Sea Buckthorn is a plant that comes in seven varieties, of which the two most popular are Common Sea Buckthorn (Hippophaë rhamnoides) and Willow-Leaved Sea Buckthorn (Hippophaë salicifolia).
The varieties with which we’re most likely to be familiar are thorny shrubs, growing near rivers or in the sandy soil along the Atlantic coasts of Europe and Asia.
Sea Buckthorn has been used for centuries in a wide range of preparations, including an oil and an ointment, to treat symptoms of several conditions, but it’s also graduated to menus, where you can find its rich concentration of vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, and C in things like jams, pies, drinks, and more.
Sea Buckthorn: its uses in modern medicine
Considering it has an impressive vitamin density, you might be surprised to learn that Sea Buckthorn is not yet approved for any specific prescribed use in modern medicine.
Whether it will eventually be found to have any scientifically valid medical use is as yet uncertain, but modern medicine is in no sense blind to the potential of Sea Buckthorn. At present, medicine acknowledges that it:
- Might have some use against stomach and intestinal ulcers, and
- May help treat heartburn symptoms
It also of course acts as a good vitamin package if eaten as food or drunk as a juice, but it is fairly sharp-tasting, so it’s usually a good idea to add some sweeter flavors to it to make it a more palatable vitamin shot.
It is worth pointing out that testing of Sea Buckthorn for health benefits with a degree of certainty that would make it part of modern, reliable medicine is in its early stages – especially when compared to a traditional medical tradition that goes back at least to Ancient Greece. Time and testing will tell what conditions are ultimately found to be eased or aided by the use of Sea Buckthorn.
Also unofficially used for…
- Eczema. There is some hope that Sea Buckthorn may yet prove scientifically effective as a treatment for eczema, though the application and dosage may well prove to be critical.
Early research has shown that Sea Buckthorn pulp oil, taken orally for 4 months, improves atopic dermatitis. But Sea Buckthorn seed oil taken by mouth has no similar effect.
As Sea Buckthorn has traditionally been used internally and externally, it’s worth mentioning that applying creams containing 10 and 20% Sea Buckthorn to the skin for 4 weeks also appears to have no effect on eczema. As such, investigations are ongoing into the single positive application of Sea Buckthorn for eczema.
- Heart disease. Again, there’s some hope that Sea Buckthorn may eventually be used to treat heart disease, as some Chinese research indicates the effectiveness of a particular Sea Buckthorn extract, taken orally for 7 months, in lowering cholesterol, reducing chest pain, and improving cardiac function in subjects with heart disease.
- Long-term kidney disease. The early results on this are less hopeful – an 8-week trial of daily Sea Buckthorn oil appears not to help remove waste products from the blood of subjects with long-term kidney disease.
- Liver scarring (cirrhosis). There’s more hope with cirrhosis, though – initial testing seems to indicate that taking Sea Buckthorn extract might reduce liver enzymes that indicate problems liver scarring.
- The Common cold. Sadly, eating Sea Buckthorn berries in a frozen puree for 90 days appears not to prevent the common cold. Neither does it make symptoms disappear any faster than they do in people who have not eaten frozen Sea Buckthorn puree every day for a quarter of a year.
- Digestive tract infection. Strike #2 for Sea Buckthorn berries in a frozen puree. Research appears to prove that eating them for 90 consecutive days does not prevent digestive tract infections. At some point it would be valid to ask why anyone thought it might, but then, as with the seeming fickleness of preparation effectiveness for eczema, more or less everything is worth trying when testing potential aids for serious conditions.
- Dry eye. There’s initial good news for Sea Buckthorn advocates on dry eye. A specific sea buckthorn product by mouth appears to reduce feelings of eye redness and burning in early tests. An eyelid spray containing Sea Buckthorn also helps to reduce feelings of dryness in the eye.
- Indigestion. This is a complicated one. Initial tests suggest that taking Sea Buckthorn can help regulate the appetite of dyspeptic children. But, simultaneously, Sea Buckthorn appears to do nothing to improve the rate at which food passes from the stomach into the intestines. So to some degree, there’s a positive result, but no one is yet entirely sure… why.
- High levels of cholesterol in the blood. There is some logic to the idea that consuming Sea Buckthorn berries or extracts might lower ‘bad’ cholesterol’ and increase ‘good’ cholesterol in people known to have high levels of cholesterol. However, as with indigestion, no one is yet certain of the dosage or formulation that might achieve this goal.
- High blood pressure. Again, early research is promising for Sea Buckthorn advocates. It suggests that taking Sea Buckthorn orally for up to 8 months might well reduce blood pressure by as much as some currently available blood pressure medications.
- Symptoms indicating kidney damage (nephrotic syndrome). Initial test findings adding Sea Buckthorn by mouth to a standard care routine helps improve appetite, reduce swelling, and reduce the amount of protein in the urine. It remains to be tested whether these results are better than those achieved with standard care alone, as no simultaneous control experiment has yet been carried out.
- Obesity. We would love it to be this easy, but sadly initial evidence points to there being no benefit in reducing body weight in obese women.
- Psoriasis (Scaly or itchy skin). An early result for the oil of Sea Buckthorn applied to the skin, as initial findings suggest it helps reduce the scaliness of the skin of people with Psoriasis.
- Vaginal atrophy (thinning of vaginal skin). Sadly, the early results on this indicate that taking Sea Buckthorn oil daily has no beneficial effect on vaginal thinning in postmenopausal women.
