What Is It?
Many North Americans probably don’t realize that the climbing ivy plant (Hedera helix), so often found in their gardens and yards, has a long history in folk healing. In its native Europe, the plant’s shiny, dark green leaves have traditionally been used for colds and congestion, for fighting fever (by inducing sweating), and for controlling parasites.
Legend has it that Bacchus, the ancient Greek god of wine, wore an ivy wreath around his head because the plant was supposed to help someone stay sober while enjoying the taste of the wine. The leaves were bruised and actually simmered in the wine for this purpose. It’s not clear whether this worked.
Other uses have endured, however, and scientific findings support a handful of them. Test-tube studies indicate that ivy leaf extract has antibacterial, antiparasitic, and pain-relieving properties. Whether the herb has similar effects in people is less clear, however.
Today the herb is most widely used for treating respiratory tract congestion, such as that associated with a cold. Germany’s prestigious Commission E approves of ivy leaf for this purpose, as well as for inflammation-related lung (bronchial) conditions.
Several decades ago, researchers identified high concentrations of substances called glycosidic saponins in the ivy leaf, which helps to explain the herb’s effectiveness for cough. Specifically, saponins are compounds that can help clear cough and congestion; they are bitter-tasting and just irritating enough to trigger a cough that aids in removing mucus from the lungs, throat, and other areas. This kind of remedy is called an “expectorant.”
Ivy leaf was long thought to be effective in treating vein-related circulation disorders such as varicose veins, and for relieving related symptoms such as aching and a sensation of heaviness in the legs. However, recent findings indicate that ivy leaf is ineffective for these types of disorders.
Ivy leaf is usually taken internally as a standardized extract capsule. However, a tea, liquid extract, and tincture are other options.
To treat respiratory tract congestion, take 50 mg of the standardized extract three or four times a day. Alternatively, drink a cup (8 ounces) of ivy leaf tea three or four times a day. To make the tea, place 1 teaspoon of the dried leaf a cup and then pour hot (but not boiling) water over it. Steep and then strain. The tea will be bitter and should be sweetened with honey.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with ivy leaf.
Fresh ivy leaf can cause mild skin irritation. (Note that this is not the same as a reaction to poison ivy, which is an altogether different plant.) Allergic reactions to ivy leaf are always a possibility, however, so stop using this herb if you develop any signs of allergy, including a rash, itching, or gastrointestinal upset.
Don’t pluck ivy leaves off a yard plant to make your own home remedy. It’s much safer to use a sterilized preparation designed specifically for medicinal use.
David Edelberg, MD