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An Old Medicine Becomes New Again: Indian Snakeroot

Indian Snakeroot (Rauwolfia serpentina) is a flowering perennial in the dogbane family that is native to East Asia. Also known as serpentine wood and devil pepper, the herb has been used for centuries to treat a variety of conditions including insomnia, anxiety and high blood pressure, as well as neurological disorders like schizophrenia. It is among the 50 Fundamental Herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The tranquilizing, antihypertensive and antipsychotic effects of Indian Snakeroot are due to the actions of several of the 150 indole alkaloids found in the plant. Some of the most notable are reserpine, raubasine, yohimbine and ajmaline. The latter has been used to treat abnormal heart rhythm, and reserpine, known as Raudixin and by other trade names, is used to treat high blood pressure as well as psychosis. One way that resperine works is to deplete monoamine neurotransmitters from nerve endings that regulate heart rhythm. Reserpine has also been shown to have antidepressant properties. Resperine is not commonly used to treat hypertension in the US as it was 50 years ago (although it is still used as a horse tranquilzer), and it is currently banned in the UK. However, researchers have recently discovered an important catalyst in the herb, dubbed the sarpagan bridge enzyme, that scientists hope the study of which will lead to producing drugs from ajmaline and other oxidative enzymes in a way that is much more efficient than any synthetic route.

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