Andrographis paniculata is a plant that grows throughout much of Asia. It has been traditionally used to treat infectious disease, liver complaints and fever. The adaptogenic herb1 has a bitter taste and is indigenous to China, India and Southeast Asia. It grows from 30 centimeters (11.8 inches) to 110 centimeters (3.6 feet) high and has a square stem and small white flowers.2
Adaptogens are plants that help your body to better handle physical and emotional stress. The plants have been used for hundreds of years in Eastern medicine to influence the body without overstimulating or inhibiting normal function.3
There are 26 formulations using Andrographis with other herbs in traditional Ayurvedic health. The common names are “king of bitters” and chiretta.4 The plant comes from the Acanthaceae family, which are mostly herbs and shrubs.5
Andrographis can be found in combination with other herbs in Kan Jang, Kold Kare, KalmCold and Paractin.6 The active components in Andrographis are diterpenoid lactones, which have anti-inflammatory effects by reducing both nitric oxide production and the expression of cyclooxygenase 2.
Researchers have found the plant exhibits multiple effects in humans. Dosing in clinical studies has ranged from 3 to 6 grams per day.7 Slightly higher doses were used in a trial with patients who had HIV, but it was discontinued when participants had adverse reactions.8
The Healing Strength of Andrographis
Bitter flavors are often the least appreciated and the least likely to be used in cooking. Yet, many of the bitter herbs and spices add valuable benefits to your overall health. According to the authors of a paper in the European Journal of Herbal Medicine:9
“With so many bitter herbs, most with a long history of medicinal use in multiple cultures, it is not surprising to read that ‘the urinary system seems to be the only system that does not derive direct benefit from the administration of bitters.’”
Typically, insects and mammals avoid bitter-tasting plants. One hypothesis is they have learned to correlate bitter taste with toxicity. Andrographis compounds and extract have been reported to have anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, antimicrobial and hepato-renal protective properties.10
It may be among the more popular medicinal plants to treat a variety of diseases across Asia, America and the African continents. The bioactive ingredient is a diterpene, called andrographolide.11 There have been a number of studies conducted to evaluate the toxicity of Andrographis, but none has demonstrated acute toxicity in experiments involving animals.12
In much the same way that the bitter compounds can help protect plants from insects, they may also help your body by inhibiting microbial growth, inflammation and oxidation. These are some of the benefits researchers have discovered:
Antiviral — The herb has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda to treat the common cold.13 A formulation that combines Andrographis and Siberian ginseng called Kan Jang has been studied in the treatment of colds,14 upper respiratory tract infections,15 sinusitis16 and flu.17 In each case the results were positive, showing effectiveness in treating the conditions.
The leaders of a randomized, double-blind study evaluated the efficacy of KalmCold, an extract of Andrographis paniculata in participants with an upper respiratory tract infection.18 The supplement was effective in reducing most symptoms of the infection, but not earaches.
In a systematic review of 33 randomized controlled trials with 7,175 patients, the evidence demonstrated Andrographis helped relieve the symptoms of acute upper respiratory tract infections.19 It shortened the time for cough and sore throat as well, and it shortened sick leave.
In another review of the literature, scholars found “strong evidence” that Andrographis was superior to a placebo in reducing the frequency and severity of coughs.20
Lowers Blood Sugar — People have been using traditional plant treatments with Type 2 diabetes for centuries. The authors of one study found 419 useful recipes with hypoglycemic potential. They isolated 74 from Angiospermic families, including Andrographis, which ranked in the top 14 with the most hypoglycemic activity.21
In one clinical trial, researchers used an extract mixture of Andrographis alongside metformin over an eight-week period.22 They measured fasting blood glucose, body weight, blood pressure and markers of liver and kidney damage, as well as other markers during the study.
They found there was a potential for beneficial effects with the extract when used as a complementary medicine with metformin in the treatment of Type 2 diabetes.
Inflammation and Cancer — Bioactive molecules from Andrographis have demonstrated anti-inflammatory and anticancer activities in laboratory and experimental animal models.23 Andrographolide also had anti-inflammatory effects on asthma, stroke and arthritis, and it reduced cytokines, chemokines and nitric oxide.
