Imagine you are walking on a hot, sunny hillside in the Mediterranean, across dusty, rocky terrain that burned with wildfire just a few months ago. Off in the distance, a flash of pinkish-purple and green catches your eye. Drawing closer, you come upon a thick stand of flowering shrubs, with crinkly, pink-to-purple-hued blossoms and resinous leaves. You marvel that it somehow found the resources to grow and bloom in such an inhospitable place. Meet cistus (Cistus incanus), an evergreen in the rockrose family.
The surprise you felt coming upon this plant in your imaginary hillside mirrors my own discovery in real life, when cistus caught my eye during an intense period of immune health research. As an herbal formulator for decades now and with roughly 390,000 known species of plants in the world (Morelle, 2016), I really have no shortage of potential options to explore. Even so, when I encounter a plant like cistus that I (or my colleagues) have never heard of, I admit to delight and surprise. From my very first sip of cistus infusion, I sensed a potency in its complexity of taste and felt it informing me in ways that transcend words.
Its unique adaptations to seemingly impossible conditions include a symbiotic relationship with a beneficial root fungus (Giovannetti & Fontana, 1982) and the striking ability of its seeds to survive and germinate after wildfires (Ferrandis, Herranz & Martínez-Sánchez, 1999).
Cistus is truly the embodiment of adaptation and resiliency: it is a survivor.
The Power of Polyphenols
If plants like cistus could talk, they might tell us their secrets, how their lineages have survived lifetimes.
Because plants aren’t able to run away from danger, they protect themselves in clever ways, including with a diverse class of compounds called polyphenols. Polyphenols provide the plant kingdom defense against challenges like infection and nibbling insects.
Polyphenols can’t stop us humans from nibbling on plants, though. In fact, polyphenols help give plants the flavor and color we find so irresistible in foods like chocolate, berries, coffee, and spices like ginger and turmeric.
What’s more, modern nutritional science has focused a great deal on dietary polyphenols, linking their consumption with a wide array of improved health biomarkers (Kerimi & Williamson, 2016), including longevity (Zamora-Ros et al, 2013). While there is still much to learn about polyphenols, so far what we do know is that their power to help us humans protect ourselves in the face of modern health challenges is impressive. Some polyphenols are believed to be potent free radical scavengers, some improve immune antibody production, and others may protect against inflammation, allergies, and infectious diseases (De Meester & Watson, 2008).
Recent research also suggests that polyphenols may act to facilitate human cell signaling and modulate the gut microbiome, an area that plays a profound role in our mood and mind states, and ultimately immunity (Kennedy, 2014).
Every plant has its own unique number and type of polyphenols, each arrangement helping the plant survive in its own time and place.
And this is where cistus’s true secret may lie: in its unique profile, rather than—or perhaps in addition to—its high quantity of polyphenols.
Notably, in one evaluation of cistus, 32 polyphenols were identified, including gallic acid, gallocatechin, catechin, epicatechin, rutin, quercetin, kaempferol, ellagic acid, rosmarinic acid, and myricetin (Riehle, Vollmer & Rohn, 2013), making cistus a panoply of polyphenol power. This is one of the big “wows” that makes cistus a modern-day plant hero in my book.
Cistus Medicinal Uses
Cistus has partnered with folk medicine since antiquity, helping people with:
- Skin diseases, wounds, edema
- Gastrointestinal disorders
- Fever and cough
- Urinary inflammations, kidney stones
- Viral, bacterial, and fungal infections
See references for Hutschenreuther et al., 2010; Al-Sheikh Hamed, 2009; Ganos, n.d.
Just A Heaping Teaspoon Of Cistus For A Whole Lot Of Benefits
With a list of benefits this long, we could spend hours paying homage to cistus, but let’s focus on how it is such a dear friend to our immune system, especially its ability to modulate the virome (the viral community of our microbiome). While most of our viruses are not “bad,” to keep things simple, I will use the term antiviral.
With that in mind, let’s talk about cistus as an “antiviral.” A wonderful example is seen in a placebo-controlled clinical trial (Kalus et al., 2009), where patients taking cistus lozenges reported highly statistically significant decreased severity and duration of flu symptoms. Patients also showed significantly decreased inflammation markers. Improvements that are highly statistically significant are simply too strong to be a coincidence.
And to top it off, these results were seen with approximately 220 milligrams of polyphenols, which is the rough equivalent to a mere heaping teaspoon of cistus a day—an easily accessible serving.
At this point, you may be wondering how these results came to be. One possibility is that cistus interferes with the viral particle and its ability to infect host cells, which in turn lowers immune-mediated inflammation, helping patients feel better more quickly.
Several in vitro studies suggest this is indeed how cistus may work. In one study, a cistus extract bound to and trapped the flu virus, and prevented it from attaching to cellular receptors, without developing resistance to the cistus (Ehrhardt et al., 2007).
What about the decreased inflammation markers? Inflammation, an important and appropriate part of your immune system, can be detected by measuring levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), which increase with infection. Interestingly, the clinical study mentioned earlier found that CRP levels significantly decreased in flu patients taking the cistus—a sign that systemic inflammation is lowering. This has great significance for many of our modern chronic diseases (cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc.), which have an inflammatory component and origin.
