. It helps promote the production and release of digestive fluids while it is also used to treat bloating, gas and upset stomach.
The quinidine found in cinchona bark is useful for treating heart palpitations and arrhythmia.
Cinchona is also used as an ingredient in eye lotions to help kill germs and numb pain. It has also been used to stimulate hair growth.
Cinchona is also still used to flavor tonic water with that familiar bitter flavoring.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Cinchona the same as quinine?
The bark of the cinchona tree contains a number of useful alkaloids including quinidine and quinine. Quinine is still used to treat malaria but these days, a synthetic version of quinine is used. nevertheless, the bark remains an economically viable source of the medicine.
What tree bark does quinine come from?
Before it was artificially synthesized, quinine was derived from cinchona tree bark. The bark was dried and then ground down into a powder before being mixed into a drink such as wine and consumed. The alkaloid – quinine was first isolated from the bark in 1820.
Where does Cinchona grow?
The cinchona trees are native to the Andes area of South America. They are grown in various parts of South America but also cultivated in Indonesia and the Congo.
Side Effects and Precautions
- Cinchona is considered safe when used to flavor tonic water and other beverages.
- Cinchona may also be safe when taken as a medicine orally but only when proper care is taken. Products containing cinchona bark must carry a warning to discontinue id certain side effects occur. These include deafness, ringing in the ears, rashes or visual disturbance.
- Quinine, which cinchona contains, has been banned by the FDA in the US as a treatment for muscle cramps because of the potential side effects.
- In high doses, cinchona is definitely not safe and can even prove deadly. Symptoms of cinchona overdose include nausea, headaches, diarrhea, ringing in the ears and visual disturbance. Other known side effects from cinchona include hives, allergic reactions and fever.
- Pregnant women should avoid using cinchona. There is also evidence that it is unsafe for women who are breast-feeding.
- Cinchona may increase a person’s risk of bleeding and should not be used if you suffer from ulcers.
- The alkaloids in cinchona may cause an irregular heartbeat. People with certain heart conditions should avoid using cinchona because it may make the condition worse.
- People with a condition called myasthenia gravis should avoid using cinchona. The herb might cause weaknesses in the muscles and make the condition even worse.
- Because cinchona can slow down blood clotting, it may increase the risk of surgical bleeding. People who are planning to have surgery in the near future should avoid using the herb at least two weeks prior to surgery.
- Cinchona is a tree that is native to South America. The bark is used to make medicine.
- Cinchona contains an alkaloid called quinine which was used to treat malaria.
- These days, malaria is rarely treated with quinine but cinchona bark is still used for a variety of conditions including digestive complaints, muscle cramps and hemorrhoids.
- There are a number of potential side effects from using cinchona especially in large doses.
- Please speak to your doctor before using this or any other herbal remedy.