Usnea Benefits, Uses & History

Usnea or more commonly known as Old Man’s Beard is a type of lichen that has similar characteristics as fungus or algae. Usnea grows on various species of trees and even rocks and soil in humid climates across the world. 

It’s been used in traditional medicine for years but nowadays there has been more scientific research into the credibility of the health benefits that people claim usnea has. 

We’ll be looking more into the health benefits of usnea, how it can be used, and also exploring the history of usnea and where the use of it originated. 

History of Usnea

Usnea is created through a symbiotic relationship between algae and lichens and is often found in forests in North America and Europe. There are some cases where usnea can continue to grow even when it has been broken off from the parent organism.

Usnea is very sensitive to the air quality and can be killed quickly by absorbing toxic pollutants in the surrounding air, this is why they thrive in forests because the air quality is better. Usnea is also used as an indication of air quality levels and pollution levels in regions across North America. 

The use of usnea goes back to ancient times in China, Greece, and Egypt and it was traditionally used as a natural treatment for indigestion because it works as a digestive system stimulant and has a bitter taste to it. Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician also used usnea to treat urinary ailments which have continued to be used as a natural remedy in today’s age as well.

Back in the fourteenth century, it was believed that usnea could strengthen people’s hair because of its stringy hair-like appearance, although this theory has not been proven by modern-day scientists.

When usnea is used in medicine, it is sometimes known as sodium usinate which contains the active ingredient usnic acid which is something that can seriously damage your metabolic system if not taken in controlled amounts. Usnea is now typically taken as a liquid extract or applied topically directly onto affected skin or inside the mouth.

Benefits & Uses of Usnea

There are many benefits to using usnea, some of which are still being debated by scientists to this day. Whilst there are some health benefits to taking usnea, you should always remain cautious when taking it as too high a concentration can result in hepatotoxicity which could result in death in the worst circumstances. Before taking or using usnea for any health conditions or problems, you should consult with your doctor first to make sure that it is safe for you to use. 

We’ll mostly be talking about usnic acid which is the main active ingredient compounds in usnea.

Wound Healing Benefits

Usnic acid is considered to be beneficial to help promote and speed up the healing of wounds. Reports from test-tube studies show that usnic acid is effective at fighting infection-causing bacteria, reducing inflammation around a wound, and can also speed up wound closure which will decrease the risk of possible infection as well.

There were also studies carried out on rats that showed usnic acid increases collagen formation to promote heel wounding when it was topically applied to the wounds. 

Despite results indicating that the use of usnic acid topically on wounds promotes skin healing in rats, there is no scientific evidence to prove that the use of this active compound would have the same effects on humans if it was used in skincare for mainstream use or more prescription uses. 

Therefore, further trials will need to be conducted before concrete statements could be made about the wound healing benefits of usnea. 

Used In Hygiene Products

Usnic acid, the active ingredient in usnea, is a common ingredient used as a preservative in many of our everyday hygiene products including toothpaste and deodorant. It’s used to preserve the product and prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi in the formulas. 

Most of these cosmetic products are topical and won’t affect toxicity levels in the body as the usnic acid will not be digested. When it comes to toothpaste, the usnic acid levels are safe and won’t cause any liver problems if you accidentally ingest some now and again, although, swallowing large quantities of toothpaste is not recommended anyway. 

Reduces Indigestion

Historically, usnea was used for reducing indigestion, however, the use of it nowadays is not recommended as it can lead to high toxicity levels. The usnic acid in usnea is a natural fat burner that speeds up the metabolic process, therefore, speeding up how quickly you digest your food so you don’t feel discomfort anymore. However, after the use of usnic acid in dietary supplements was banned from the FDA so it’s not commonly used for oral consumption purposes now. 

Safer alternatives to reduce indigestion are peppermint or chamomile tea, or some hot water with a few pieces of lemon in. 

Promotes Weight Loss

One of the main benefits of usnea and what it is most commonly known for is its ability to promote weight loss. The active ingredient usnic acid was used in fat-burning tablets to aid weight loss before they were banned because of liver toxicity. Usnic acid would increase your metabolic rate, so you will burn more calories in a shorter period which would result in more efficient weight loss. 

However, there have been some negative side effects and bad press surrounding the use of usnic acid (the active ingredient in usnea) in weight loss remedies. A dietary supplement called LipoKinetix was found to be linked to liver damage back in the early 2000s after research showed that all patients who started taking the supplement developed acute hepatotoxicity within the first three months. 

