Scientific Name(s): Picrasma excelsa, Quassia amara L.
Common Name(s): Amara species, Amargo, Bitter wood, Jamaican quassia, Picrasma, Ruda, Surinam quassia, Surinam wood
Quassia has a variety of suggested uses, including treatment for measles, diarrhea, fever, and lice. Quassia has antibacterial, antifungal, antifertility, antitumor, antileukemic, and insecticidal actions as well. However, efficacy in clinical trials has not been proven.
Quassia wood has been used as a bitter tonic, with a typical oral dose of 500 mg. No studies have been performed to support this dose. Several recent studies of topical quassia tincture for head lice have been reported.
Contraindications have not yet been identified.
Documented adverse reactions. Avoid use.
None well documented.
Quassia is used in a number of food products and is considered safe by the FDA. If taken in large doses, this product can irritate the GI tract and cause vomiting. It is not recommended for pregnant women.
Quassia is listed as generally regarded as safe (GRAS) by the FDA. Parenteral administration of quassin is toxic, leading to cardiac irregularities, tremors, and paralysis.
Surinam quassia is a 2 to 5 m tall shrub or small tree native to Argentina, Colombia, Guyana, and Panama. Jamaican quassia is a taller tree that reaches 25 m and is native to the Caribbean Islands, Jamaica, West Indies, and northern Venezuela. The leaves and pale yellow wood are used medicinally. Duke 1985 , Newall 1996 , Schulz 1998 , USDA 2017
Quassia has been used for malaria in the Amazon region. It has been used topically for measles and orally or rectally for intestinal parasites, diarrhea, and fever. The plants have been used as anthelmintics and insecticides. Central Americans have been known to build boxes out of quassia wood, which acts as a natural insect repellent, to store clothing. Duke 1985 , Kupchan 1976 , Schulz 1998
Quassia has been used as an insecticide. Traditional use includes remedies for infestations of lice or worms, anorexia, and dyspepsia. Duke 1985 Certain tribes have used the plants to treat measles and fever, and as a mouthwash. Branch 1983 , Duke 1994 , Evans 1991
The extracts and purified mixtures of bitter principles (“quassin”) have been used to give a bitter taste to various food products, especially alcoholic (eg, bitters, liqueurs) and nonalcoholic beverages, desserts, candy, baked goods, and puddings. Garcia Gonzalez 1997
Both quassia species have similar constituents. These include alkaloids (0.25%), such as canthin-6-one, 5-methoxycanthin-6-one, and carboline alkaloids. Terpenoids in 1 or both plants include isoquassin and mixtures of bitter principles (said to be 50 times more bitter than quinine), including quassin, neo-quassin, and 18-hydroxyquassin. Dihydronorneoquassin and simalikalactone D are also present. Other constituents include coumarins (Q. amara), thiamine (P. excelsa), beta-sitosterol, and beta-sitostenone. Duke 1985 , Kupchan 1976 , Newall 1996 , Schulz 1998 From Q. amara, the quassinoid quassimarin has been reported Casinovi 1966 and amarid 18-oxyquaxine has been isolated. Fernando 1993 The molecular phylogenetics of Q. amara have been studied using the chloroplast gene rbcl. Rutter 1990
Uses and Pharmacology
Quassin has demonstrated antilarval activity and was effective at concentrations of 6 ppm. Evans 1992 A mechanism of this larvicidal activity may be due to inhibition of cuticle development, as suggested in 1 report. Njar 1995
Quassimarin has been reported to have antileukemic properties when tested in animals. Antitumor activity in mice has been demonstrated, as well as in vitro activity of quassin against human nasopharynx carcinoma. Duke 1985
Quassia, as a tincture, has reportedly been used successfully to treat head lice. Canthin-6-one possesses antibacterial and antifungal activity. Duke 1985 , Mac-Mary 2012
Research is ongoing, with evaluations for potential applications in malaria, diabetes, and ulcer healing. Cosmetic 2008 , Mishra 2010
The beta-carboline alkaloids exhibit positive inotropic activity in animals. Duke 1985
A 4% hydroglycolic extract of Q. amara gel was reportedly effective in reducing the severity of symptoms in facial seborrheic dermatitis Diehl 2013 and rosacea. Ferrari 2012
Quassia wood has been used as a bitter tonic, with a typical oral dose of 500 mg. No studies have been performed to support this dosage. Several recent studies of topical quassia tincture for head lice have been reported.
Pregnancy / Lactation
Documented adverse reactions. Avoid use. Bisset 1994
None well documented.
No adverse reactions were reported upon topical application of the scalp preparation in the 454 patients in the head lice study. Duke 1985 However, large amounts given orally have been known to irritate the mucus membrane in the stomach and may lead to vomiting. Schulz 1998 Excessive use may also interfere with existing cardiac and anticoagulant regimens. Because of the plant’s cytotoxic and emetic properties, its use during pregnancy should be avoided. Duke 1985
Quassia is listed as generally regarded as safe (GRAS) by the FDA. Parenteral administration of quassin is toxic, leading to cardiac irregularities, tremors, and paralysis. Schulz 1998
Mean weights of testes, seminal vesicles, and epididymides were significantly reduced, and weights of the anterior pituitary glands were significantly increased in rats given quassin at doses up to 2 g/kg in drinking water. Furthermore, lowered sperm counts, levels of LH, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and of testosterone were observed. Garcia Gonzalez 1997 , Mac-Mary 2012 , Raji 1997
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