Thunder god vine is used in traditional Chinese medicine for chronic inflammatory and autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, psoriasis, and lupus. Although it may improve your autoimmune issues, serious side effects restrict its use in high doses.

What Is Thunder God Vine?

Thunder god vine (Tripterygium wilfordii), known as Lei Gong Teng in Chinese, is a woody plant that grows wild in the mountainous regions of southern China, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan [1].

The plant started being used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) about 2000 years ago for fever, chills, swelling, and carbuncle. According to TCM, it ”clears heat, removes toxins, dispels wind, moves blood, and relieves inflammation and swelling” [2+, 3+].

Only the root pulp is used because other parts of the plant (leaves, flowers, root bark) are very toxic. After peeling, the root has traditionally been boiled or mashed and used to improve conditions such as [3+]:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Kidney disease
  • Lupus
  • Psoriasis

However, it was mostly used as an ingredient of agricultural insecticides until the 1970s due to its high toxicity. Thunder god vine grew in popularity recently, since new formulations are more effective and have fewer adverse effects [4+, 5+].

Thunder god vine is often combined with other herbs such as licorice, astragalus, and dong quai for enhanced benefits and reduced toxicity. Sadly, over 50% of thunder god vine products are adulterated with a much cheaper plant called Kupiteng in Chinese (Celastrus angulatus) [3+, 6+].

Scientists recently isolated its active components, revealing its potential to fight cancer and prevent neurodegenerative diseases [3+, 7].

Snapshot

PROS

  • Reduces inflammation
  • Helps with autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease
  • Potential anti-cancer effects
  • May protect the brain from neurodegenerative diseases

CONS

  • Multiple serious side effects
  • Insufficient evidence for some benefits
  • Low research quality
  • Very toxic at high doses
  • Poor quality of most supplements

Components

The main active compounds of thunder god vine are its terpenoids [8, 9+]:

  • Triptolide
  • Celastrol
  • Demethylzeylasteral
  • Tripchlorolide

Active compounds like triptolide are highest in the roots of wild plants [10, 8, 8].

In addition, this herb contains a mix of alkaloids (such as wilforine, wilforgine, and others) [11+, 12+].

Mechanism of Action

Reducing Inflammation and Immune Overactivity

Thunder god vine’s benefits are largely due to its anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive activity. It may help with autoimmune, allergic and inflammatory diseases.

Its active components block NF-kB and other inflammatory pathways in the body [13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22].

This herb reduces:

It suppresses the immune system by reducing the activation of autoimmune-related cells (Th17, dendritic cells, neutrophils, and macrophages). It even causes some of these cells to die and prevents them from reaching sites of inflammation in the body [34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40].

Celastrol from thunder god vine activates a cannabinoid receptor (CB2) [41, 42].

Its active compounds also kill and reduce the activity cells that invade the joints and cause inflammation and pain in arthritis. And they prevent bone destruction by blocking harmful proteins (such as RANKL) [43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50].

Anticancer

Both alone and combined with anticancer drugs, thunder god vine may reduce the production and activity of the proteins that promote cancer:

Additionally, it activates pathways that may help the body kill cancer cells (p53, caspases, cytochrome c, Noxa, PARP, DR4, DR5) [68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 64].

Its anti-inflammatory activity may amplify these potential anti-cancer effects [73, 63, 74, 75, 76, 77].

Health Benefits

1) Arthritis

In 2 clinical trials on over 100 people with Rheumatoid Arthritis, thunder god vine extract (60-360 mg/day) improved joint inflammation, pain, and physical health. It was more effective than the anti-rheumatic drug sulfasalazine in another trial on 62 people [78, 79, 80].

Similarly, its tincture applied on the skin throughout the day improved arthritis in a trial on 61 people [81].

When combined with the immunosuppressant methotrexate, lower doses of the extract can be used (20 mg, 2x-3x/day), according to trials on over 400 people [82, 83, 84, 85].

Thunder god vine and its active components also improved arthritis in multiple animal studies [86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 34, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96].

Ankylosing spondylitis is a type of spine arthritis. In 2 clinical trials on 48 people, thunder god vine (60 mg/day) improved pain, swelling, inflammation, and mobility. Yet, an analysis of studies on over 800 people couldn’t find enough proof of its effectiveness [97, 98, 99].

2) Kidney Disease

In several analyses of over 200 studies and 16k people with kidney disease, thunder god vine improved kidney function, prevented disease worsening, and reduced kidney damage markers (high urine protein, blood creatinine, and blood urea levels) [100, 101, 102, 103].