- Esophageal damage caused by reflux of stomach contents (gastroesophageal reflux disease, GERD).
- Cancer therapy side effects.
- Chest pain (angina).
- Dry skin.
- Immune system booster.
- Pressure ulcers.
- Skin wrinkles from sun damage.
- Stomach ulcers.
- Vision disorders.
All of these are conditions for which Sea Buckthorn has been taken, in the belief that it will help the symptoms or the conditions themselves.
While, as we have seen, initial research seems to support the claims that Sea Buckthorn can help with several vexing conditions, some remain beyond it, and others respond only to specific preparations.
More testing and further evidence is needed before we can allow Sea Buckthorn to be rated as aids to these conditions, though in the case of Sea Buckthorn, there seems to be a much higher rate of initial success than is the case for many traditional remedies.
Initial findings indicate that Sea Buckthorn can slow blood clotting. While this could have a beneficial effect on those who live on a steady diet of anticoagulant medication, it is important to stop taking Sea Buckthorn at least 2 weeks before undergoing any form of surgery – and to advise both your regular doctor and the surgical team that you have been taking it.
Naturally, if you are already taking anticoagulant or antiplatelet medication to slow blood clotting, adding Sea Buckthorn to your regime may cause an ill-advised increase in anti-clotting potential. If you are on a course of anticoagulant medication, always check with your doctor before deciding to add Sea Buckthorn to your regime.
While testing is ongoing, the safety of taking Sea Buckthorn in any of its forms during pregnancy cannot be guaranteed. We are also currently uncertain as to whether, if taken by the mother, it crosses over to breast milk – or indeed, what the potential side effects on a newborn could be.
Until more information on these issues is ascertained, it is recommended that pregnant and breastfeeding women avoid the use of Sea Buckthorn supplements.
Sea Buckthorn: history of a superfood
The history of Sea Buckthorn and its medicinal use reads almost like an adventure story too good to be true. As such, it should be taken with a pinch of low-sodium salt.
Certainly, there seems to have been an initial preoccupation with Sea Buckthorn’s ability to improve the health and appearance not of humans, but of horses.
Like many herbs popular in modern herbalism, Sea Buckthorn’s heritage as a curative is frequently traced back to Ancient Greece. Like some others, though, such claims appear to be more complicated than they first appear. Claims are regularly made that Sea Buckthorn appears in Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, as well as in Theophrastus’ Enquiry Into Plants. Neither claim appears to be accurate. Theophrastus at least may have mentioned Sea Buckthorn in another work, but not his great Enquiry.
There’s also a good deal of joyously cavalier myth thrown into the history, as is occasionally the case when dealing with Ancient Greece. There are some sources that will claim Sea Buckthorn was responsible for the shiny coat of Pegasus, the flying horse of Greek myth (and by extension, of the horses of the Greek armies in later centuries), a thought that may well have been happily reverse-engineered from the glossy coats of Greek horses who ate Sea Buckthorn berries. Certainly, there seems to be something in this horse-related origin of Sea Buckthorn’s proper name (Hippophaë means “Shining horse”).
While neither Theophrastus nor Dioscorides actually mentioned Sea Buckthorn, there is a reference in The Natural History Of Pliny The Elder (23-79AD) that seems to describe Sea Buckthorn well, and account for its horse-related name:
“They [Sea Buckthorn berries] must be well suited to the constitution of horses too, and must also have received their name for this and no other reason.”
Whatever the Greek case turns out to be, it is also, less disputably the case that Sea Buckthorn has been used in Mongolian, Tibetan, and Chinese traditional medicine for over a thousand years, and that in the 8th century BCE, it featured in the Tibetan rGyud Bzi (The Four Books of Pharmacopeia).
In Chinese traditional medicine particularly, it has an authorized place. It is indicated as a potential treatment for: a cough with profuse expectoration (oddly enough, a use not precisely indicated in any other source, and contra-indicated by the current failure to apply Sea Buckthorn to the common cold.
It is possible though that a super-infusion of vitamins might well be enough to see off such a cough – or at least to make the sufferer feel well enough not to notice it so much); indigestion (currently being investigated by modern Western medicine, with some promising early results), the stagnancy of food with abdominal pain, amenorrhea due to blood stagnation (possibly a result of Sea Buckthorn’s anticoagulant properties?), and traumatic swelling and bleeding under the skin (ecchymosis).
Claims that both Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great marched their armies (and we assume, especially their cavalry), on a diet supplemented by Sea Buckthorn berries may be as entirely fanciful as the Pegasus story – but the point is that in both cases, the great warriors would have had both access to and knowledge of Sea Buckthorn from relatively contemporary sources. The berry that conquered the world… twice? Maybe.
More recent uses of Sea Buckthorn seem almost equally unlikely but are apparently true. In Russia, which can be thought of as an early 20th-century adopter of Sea Buckthorn, both cosmonauts fighting to minimize the effects of cosmic radiation, and workers who went into the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after its explosion, were given concoctions of Sea Buckthorn juice to help boost their systems against exposure to such potentially lethal radiation.
As more and more research is done in Western medical trials, it remains entirely believable – certainly more believable than the Pegasus story! – that Sea Buckthorn will begin to be regarded as a practical aid with symptoms and conditions that might seem to be entirely unrelated to one another. Whatever its convoluted history, it’s just possible that the future belongs to Sea Buckthorn.