LipoKinetix contained sodium usinate as an ingredient and was then discontinued due to the number of women who suffered severe liver damage from taking them.

Now that the use of usnic acid in dietary supplements or weight loss tablets is banned on the marketplace, weight loss cannot be considered one of the major benefits of usnea as it is not readily available to buy legally.

There are other natural ingredients like green tea extract, caffeine, and yohimbine which are considered to be a safer solution to aid with weight loss, however, further research into the safety and dosage behind these ingredients should be done before taking them.

May Protect Against Cancer

There is some scientific evidence that links usnea to being able to protect the body against certain cancers. Usnea contains high levels of polyphenols which is a type of antioxidant that helps battle against free radicals (compounds that cause cancer). 

Test tube research also presents evidence that usnic acid can help inhibit the growth of cancerous cells and simultaneously kill cancerous cells without harming any of the non-cancerous cells around them. 

Unfortunately, this is only minor research into a very complex health issue and continuous research would need to be done, including extensive research studies on humans to fully confirm the extent of the benefits of usnea regarding cancer. 

Helps Reduce Infections

Whilst there is still speculation regarding the effectiveness of using usnea to help reduce bacterial, viral, and fungal infections, there is still some scientific research that suggests it does help reduce and get rid of infections in some cases. 

One of the most notable ways that usnea is used for infections is to treat HPV (a sexually transmitted infection) that can lead to genital warts or even cancer when not treated. A product that contains usnic acid and some other active ingredients is applied to the vagina before and after the surgery to remove the HPV sores, which helps to boost healing and reduces the rate of HPV for up to six months after having the surgery. 

This was only a small study, however, so a larger-scale study would need to be conducted to put forth evidence that usnea can help treat conditions like HPV without anything else. 

There is also research that shows usnea is effective at treating common fungal infections like athlete’s foot and ringworm and can even be used for yeast infections.

It can be used to treat more serious conditions like strep, tuberculosis, and pneumonia although it is not commonly used in modern-day medicine as antibiotic treatment is preferred as it is more efficient and more effective at treating more serious conditions. 

You’ll also find that usnea is a common ingredient in herbal remedies that are used to treat colds and sore throats as it has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. 

However, the regular ingestion of usnea for common health conditions or infections is not recommended due to the risks that have been made common knowledge from diet supplements. So until the risks surrounding usnea are more known, you should stick to infection medication that you can get from the pharmacy or prescribed from your doctor in more serious cases. 

Used To Create Dyes

Usnea is a type of lichen that was used in ancient times to create dyes for coloring fabrics like wool and silk. It offers a more natural way to dye fabrics but has not been adopted by wide-scale clothing or the textiles industry as of yet. 

Most DIY or craft hobbyists at home will use usnea to dye fabrics to yield colors such as yellow, orange, green, blue, and purple. The colors that usnea creates when it goes through the process of dying fabric are unpredictable and are the reason why it’s not used in the industry. 

If you’re going to use any pots or bowls in your home to dye your fabrics with usnea, then you’ll never be able to use them again.

Fire Starting Material

If you’re ever out lost on a camping trip then you can use usnea as a fire starting material as it is highly flammable, however, once the old man’s beard gets wet it is rendered useless so make sure it’s dry and crunchy if you’re trying to start a fire.

Side Effects & Risks of Usnea

Research has demonstrated a link between high concentrations of usnic acid (a component of usnea) and liver damage, so it’s recommended to always follow the recommended dosage and also don’t take supplements that contain usnic acid for longer than one week at a time. 

Consuming too high a concentration of usnea (or usnic acid) could lead to common symptoms like headaches, nausea, fatigue, abdominal pain, and a more severe symptom could be developing yellow skin. The yellowing of your skin will signal that your liver is malfunctioning and you have taken too high a dosage of usnea and should try to seek medical help as soon as possible.

Usnea should only be used to treat acute health or medical conditions and not as a daily medication for more serious health conditions. 

Pregnant women should never take usnea as it can promote uterine contractions and those with a previous history of liver damage or anyone with liver conditions should not take usnea either as prolonged internal use may lead to hepatotoxicity. 

Usnea can be applied topically to the skin as it can help promote healing and reduce infections, but you should always do a patch test somewhere more hidden on your skin to make sure you’re not allergic to it. Some people with sensitive skin may experience worse reactions than others.