Chaparral: FDA Ban?
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Charlie Laborte
Posted on: June 15, 1998

Chaparral has been extremely helpful for my mom while she was in her last days of cancer back in l996. I believe in it’s healing powers and very upset that the FDA is "in fear of" another plant. Why is that and why don’t we hear more positive things about chaparral? I do notice the restrictions they put on it.

Chaparral (Larrea tridentata) is a native plant of the dry lands of the American Southwest. It produces a black, sooty resin that inspired its other common name, ‘creosotebush’. Its drought-resistant property means that it is easy to overwater, so extra care is needed to ensure that soil drains well. It is otherwise easy to grow from seeds. It is a perennial hardy to zones 7-9.

A tea made from the stems and leaves is an old folk remedy for leukemia and cancer of the kidney, liver, lung, and stomach. There are many references to its use by American Indians for a wide range of ailments, but cancer was not specifically mentioned in any references we checked. That may be because cancer was not understood in the same way that the disease is understood today.

Michael Tierra, in his book, "The Way with Herbs" (available from Richters), recommends chaparral as one of the best herbal antibiotics against bacteria, viruses and other parasites. He attributes its antibiotic effect to nordihydroguaiaretic acid (NDGA). NDGA was once used as a food additive in the baking industry for its powerful antioxidant properties. Tierra claims that NDGA has antitumour properties which he says accounts for its use for cancer; however, others suggest that any antitumour is unproved.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) removed NDGA from its GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) list in 1970 because of reports that the compound can cause lesions in the lymph nodes and kidneys.

In 1992, the FDA issued a warning that use of chaparral has been associated with liver damage. The FDA suggested that people using chaparral should stop and see a physician about having liver function tests done.

At the time, FDA did not have any evidence that any liver damage was permanent. There were only a limited number of cases: two cases where the liver function returned to normal after chaparral use was stopped; and another who was gravely ill at the time of the warning.

The herb industry agreed to voluntarily remove chaparral from the market. Now, it is difficult to find chaparral dried herb.

Does chaparral have a role to play in modern herbal medicine? Perhaps. The situation with chaparral bears some resemblance to the situation with comfrey. Comfrey was long used for acute illnesses not chronic, long term problems. However, the pattern of consumption shifted from occasional use for healing broken bones, hard-to-heal wounds and skin disease to chronic use as a vitamin and protein supplement and a cure for long term diseases such as ulcers. With daily internal use of comfrey reports of liver damage began to surface in the 1970s and 1980s. We wonder if chaparral has suffered a similar fate as people began to take it daily for chronic arthritis and cancer, neither of which is a traditional use by the native Indians.

Back to Medicinal Herbs and Their Uses | Q & A Index

Copyright © 1997-2023 Otto Richter and Sons Limited. All rights reserved.