In 15 studies on almost 900 people, this herb (up to 120 mg/day) reduced kidney damage caused by:

  • Inflammation [104, 105, 106]
  • Diabetes [107, 108]
  • Tissue scarring [109]
  • Other inflammatory and autoimmune diseases that affect the blood vessels or kidneys [110, 111, 112, 113]
  • A genetic disease (polycystic kidney disease) [114+]
  • Immunosuppressant drugs [115, 116]

In animals, it reduced kidney damage caused by various chronic diseases like diabetes and prevented the toxic effects of antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs [117, 118, 119, 120, 121, 122, 123, 124. 125, 126, 127, 128, 129, 130, 131, 132, 133, 134, 135, 136, 137].

3) Crohn’s Disease

In a clinical trial on 16 people with Crohn’s disease, thunder god vine improved ulcers and reduced inflammation. 60 mg/day was used for 12 weeks [138].

In another study, it was better than two anti-inflammatory drugs (mesalazine and sulfasalazine) at preventing Crohn’s worsening in trials on over 250 people. In turn, it worked as well as the typical drug (azathioprine) during the first weeks. However, its effects were weaker in the long term in another trial on 47 people [139, 140, 141, 142, 143].

It also reduced inflammation in animals and studies on human gut tissues [144, 145, 146, 147, 148, 149].

4) Psoriasis

Thanks to its ability to lower immune over-activation, thunder god vine may help with psoriasis. According to two large analyses, this herb and its component triptolide improve psoriasis (30 clinical trials and almost 2.5k people) [150, 151].

In a clinical trial on over 100 people, thunder god vine was as effective as a conventional drug for psoriasis (acitretin) and caused fewer adverse effects. One study looked at how Chinese herbs are prescribed for children with psoriasis and concluded that thunder god vine is beneficial. However, they only tracked information from charts [152].

Thunder god vine was also effective for psoriasis in mice [153].

5) Lupus

Thunder god vine improved several cases of lupus in China. Most of the studies that support its use date back to the 80s, leaving this benefit uncertain [4+, 154+, 155+, 156, 157, 158].

In mice with lupus, thunder god vine increased survival and reduced kidney damage and inflammation [159, 160, 161, 162, 163, 164, 165].

6) Multiple Sclerosis

In rats and mice, thunder god vine and its active components improved Multiple Sclerosis by blocking inflammatory pathways and by killing inflammatory cells, preventing them from leaking into the brain [166, 167, 168, 169, 170, 171].

7) Preventing Organ Rejection

In 2 clinical trial on over 300 people receiving a kidney transplant, thunder god vine (1-2 mg/kg per day) reduced the transplant rejection [172, 173].

In animals, thunder god vine and its active components prevented the rejection of transplanted:

In mice, thunder god vine prevented graft-versus-host disease, a complication of a bone marrow transplant in which the transplanted cells attack the host’s organs. [198, 199, 200, 201].

8) Allergies

Thunder god vine improved the effect of antihistamines on skin allergies (urticaria), according to a meta-analysis of 21 trials with over 2.5k people. Its active component celastrol also improved allergic skin inflammation in mice [202, 203].

In mice with asthma, this herb and its component triptolide reduced airway inflammation [204, 205].

9) Viral Infections

In a small trial on 18 people with HIV receiving conventional therapy, thunder god vine improved their immune response (improved CD4 cell recovery by preventing CD8 activation). It was given at 10 mg, 3x/day [206].

In cells, thunder god vine’s components prevented the division of viruses causing:

10) Cancer

Thunder god vine’s anticancer effects in humans are unknown. However, this herb could kill the following cancer types in animal and cell-based studies:

Its active compounds prevented cancer formation, growth, maturation, and spreading in these studies. They also increased animal survival and enhanced the effect of anticancer drugs.

Its compounds were active against the following cancer types in cell-based studies only:

What’s more, triptolide blocked cancer progression in B cells and upper throat cells infected with a virus that causes cancer (Epstein-Barr) [326, 327, 327, 278].

11) Nerve Function

In animal studies, triptolide and tripchlorolide reduced nerve cell damage and loss of cognitive function, mobility, and coordination caused by:

These active compounds also reduced damage and worsening of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease-like cells [340, 341, 342, 22, 343, 344, 339, 345, 27].

12) Heart Support

Thunder god vine improved heart function and reduced heart tissue damage and inflammation in rats. It was more effective as part of a traditional Chinese formulation (Xinfeng) [346].

Triptolide protected rats from heart damage caused by:

  • Chronic heart failure [347]
  • Diabetes [348]
  • High blood pressure [349]
  • Return of blood flow after heart attacks (ischemia-reperfusion injury) [350]

13) Obesity Prevention

In obese mice, celastrol decreased body weight and fat stores by reducing food intake and blood fat levels while increasing energy and sugar use. In cellular studies, it prevented fatty cells from growing and developing [351, 352, 353, 354, 355, 356, 357].

