Cistanche deserticola, also known as desert living cistanche or desert broomrape, is a parasitic plant that grows in arid regions of Asia and Africa. Some common names for cistanche deserticola include herba cistanche and rou cong rong in Chinese.It is a member of the Orobanchaceae family and lacks chlorophyll, getting all its nutrients from the host plant it parasitizes.  It typically grows on the roots of tamarisk shrubs in desert climates.

Cistanche deserticola has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine due to its many purported health benefits. All parts of the fleshy yellow-brown stems are used medicinally. It is known as a longevity tonic and adaptogen said to enhance vitality. Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways cistanche deserticola may benefit health.

Relief from constipation

Mouse studies have found that the total oligosaccharides and galactotol of desert cistanche can effectively promote intestinal peristalsis, increase intestinal osmotic pressure, and inhibit water absorption in the large intestine of mice, especially for the treatment of constipation in the elderly and frail people. These ingredients vary according to the species. For example, according to the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, the content of mannitol in cistanche deserticola extract is much higher than that in cistanche tubulosa extract and sasa cistanche.

Anti-Aging Effects

One of the most prized benefits of cistanche deserticola is its potential anti-aging properties. It contains compounds such as phenylethanoid glycosides, iridoid glycosides, lignans, neolignans, and polysaccharides that demonstrate antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities in research. This antioxidant activity helps fight free radical damage that can lead to accelerated aging. Cistanche deserticola may also support healthy telomere length. Telomeres cap the ends of chromosomes but shorten each time a cell divides. Longer telomeres are associated with longevity. According to animal and cell studies, the antioxidants in cistanche deserticola may help maintain telomere integrity.

Neuroprotective Effects

Some early research indicates cistanche deserticola may have neuroprotective qualities. It has shown potential to inhibit apoptosis (programmed cell death) in neuron cells exposed to certain toxins in test tube studies. Other research found it may protect neuron cells against amyloid beta toxicity, which is implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. The neuroprotective abilities of cistanche are thought to come from phenylethanoid glycosides. More research is still needed to confirm these early findings.

Immune Support

Traditional uses of cistanche deserticola include treating weakness and fatigue. Modern research suggests it may accomplish this by boosting immunity. Specifically, it appears to increase natural killer (NK) cell activity. NK cells are a type of white blood cell that targets viruses and cancer cells. An animal study also found cistanche deserticola may stimulate lymphocytes, another type of white blood cell involved in immune response. By bolstering immune defenses, cistanche deserticola may help fight infections and improve energy levels.

Sexual Health

In traditional Chinese, Cistanche deserticola has a history of use as an aphrodisiac and fertility aid. According to the theory of “Shape tonifying shape” in TCM, its long rhizome is reminiscent of the human male genitalia, and eating it will make men more energetic and more confident in their sexual abilities. Scientists believe this traditional use is validated by the plant’s ability to enhance circulation and hormone production. Research shows cistanche deserticola may increase levels of testosterone, the male sex hormone important for virility. It’s also been shown to boost nitric oxide production, resulting in vasodilation (widening of blood vessels) that can improve erectile function. For women, cistanche deserticola may normalize hormones and increase libido.

Some preliminary studies suggest cistanche deserticola may offer additional health benefits:

  • Increased bone density
  • Improved memory and cognition
  • Kidney protection
  • Anti-cancer effects

Further human clinical trials are needed to substantiate these potential benefits.

Cistanche deserticola is a parasitic desert plant that has long been prized in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for its anti-aging, neuroprotective, immune-enhancing, and sexual health benefits. Current research lends support to several of its traditional uses. The antioxidants and other bioactive compounds in cistanche deserticola appear to counteract free radical damage involved in aging and provide neuroprotection. This desert plant also shows promise for bolstering immunity and circulation while regulating hormones. More high-quality human trials are warranted to confirm its safety and efficacy as a supplement. However, the existing evidence suggests cistanche deserticola is a beneficial herbal medicine with a wide range of health-promoting properties.

Ye Tao