The Pau d’arco tree is indigenous to the Amazonian rainforest and has a long history of traditional use for infections, stomach, and bladder problems. Its active ingredient, beta-lapachone, also attracted a lot of attention for its cancer-fighting, anti-inflammatory, and anti-aging potential. Read on to learn about all the health benefits of Pau d’arco and the research behind them.
What Is Pau D’Arco?
The Pau d’arco tree (Tabebuia avellanedae) is a large evergreen tree with purple flowers, native to the Amazonian rainforest and South America. Traditional healers make tea from the inner bark of the tree, which is known as Taheebo or Lapacho. The tea can be consumed as a drink, or used on the skin. Pau d’arco use probably predates the Incas [1+].
Pau d’arco received a lot of medical and scientific attention in the 60s. The Brazilian press published sensational stories about it, and claims about a “miraculous cancer cure” started to spread. This attracted researchers from all over to world to investigate what’s so special about this Amazonian tree and its extracts. It even attracted the attention of the United States National Cancer Institute.
Scientists then discovered that Pau d’arco has two main cancer-fighting and active compounds – lapachol and beta-lapachone – named after the traditional preparation [1+].
The bark extract contains many other active compounds that are now being explored for their antibacterial properties .
Most of the studies, however, were only done on animal or cells. And while there are various anecdotal reports about its benefits in humans, no clinical studies have been carried out.
Health Benefits of Pau D’Arco
1) Pau D’arco May Fight Cancers
This cancer-fighting potential is what attracted researchers to Pau d’arco in the first place.
Beta-lapachone revealed to be active against various cancers in cellular studies, such as against human breast, prostate, and leukemia cancer cells [1+].
Beta-lapachone could injure the so-called “heat shock proteins” (Hsp90), which further blocks a whole cancer pathway. Due to this unique activity, beta-lapachone could stop cancer cells from spreading, prevent them from making new blood vessels, and trigger their death in both cancer cells and mice with lung cancer [4, 5].
Beta-lapachone could also increase the cancer-killing effects of radiation therapy in mice with head and neck cancers and prolong their survival. It decreased the activity of an important cancer gene (NQO1), which is more active in cancer cells than in normal cells. This makes beta-lapochone naturally cancer-specific and opens the possibility to target various cancers [6, 7].
Treatment of human cancer cells with beta-lapachone sensitized an anti-cancer pathway in cells (Prx1). This makes cancer cells vulnerable to oxidative stress, which can trigger their death. Beta-lapachone could potentially enhance the effects of conventional cancer treatments .
Beta-lapachone, however, has one major downside: it’s not absorbed well from the gut and is active only for a short time. To overcome this, scientists came up with stable nanoparticles that contain both beta-lapachone and another cancer drug (paclitaxel). These particles could kill lung and pancreatic cancer and would be absorbed better .
Some cancer cells, like colon cancer, can also break down beta-lapachone (via phase II enzymes), rendering it inactive. Although cancer cells have less of these detox enzymes than normal cells, this may still explain why beta-lapachone might not be able to fight all cancers .
2) Pau D’arco May Boost Weight Loss
Pau d’arco has the potential to prevent weight gain in postmenopausal women with low estrogen levels.
Postmenopausal overweight mice given Taheebo extract lost weight and body fat. Taheebo also reduced triglycerides in fat cells. It seemed to prevent fat accumulation and weight gain, even though the mice deprived of the protective effects of estrogen .
Taheebo could also potentially help people lose weight and burn fats in general.
3) Pau D’arco May Reduce Pain and Inflammation
There are various anecdotal reports of Pau d’arco being used as an anti-inflammatory and painkiller, which would be especially valuable for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Taheebo extracts reduced both pain and overall inflammation by 30 – 50% in mice .
Taheebo also reduced other inflammatory substances (like prostaglandin PGE2) in mice. In could block the main enzyme that contributes to inflammation (COX-2) in immune cells. In fact, this is the same pathway that common OTC anti-inflammatory painkillers (NSAIDs) target [15, 16].
Beta-lapachone reduced inflammation and protected brain cells. It acted as an oxidant to neutralize reactive oxygen species and blocked inflammation on a DNA level. It could also increase protective, anti-inflammatory cytokines like IL-10 .
4) Pau D’arco May Reduce Allergies and Th2 Dominance
As an added benefit to its anti-inflammatory effects, Pau D’arco may also reduce allergies.
The extract reduced symptoms of eczema in mice and protected their skin without any toxic effects. It reduced substances involved in inflammation and allergies, such as:
5) Pau D’arco May Protect the Brain
Beta-lapochone improved symptoms in mice with Huntington’s disease. It could activate genes that help reverse many chronic diseases (SIRT1). It also protected the body’s energy powerhouse – mitochondria, which could help protect the brain in both those with Huntington’s and healthy people 
6) Pau D’arco May Fight Bacterial and Yeast Infections
This is perhaps the most common traditional indication for Pau d’arco, but only animal and cell studies shed some light on it.
Pau D’arco extracts could kill the bacteria that most commonly causes stomach ulcers, Helicobacter pylori, in test tubes. Its many active components worked as well as the standard antibiotics .
Taheebo stopped the growth and spreading of 10 different strains of gut bacteria in the lab. It was active even against bacteria that can cause serious symptoms in humans. Importantly, Taheebo did not harm bacteria that are part of a healthy gut flora, such as various Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains .
Together with antibiotics, beta-lapachone could combat hard-to-treat bacteria resistant to most antibiotics (MRSA) .
Beta-lapachone also killed fungi that cause diseases like valley fever and lung infections known as “cave disease” in humans. It could rupture the fungi walls and cause them to die off .
7) Pau D’arco Is An Antioxidant
A volatile extract of Pau d’arco – made like an essential oil from this tree – had very strong antioxidant activity in cells, similar to well-known antioxidants like vitamin E .
8) Pau D’arco May Boost Longevity
Pau d’arco has some interesting anti-aging, life-extension potential.
In aged mice, beta-lapochene prevented the age-related decline of the muscles and brain. It increased energy use, the activity of energy metabolism genes, and protected the mitochondria .
Essentially, Pau d’arco boosts NAD+, the “molecule of youth” based in the mitochondria. This has similar effects to the anti-aging mechanisms of calorie restriction. And NAD+ is also involved in the better-known cancer-fighting mechanism of beta-lapochene [26, 25].
Mechanism of Action
As the main and most well-researched cancer-fighting component, beta-lapochone can affect numerous biological pathways to combat cancer. So far, we know that beta-lapochene:
- Blocks DNA-repair pathways that help tumors survive, makes them more vulnerable to attacks (via NQO1) and ultimately triggers their death .
- Blocks a crucial cancer protein in lymphomas, which helps protect against their spreading .
- Boosts the activity of various cancer-fighting genes and factors .
- Its derivatives can target the mitochondria and increase reactive oxygen species in cancer cells, helping to degrade them .
Pau d’arco may affect blood clotting and vitamin K levels in the body. If you are on blood-thinning medications or have a bleeding disorder, consult your doctor first, use caution, or avoid taking Pau d’arco altogether [1+].
Buy Pau D’Arco Supplements
Traditionally, Pau d’arco is prepared as a tea from the inner bark of the tree – Taheebo. Pau d’arco is now sold as tea, alone or in combination with other herbs. Many compare the taste of Taheebo to licorice or cinnamon, which are both also made from tree bark.
Beta-lapachone, the active component, has not yet been approved for clinical use.
There are no clinical studies yet to support a specific dose of any form of supplements or active ingredients.