Triptolide improved obesity and reduced blood fat levels in diabetic mice [123].

14) Prostate Support

Thunder god vine reduced inflammation in rats infected with a bacterium (Ureaplasma urealyticum) that causes prostate inflammation or prostatitis [358].

Both thunder god vine and its component triptolide improved prostate enlargement caused by high testosterone in rats [359, 360].

15) Vision Support

Inflammation of the cornea may lead to vision loss. Triptolide prevented the formation of new blood vessels that worsen vision in the cornea of mice in response to inflammation. It also reduced inflammatory proteins in corneal cells [361, 362].

Celastrol promoted the survival of eye nerve cells under injury and high pressure, suggesting it may slow or prevent glaucoma [363, 364].

Side Effects & Precautions

In clinical trials, the side effects most commonly reported included [365+, 80, 366]:

  • Digestive issues (diarrhea, nausea, indigestion, constipation, stomach pain)
  • Menstrual disorders (irregular or absent menstrual cycle)
  • Skin rash and pigmentation
  • Decreased white blood cell production
  • Infections
  • Liver damage

Taking in high thunder god vine doses with homemade extracts, contaminated honey, and edible wasp larvae caused severe poisoning in 74 people. The symptoms were [367, 368+, 369, 370+]:

  • Digestive issues (severe nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain)
  • Low blood pressure, headache, and dizziness
  • Convulsions and palpitations
  • White blood cell deficiency
  • Chest congestion and shortness of breath
  • Body numbness, coma, and even death

A study on 70 women with rheumatoid arthritis associated long-term thunder god vine use with increased bone loss that may lead to osteoporosis [371].

Because it weakens the immune system, people with HIV or those taking immunosuppressant medication should avoid thunder god vine. The herb caused diseases linked to immune system weakening, such as:

  • Kaposi’s sarcoma [372]
  • A skin infection (Norwegian scabies) [373]
  • Pneumonia [374+]

Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Thunder god vine caused multiple malformations in mouse and fish embryos and shouldn’t be taken during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. Indeed, a woman who took in this herb during her early pregnancy gave birth to a baby with severe brain anomalies [375, 376, 377].

Organ Damage

The clinical application of thunder god vine is limited because it damages the liver, heart, and kidneys. In 2 meta-analyses of over 100 studies and 6k people taking this herb, almost 6% developed kidney or liver damage. Thunder god vine has even caused deadly heart and kidney failure [378, 101+, 379].

The main compound responsible for its toxicity is triptolide, which increases cell damage by free radicals and alters fat, sugar, and energy use [380, 381, 382, 383, 384, 385, 386, 387, 388].

How to Reduce the Risk of Damage

The damage may be reduced by combining thunder god vine with herbs that decrease triptolide absorption in the gut, increase its breakdown, and protect cells from free radicals such as:

In turn, grapefruit juice should be avoided, as it decreases triptolide breakdown and increases its absorption [406].

Infertility

Thunder god vine and its components caused reversible male infertility in rats and mice by decreasing the production of male sex hormones and sperm. It has some potential to be used as a male contraceptive, but its side effects and lack of long-term safety studies restrict this possibility [407, 408, 409, 410, 411, 412, 413, 414, 415, 416].

Alternatively, using topical gels and controlled-release nanoparticles may prevent male infertility. Another possible way to prevent infertility is to combine it with another traditional Chinese remedy called Rou Cong Rong (Cistanche) [417, 418, 419].

Thunder god vine also reduces female fertility. Studies in mice and rats found that this herb causes premature ovarian failure by increasing free radicals [420, 421, 422, 423, 424, 425].

In two women, it caused menopause-like symptoms such as hot flashes, lack of menstrual cycles, and abnormal female sex hormone levels that could be reverted by stopping its use. However, these effects may be irreversible in women close to menopause [426+, 427, 4+].

The negative reproductive effects in women may be prevented by combining it with a traditional Chinese medicine called Tongmai Dasheng or the natural antioxidant resveratrol [428, 429].

Limitations and Caveats

Many studies included in meta-analyses had small population sizes, design flaws (lack of controls, randomization, and blinding), and missing data (statistical analyses, safety assessment, number of dropouts). Additionally, a lot of them were only available in Chinese and published in low-quality journals.

The follow-up period for most studies was shorter than one year. Because thunder god vine is used for several chronic conditions and may cause serious adverse effects, longer clinical trials are required to evaluate its safety.

The effects of thunder god vine on cancer, brain and heart damage, obesity, multiple sclerosis, asthma, prostate disorders, vision loss, and viral infections have only been tested in animals and cells. Trials in humans are required to validate these results.

