Calamus

Common name: Calamus
Other names: Sweet flag, bach, ugragandha, Venus plant
Latin name: Acorus calamus
Affinities: Nervous system, digestive system
Actions: Nervine tonic, medhya rasayana, nootropic, digestive bitter, antispasmodic, carminative, anthelmintic, analgesic, antidepressant, anticonvulsive
Specific indications: Cognitive problems, weak appetite, seizures, sharp shooting pains, depression, flatulence, gas, bloating, nerve damage
Diseases: ADD(3), ADHD(3), depression(3), epilepsy(2), neuralgia(2)
Parts used: Roots
Energetics: Warming, drying

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Characteristics: Calamus is native to central Asia and eastern Europe, it is indigenous to the marshes of the mountains in India (Rajput et al., 2014). It is widely cultivated in India up to an altitude of 2200m. It is a semi-evergreen perennial with long, erect, narrow leaves (Motley, 1994), and can grow up to two meters high (Rajput et al., 2014). It has an extensive underground root system. Internally, the roots are pale pink and pleasant smelling.

History: Calamus has a deep history of human use and one of the earliest mentions of calamus is in the Bible, when God told Moses to make a holy oil to anoint various ritualist items (Motley, 1994). It was also one of the plants said to grow in the gardens of Solomon. The remains of calamus were reportedly found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt. Acorus is derived from the Greek work ‘acoron’, and acorus calamus may well have been used by the ancient Greek physician, Dioscorides, in treating eye inflammation.

Calamus has been an integral part of ancient Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for hundreds of years (Rajput et al., 2014). In the Vedic times, it was used as a rasayana or ‘rejuvenator’ of the brain and nervous system. The Charaka Samhita spoke of it as a substance that removes fat from the body, restores consciousness, and promotes longevity. It also has a deep history of use in cultures outside China and India with folk medicine in America and Indonesia using it for gastrointestinal disorders such as gas, bloating, and colic. Aphrodisiac properties were associated with the rhizosome by the ancient Arabic and Roman cultures, and thus the name ‘Venus plant’ was given to it. The 17th century English herbalist, Nicholas Culpepper recommended calamus as a ‘strengthener of the stomach and the head’ (Breverton, 2013).

Current applications: Calamus is a central herb in Ayurveda, they use it (tincture or externally applied oil) in the treatment of appetite loss, chest pain, bronchitis, colic, diarrhoea, cramps, digestive disorders, gas, flatulence, nervous disorders, rheumatism, vascular disorders, and as a sedative (Rajput et al., 2014). Alongside gotu kola and ashwagandha it is indicated for disorders of the nervous system, including neuropathic pain (Frawley, 2000), it is applied with ashwagandha for epilepsy. It is a specific for depression (Frawley, 2000).

Science: Studies in vitro have shown calamus extracts to inhibit inflammatory pathways in line with its traditional role in treating inflammatory disorders (Mehrotra et al, 2003). Animal studies have shown it may have a role in treating nerve pain (Muthuraman et al., 2011), partial paralysis (Shukla et al., 2002), and seizures (Jayaraman et al., 2010). These findings are in good agreement with its description as a ‘rejuvenator’ of the brain and nervous system in Ayurveda. However, there are no human double blind or alternative medicine controlled studies, currently.

Safety: There are some concerns long term intake of calamus may cause tumours as it contains β-asarone (Yao et al., 2008). These however are theoretical concerns based on experiments performed with purified β-asarone on animals. There have been no concerns of safety of calamus, despite thousands of years of traditional use throughout the civilised world (Rajput et al., 2014), some studies in fact suggest anti-cancer activity of calamus extracts. This so far appears to be a reductionist misrepresentation of plants as reflecting the out of context activity of a single molecule. I recommend avoiding use in pregnant and breast feeding women due to lack of data.

Dosage: Dose of tincture is 5-30 drops 3-4 times daily.

Scientific Summary

Research on models

Nerve pain: A study examining sciatica in experimental models found that calamus attenuated neuropathy of the sciatic nerve (Muthuraman et al., 2011). The authors attributed this to anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective properties the herb possesses. A similar study released about the same time (Muthuraman et al., 2011), observed similar effects.

Paralysis: One study found that in rats treated with calamus extract had a lower incidence of acrylamide induced paralysis (18%) compared with those treated just with acrylamide alone, they also observed partial recovery of neurobehavioral changes (Shukla et al., 2002).

Seizures: A study observed anti-seizure activity in mice treated with pentylenetetrazole, an agent known to cause seizures, thus providing preliminary support calamus may be used to treat epilepsy (Jayaraman et al., 2010).

Immunomodulatory activity: One study found that calamus inhibited production of nitric oxide, interleukin-2, and tumor necrosis factor-α in human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (Mehrotra et al, 2003).

References:

Breverton, Terry. Breverton’s Complete Herbal. Quercus, 2013.

Frawley, David. Ayurvedic healing: a comprehensive guide. Lotus Press, 2000.

Jayaraman, R., T. Anitha, and Vishal D. Joshi. “Analgesic and anticonvulsant effects of Acorus calamus roots in mice.” Int J Pharm Tech Res 2.1 (2010): 552-555.

Mehrotra, S., et al. “Anticellular and immunosuppressive properties of ethanolic extract of Acorus calamus rhizome.” International immunopharmacology 3.1 (2003): 53-61.

Motley, Timothy J. “The ethnobotany of sweet flag, Acorus calamus (Araceae).” Economic Botany 48.4 (1994): 397-412.

Muthuraman, Arunachalam, and Nirmal Singh. “Attenuating effect of Acorus calamus extract in chronic constriction injury induced neuropathic pain in rats: an evidence of anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective and calcium inhibitory effects.” BMC complementary and alternative medicine 11.1 (2011): 24.

Muthuraman, Arunachalam, Nirmal Singh, and Amteshwar Singh Jaggi. “Protective effect of Acorus calamus L. in rat model of vincristine induced painful neuropathy: an evidence of anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative activity.” Food and chemical toxicology 49.10 (2011): 2557-2563.

Rajput, Sandeep B., Madan B. Tonge, and S. Mohan Karuppayil. “An overview on traditional uses and pharmacological profile of Acorus calamus Linn.(Sweet flag) and other Acorus species.” Phytomedicine 21.3 (2014): 268-276.

Shukla, Pradeep K., et al. “Protective effect of Acorus calamus against acrylamide induced neurotoxicity.” Phytotherapy research 16.3 (2002): 256-260.

Shukla, Pradeep K., et al. “Protective effect of Acorus calamus against acrylamide induced neurotoxicity.” Phytotherapy research 16.3 (2002): 256-260.

Yao, Yingjuan, et al. “Isolation and characterization of insecticidal activity of (Z)‐asarone from Acorus calamus L.” Insect Science 15.3 (2008): 229-236.