Suma root is an herbaceous vine commonly found in Brazil and other parts of South America. It’s commonly called Brazilian ginseng, suma powder, and the term ginseng can generically refer to suma root as well. The scientific name for the most commonly studied form of suma root is Pfaffia paniculata, although any plant with the prefix Pfaffia is a ginseng/suma root type of plant.
Its Purported Benefits:
The rap on suma root is that it’s been used by native americans and other indigenous peoples in the America’s for hundreds of years to treat illness, improve immunity and hormonal balance, and increase the body’s self-healing abilities. It’s been purported to have cancer-fighting and immuno-stimulating effects.
The Scientific Consensus on Its Purported Benefits:
Research done on the healing effects of suma root suggest that it has mild effects on your body’s adoptogenic abilities and immune system functioning.
For the most part though, the total amount of research done on suma root is scant compared to other popular medicinal herbs and plants like green tea, garlic, or spinach. For example, a search in PubMed for “Brazilian Ginseng” only returns 13 studies, whereas a search for “garlic” returns 3,628. This means any “conclusions” drawn about the health benefits of suma root should be accepted with a healthy dose of doubt because the general nature of these things is that reams of research need to come in over many years from many different angles before people can conclude anything.
So with that said, what’s been studied so far?
Oxidation and Cell Growth
A number of studies conducted with mice demonstrated an ability for suma root (Pfaffia paniculata) to inhibit unhealthy cell growth in the liver. Most of these studies were conducted at the University of Sao Paolo between 2004-2009 and the results were fairly consistent: in vitro, mouse cells treated with brazilian ginseng extract showed slower cell growth and an increased rate of apoptosis (“cell death”). However, the mechanism for how this works is still largely unknown. When discussing the results, the authors were always careful to make a particular message clear:
These results indicate an antiangiogenic effect of this extract. The mechanisms of this antiangiogenic activity of P. paniculata should be further investigated.
That was from the abstract of this paper. In another paper the same authors suggest that Brazilian ginseng demonstrates an ability to slow cell-growth, but it does not demonstrate any ability to mediate cell-signaling, suggesting a future path of research for brazilian ginseng’s chemopreventive mechanism. Another study treated human breast cells with a Pfaffia paniculata extract which resulted in a reduction in cell growth.
These studies are encouraging, but in the long run they are far from conclusive. Most of them were conducted with mice, and focused on a particular type of cell in a very controlled situation. You need a lot more research done on this sort of thing before you can say “X causes Y” with any sort of confidence.
Immune System Stimulation
Suma root has demonstrated an ability to increase immune cell production and overall immune system activity. Macrophages are large immune cells that act like garbage collectors in your body, and several studies have shown that macrophagic activity can increase when exposed to brazilian ginseng. Another type of molecule called a Natural Killer (NK) cell were produced in greater amounts in mice when given ginseng extract.
A Few Caveats
Ginseng is not without potentially harmful side-effects. For example a paper written in Food Chemical Toxicology in 2004 found that Brazilian medicinal herbs had unusually high concentrations of lead, and that regular consumption could potentially lead to health problems. Suma root can also cause an allergic reaction in some people, particularly in people with asthma due to its affect on IgE activity.
Overall, the research on suma root is a bit of an open book. There’s a bit of information that suggests its purported benefits have truth, but there isn’t an “a-ha” collection of studies that seals the deal.
Research and References on Eleuthero
Miller SC, Ti L, Shan J. Dietary Supplementation with an Extract of North American Ginseng in Adult and Juvenile Mice Increases Natural Killer Cells. Immunol Invest. 2011 Aug 4. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 21815771.
Azike CG, Charpentier PA, Hou J, Pei H, King Lui EM. The Yin and Yang actions of North American ginseng root in modulating the immune function of macrophages. Chin Med. 2011 May 27;6(1):21. PubMed PMID: 21619635; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3126757
da Silva TC, Cogliati B, da Silva AP, Fukumasu H, Akisue G, Nagamine MK, Matsuzaki P, Haraguchi M, Górniak SL, Dagli ML. Pfaffia paniculata (Brazilian ginseng) roots decrease proliferation and increase apoptosis but do not affect cell communication in murine hepatocarcinogenesis. Exp Toxicol Pathol. 2010 Mar;62(2):145-55. Epub 2009 May 9. PubMed PMID: 19427770
Nagamine MK, da Silva TC, Matsuzaki P, Pinello KC, Cogliati B, Pizzo CR, Akisue G, Haraguchi M, Górniak SL, Sinhorini IL, Rao KV, Barbuto JA, Dagli ML. Cytotoxic effects of butanolic extract from Pfaffia paniculata (Brazilian ginseng) on cultured human breast cancer cell line MCF-7. Exp Toxicol Pathol. 2009 Jan;61(1):75-82. Epub 2008 May 16. PubMed PMID: 18485683
Kim KM, Kwon HS, Jeon SG, Park CH, Sohn SW, Kim DI, Kim SS, Chang YS, Kim YK, Cho SH, Min KU, Kim YY. Korean ginseng-induced occupational asthma and determination of IgE binding components. J Korean Med Sci. 2008 Apr;23(2):232-5. PubMed PMID: 18437005; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2526437
Carneiro CS, Costa-Pinto FA, da Silva AP, Pinello KC, da Silva TC, Matsuzaki P, Nagamine MK, Górniak SL, Haraguchi M, Akisue G, Dagli ML.Pfaffia paniculata (Brazilian ginseng) methanolic extract reduces angiogenesis in mice. Exp Toxicol Pathol. 2007 Aug;58(6):427-31. Epub 2007 May 3. PubMed PMID: 17481871
Pinello KC, Fonseca Ede S, Akisue G, Silva AP, Salgado Oloris SC, Sakai M, Matsuzaki P, Nagamine MK, Palermo Neto J, Dagli ML. Effects of Pfaffia paniculata (Brazilian ginseng) extract on macrophage activity. Life Sci. 2006 Feb 16;78(12):1287-92. Epub 2005 Oct 7. PubMed PMID: 16214177
da Silva TC, Paula da Silva A, Akisue G, Luis Avanzo J, Kazumi Nagamine M, Fukumasu H, Matsuzaki P, César Raspantini P, Haraguchi M, Lima Górniak S, Dagli ML. Inhibitory effects of Pfaffia paniculata (Brazilian ginseng) on preneoplastic and neoplastic lesions in a mouse hepatocarcinogenesis model. Cancer Lett. 2005 Aug 26;226(2):107-13. Epub 2004 Dec 28. PubMed PMID: 16039950
Caldas ED, Machado LL. Cadmium, mercury and lead in medicinal herbs in Brazil. Food Chem Toxicol. 2004 Apr;42(4):599-603. PubMed PMID: 15019183
Matsuzaki P, Akisue G, Salgado Oloris SC, Górniak SL, Zaidan Dagli ML. Effect of Pfaffia paniculata (Brazilian ginseng) on the Ehrlich tumor in its ascitic form. Life Sci. 2003 Dec 19;74(5):573-9. PubMed PMID: 14623028
Watanabe T, Watanabe M, Watanabe Y, Hotta C. Effects of oral administration of Pfaffia paniculata (Brazilian ginseng) on incidence of spontaneous leukemia in AKR/J mice. Cancer Detect Prev. 2000;24(2):173-8. PubMed PMID: 10917139