Drug Interactions

Thunder god vine weakens the immune system. Combining it with immunosuppressant drugs such as cyclosporine, azathioprine, tacrolimus, or corticosteroids may weaken the immune system too much and increase the risk of infections [430+].

Thunder god vine may alter the effects of multiple drugs broken down by CYP enzymes. Triptolide and celastrol block CYP3A4, CYP1A2, CYP2C9, CYP2C19, CYP2D6, and CYP2E1, while demethylzeylasteral blocks UGT1A6 and UGTB7 [431, 432, 433, 434].

Triptolide is mainly broken down by CYP3A4 and CYP2C19 and pumped out of cells by P-glycoprotein. Drugs that block these proteins (such as ritonavir, ketoconazole, clarithromycin, moclobemide, fluvoxamine, chloramphenicol, verapamil, and digoxin) may enhance not only its therapeutic effects, but also its toxicity [435, 436].

Genetics

Anti-Inflammatory and Immunosuppressive

Thunder god vine blocks multiple pro-inflammatory pathways such as NF-kB, NLRP3, STAT3, p38 MAPK, AKT, mTOR, JNK, and ERK1/2. The anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive effect of this herb may be altered in people with mutated variants of these proteins [13, 15, 16, 437, 36, 18, 438, 20, 165, 22, 439].

Triptolide blocks most of these pathways by binding to the TFIIH protein. A mutation (Cys342Thr) prevents interaction with triptolide [440, 441].

Anticancer

Many of the inflammatory pathways blocked by thunder god vine are also required for cancer development and survival. Mutations in these proteins may also alter its anticancer effects [63, 73, 74, 442, 76, 75, 77, 62, 443, 444, 445, 446, 447, 448].

The rs10190751 variant A of CFLAR gene increases cancer cell death in response to triptolide [449].

The interaction between Cdc37 and Hsp90 is required to stabilize several cancer-promoting proteins. Celastrol prevents it by binding to three different amino acids of Cdc37 (Cys54, Cys57, and Cys64) and two of Hsp90 (Tyr493 and Asp546). Mutations in these amino acids may reduce its anticancer effects [61+, 450].

Demethylzeylasteral exerts its anticancer activity by blocking TGF-beta and reducing the production of cyclin A2 and MCL1. Its anticancer effects may be reduced in people with mutated variants of these proteins [65, 56, 313].

Breakdown and Elimination

Triptolide is broken down in the liver by CYP3A4 and CYP2C19 and pumped out of cells by P-glycoprotein. People with mutated variants of these enzymes may be more sensitive to some of thunder god vine’s effects and toxicity [435, 436].

Supplementation & Dosage

Thunder god vine is typically taken by mouth. It comes as pills, tablets, and powder. A tincture can be applied on the joints for rheumatoid arthritis.

Alternative forms of supplementation such as nanoparticles and topical gels have been tested to reduce its adverse effects [451, 418, 417].

Typical thunder god vine doses for rheumatoid arthritis are:

  • Oral: 60 mg extract, 3x-6x/day (or 20 mg 2x-3x/day combined with methotrexate) [79, 82]
  • Topical: tincture applied 5x-6x/day [81+]

The recommended dose for the following conditions is 0.5-2 mg/kg up to 120 mg/day

Lower doses may be used for:

  • Lupus: 20-45 mg/day [158, 156]
  • Psoriasis: 20 mg, 2x-3x/day [452]
  • T cell recovery in people with HIV: 10 mg, 3x/day [206]

User Experiences

Most people used thunder god vine for rheumatoid arthritis. They were usually satisfied with its effects and reported a fast relief of pain and inflammation.

A few unsatisfied users reported that the product didn’t do anything for them and some others complained about its high price.

Buy Thunder God Vine

Take-Away:

Thunder god vine has been used in China for thousands of years. Especially since the 1970s, this herb is a popular remedy for chronic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s, lupus, and psoriasis.

Research on its main active compounds revealed potential benefits for neurodegenerative diseases, allergies, and obesity, as well as to prevent the rejection of transplanted organs. It also has anticancer potential.

However, it may cause severe toxicity in high amounts and adverse effects such as infertility, digestive issues, liver, kidney, or heart damage at therapeutic doses. Some of these unwanted effects may be avoided by using alternative forms of supplementation or combining thunder god vine with other herbs.

We at SelfHacked do not support people taking this drug without being supervised by a medical professional.

About the Author

Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology)

PhD (Molecular Biology)

Carlos received his PhD and MS from the Universidad de Sevilla.

Carlos spent 9 years in the laboratory investigating mineral transport in plants. He then started working as a freelancer, mainly in science writing, editing, and consulting. Carlos is passionate about learning the mechanisms behind biological processes and communicating science to both academic and non-academic audiences. He strongly believes that scientific literacy is crucial to maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid falling for scams.

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