Pelargonium sidoides (Umckaloabo, ‘heavy cough’ in Zulu) is a small and humble shrub that grows abundantly in the sunwarmed, stony soil of the South African Eastern Cape, Lesotho, Free State and southern and southwestern Gauteng. Known locally by its common name, African Geranium, it can be found nestled beneath tall grasses and aromatic floral neighbours on coastal slopes. This small indigenous herb has soft, velvety textured grey-green leaves and dark magenta coloured flowers. This insignificant looking plant however contains a treasure trove of medicinal compounds and has been part of local healing practices for millennia. Umckaloabo is an example of nature’s immune boosting and pathogen fighting power.
The original hunter gatherer inhabitants of Southern Africa, the Koi-San, knew of this herb and used it for the treatment of diarrhoea and dysentery. Knowledge of the small bush later fell into the hands of the Cape Dutch colonists, who christened it Rooirabas, perhaps for its red tinted tuberous roots. Herdsmen dubbed the plant “Kalverbossie”, meaning ‘calf bush’ and used the woody twisted underground rhizomes to treat stomach complaints in their animals. It served in Cape herbal medicine as a tonic for weakness, fatigue and in the treatment of gonorrhoea.
The ethnobotanical potential of Umckaloabo was brought to Europe in the early 1900’s after a young explorer called Charles Henry Stevens was treated in South Africa for his pulmonary tuberculosis by a local healer. A bitter tea made of the roots of the plant drove his illness into remission. He then used the Umckaloabo herb to develop “Stevens’ Consumption Cure” and marketed it in England.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s, well after Steven’s death that the plant ingredient of his remedy was identified as Pelargonium. In the 1990’s, a German drug manufacturer, Schwabe Pharmaceuticals, developed a highly popular herbal cough syrup called “Umckaloabo” containing liquid extract Eps7630. In 2006, this company sold more than EUR 80 million of this pelargonium-based product. The drug is listed in the European and African Pharmacopoeia and has European approval as a herbal medicine and food supplement. Schwabe’s withdrawal of the patents for this medicine in 2010 has allowed other pharmaceutical companies to follow suit and explore the potential of this natural remedy.
Umckaloabo acts by preventing bacteria from sticking to the cells lining the respiratory system and by stimulating white blood cells to attack and destroy these invading bacteria. The chemicals contained in this medicine also help to support the immune system by producing specific proteins, called defensins, to protect cells from invasion. The antiviral properties of Umckaloabo lies in its ability to stimulate the body’s cells to produce interferon, a chemical that ‘interferes’ with virus replication. Its antibacterial effect is attributed to chemicals in the extract causing the tiny hair-like projections which line our respiratory tract, called cilia, to beat faster and to expel mucous. In addition, chemicals found in the plant have a mucolytic effect, helping to dissolve thick mucus in the airways.
There is no cure for the common cold, since it is spread by a virus, but Umckaloabo has been proven to aid healing. This herbal medicine has been shown to be safe and effective and may form an important alternative to antibiotics.
Many pharmaceutical companies use ethanol to extract active ingredients from the pelargonium root. These extracts have proven effective for the treatment of respiratory tract infections including bronchitis, tonsillitis, sinusitis and the common cold. Clinical trials have shown the medicine to reduce both the duration and severity of these illnesses.
One such preparation, Eps7630, prepared by Schwabe Pharmaceuticals has been the subject of over 20 clinical studies, involving 9000 people.
Pelargonium’s success as a cold and flu buster is unsurprising as over half of general practitioner’s visits involve patients complaining of upper respiratory tract infections. Adults can suffer from as many as four colds annually and young children get up to 12 times per year.
It is the single largest cause of work and school related absenteeism. Antibiotics are generally considered to be ineffective for most cases of colds and flu, yet treatment is clearly needed.
The dried rhizomes of Umckaloabo contain a host of chemical compounds. Among these are polyphenols including gallic acids. Polyphenols are a group of plant chemicals which give foods a bitter taste, represent potent plant defence chemicals and often act as powerful antioxidants. Root extracts are rich in coumarins, including a unique phytochemical called ‘umckalin’. In addition, the remedy contains powerful flavonoids including quercetin, catechin and gallocatechin. These plant nutrients are responsible for vivid colour in fruit and vegetables and have anti-inflammatory and immune boosting properties.
Traditional Herbal Medicinal Product for the Symptomatic Treatment of the Common Cold
Prevents bacteria from sticking to the cells lining the respiratory system
Causes cilia to beat faster and to expel mucous & bacteria
Stimulates white blood cells to attack and destroy bacteria
Immune system support by producing defensins to protect cells
Produces interferon that ‘interferes’ with virus replication
Mucolytic effect helps to dissolve thick mucus in airways
COLDS (accute, self-limited viral infection causing upper respiratory symptoms (ie cough, sore throat, etc)
COUGHS (sudden forceful expulsion of air from the lungs to clear airways and to protect the lungs from particles that have been inhaled)
BRONCHITIS (inflammation of the tracheobronchial tree, commonly following a URI, the cause is almost always a viral infection)
PHARYNGITIS (inflammation of the throat which causes pain and a sensation of scratchiness in the region of the throat, as well as difficulty swallowing)
PNEUMONIA (acute inflammation of the lungs caused by infection)
RHINITIS (inflammation of the nasal mucous membrane)
LARYNGITIS (inflammation of the voice box)
SINUSITIS (inflammation of the sinuses, most commonly caused by a viral or bacterial infection or by an allergy)
ALLERGIC ASTHMA (type I reactions underlie atopic disorders develop < 1h after exposure to antigen)