It has also inhibited cancer cell proliferation, metastasis and angiogenesis, leading researchers to believe it is a “promising strategy for the development of a novel class of anti-inflammatory and anticancer drugs.”24
The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties led researchers to evaluate Andrographis in individuals with osteoarthritis of the knee. They were treated with an andrographolide-containing supplement every day for 84 days. Compared to those in the placebo group, they demonstrated a significant reduction in pain throughout the study and higher scores on quality-of-life assessments.25
Digestive disorders — Andrographis has demonstrated effectiveness against digestive disorders as well. When people with ulcerative colitis were treated with an extract, they were more likely to achieve a clinical response than people in the placebo group.26
In a study comparing Andrographis against mesalazine — a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug used to treat ulcerative colitis — the data showed that remission and response in the colon were nearly identical, causing the researchers to conclude it “may be an efficacious alternative to mesalazine in ulcerative colitis.”27
Hepatoprotective — Scientists using an extract of Andrographis in animal studies have shown that it has hepatoprotective activity. Andrographis was effective against induced liver damage in male mice.28
In a different study researchers found “Andrographolide was found to be more potent than silymarin, a standard hepatoprotective agent.”29 Andrographis has traditionally been used for liver disorders.
In yet another study, researchers used an animal model to evaluate a combination of Andrographis with two other herbal medications used in Ayurveda. They found that the extract offered significant protection, as demonstrated by serum indices of liver injury.30
Neurological system — Researchers interested in the use of adaptogenic herbs to reduce the effects of stress induced fatigue and impaired cognitive function in behavioral and age-related disorders used Andrographis paniculata and Withania somnifera in a six-week trial.31
They measured EEG frequency changes in 17 brain regions as well as an assessment of mood and sleep from standard questionnaires. The results showed that the supplement had calming and anti-anxiety effects.
The authors of another literature review evaluated the use of herbal medications in multiple sclerosis. This condition impacts an individual's cognition, sensory abilities and mobility. They found that natural herbs, including Andrographis, were effective in treating memory performance, tremor, spasticity, fatigue and incontinence.32
Individuals with multiple sclerosis commonly struggle with fatigue. The leaders of one clinical trial evaluated the effectiveness of Andrographis on fatigue in relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis.33 Participants received the supplement for 12 months while also receiving interferon. While there were no observed differences for the relapse rate, those taking Andrographis had a significant reduction in fatigue as compared to those in the placebo group.
Bitters and Your Gastrointestinal Tract
The stimulating effect on your digestive system is caused by what's known as the “bitter reflex.” When you eat something bitter, your body releases gastrin. This hormone supports and strengthens digestive function by stimulating the secretion of saliva, hydrochloric acid, pepsin and intrinsic factor.34 Intrinsic factor is required by your body for the absorption of vitamin B12.35
The reflex also triggers your appetite and prepares your body for eating by triggering contractions in your intestines. It stimulates the flow of bile, which improves digestion and helps prevent the accumulation of waste in your liver. It also stimulates cell repair in the pancreas and intestinal wall.
When the integrity of the intestinal wall is compromised, it allows leakage of substances such as undigested food, bacteria and metabolic waste to enter your bloodstream. This is called leaky gut syndrome, which increases the inflammatory process in your body.
The action from the bitter reflex begins when you taste bitter on your tongue. According to the European Journal of Herbal Medicine, bypassing your taste receptors by taking bitters in capsule form will “render it virtually useless.”36
How to Add Bitters to Your Routine
Historically, people used bitters approximately 30 minutes before mealtime to stimulate the appetite and get the gastrointestinal tract ready to eat. There are commercially available bitter tinctures that basically concentrate extracts in an alcohol base.
Another option is to add bitter greens to your salads and to eat your salad first. These may include chicory, dandelion, arugula, radicchio, endive and burdock. This helps take advantage of the bitter reflex during meals.
While Andrographis is generally safe when it's taken as directed, bitters should not be taken by pregnant or nursing women, those with depressed metabolism, chronic respiratory congestion or a serious erosive or ulcerative condition in the gastrointestinal tract.37
In clinical trials, there have been few adverse reactions noted. However, side effects have been recorded using andrographolide, including headache, rash, diarrhea, pruritus and a lowered sex drive.38