Welcome Cistus to The Immune Plants Hall of Fame
When it comes to antiviral action, I believe there is something special about cistus, again, perhaps because of its unique combination—rather than the amount—of polyphenols. For example, green tea is also incredibly polyphenol-rich with an average content comparable to cistus, but it does not appear to improve upper respiratory tract infections as well as cistus does (Kalus, Kiesewetter & Radtke, 2010).
If polyphenols are indeed the balancing factor, it very well may be that consuming them in the proper ratio and intensity during infection may level the playing field. But cistus, like all plants, is packed with perhaps hundreds of synergistic compounds in addition to polyphenols. When these are taken into the marvelously complex human body—never mind accounting for differences between individuals—it’s beyond the mind to fully comprehend how this unique herb works.
This brief snapshot is by no means sufficient to capture cistus’s gravitas and remarkable potential. But with this, I heartily acknowledge cistus as an immune-supportive super plant and humbly nominate it to the Immune Plants Hall of Fame.
Unlocking Cistus Secrets
Now that you have learned more about cistus and its unique polyphenol profile for managing inflammation, viral modulation, and so much more, are you ready to give it a try?
Before you begin, there are a few important points to consider.
- An infusion is more than tea: by using a bit more herb and a longer steeping time than when making regular tea, you elevate a beverage into a more powerful medicine. Aim for a heaping teaspoon or 2.5 grams of cistus infused into 16 ounces of hot water for at least 10 minutes.
- Drinking a cistus infusion allows cistus to directly contact the immune tissues in your mouth and throat, a lost benefit when taking encapsulated cistus.
- Look for wild-grown cistus. Wild-grown plants contain more polyphenols, which makes them more medicinally potent.
- Because there is a synergy between the polyphenols in cistus and vitamin C, I like to idea to combine cistus with vitamin C-rich plants, like rosehips or even a squeeze of lemon.
- Cistus tastes refreshing and high in tannins. If desired, use your preferred sweetener, such as raw honey or stevia.
Al-Sheikh Hamed, H. H. M. A. (2009). Quality control of cistus incanus containing pharmaceutical preparations [Master’s thesis, Petra University].
De Meester, F., & Watson, R. R. (2008). Wild-type food in health promotion and disease prevention: The Columbus concept. Totowa, NJ: Humana Press.
Ehrhardt, C., Hrincius, E. R., Korte, V., Mazur, I., Droebner, K., Poetter, A., Dreschers, S., Schmolke, M., Planz, O., & Ludwig, S. (2007). A polyphenol rich plant extract, CYSTUS052, exerts anti influenza virus activity in cell culture without toxic side effects or the tendency to induce viral resistance. Antiviral research, 76(1), 38–47. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.antiviral.2007.05.002
Ferrandis, P., Herranz, J. M., & Martínez-Sánchez, J. J. (1999). Effect of fire on hard-coated Cistaceae seed banks and its influence on techniques for quantifying seed banks. Plant Ecology 144, 103–114. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1009816309061
Ganos, C. (n.d.). Cistus creticus: A tough little plant with a history as old as Europe. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from http://mecklenburghsquaregarden.org.uk/cistus-creticus-a-tough-little-plant-with-history-as-old-as-europe/
Giovannetti, G., & Fontana, A. (1982). Mycorrhizal synthesis between Cistaceae and Tuberaceae. New phytologist, 92: 533-537. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8137.1982.tb03412.x
Hutschenreuther, A., Birkemeyer, C., Grötzinger, K., Straubinger, R. K., & Rauwald, H. W. (2010). Growth inhibiting activity of volatile oil from Cistus creticus L. against Borrelia burgdorferi s.s. in vitro. Die Pharmazie, 65(4), 290–295.
Kalus, U., Grigorov, A., Kadecki, O., Jansen, J. P., Kiesewetter, H., & Radtke, H. (2009). Cistus incanus (CYSTUS052) for treating patients with infection of the upper respiratory tract. A prospective, randomised, placebo-controlled clinical study. Antiviral research, 84(3), 267–271. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.antiviral.2009.10.001
Kalus, U., Kiesewetter, H., & Radtke, H. (2010). Effect of CYSTUS052 and green tea on subjective symptoms in patients with infection of the upper respiratory tract. Phytotherapy research: PTR, 24(1), 96–100. https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.2876
Kennedy D. O. (2014). Polyphenols and the human brain: plant “secondary metabolite” ecologic roles and endogenous signaling functions drive benefits. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 5(5), 515–533. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.114.006320
Kerimi, A., & Williamson, G. (2016). At the interface of antioxidant signalling and cellular function: Key polyphenol effects. Molecular nutrition & food research, 60(8), 1770–1788. https://doi.org/10.1002/mnfr.201500940
Morelle, R. (2016). Kew report makes new tally for number of world's plants. Retrieved October 05, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-36230858
Riehle, P., Vollmer, M., & Rohn, S. (2013). Phenolic compounds in Cistus incanus herbal infusions — Antioxidant capacity and thermal stability during the brewing process [Abstract]. Food Research International, 53(2), 891-899. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodres.2012.09.020
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