Traditional Use: Cistanche (Aka; Desert Ginseng) has been used in China for centuries, first appearing in Shennong Ben Cao Jing, one of the oldest surviving Traditional Chinese Medicine books, which may have been written almost 2,000 years ago! The traditional name for Cistanche is Rou Cong Rong. Rou refers to the meaty root of the plant, while “Cong Rong” quite literally translates to “take it easy!” This is interesting when you consider the positive mood effects we will talk about later. However, within this traditional context, it’s more so referring to the fact that the effects of Cistanche are easy going, and gently tonify the body and brain. From a modern perspective, this seems to be the case, which is why Cistanche tubulosa makes for a great long-term supplement.
Cistanche Benefits: Cistanche tubulosa helps increase testosterone synthesis. This may help improve fertility, as is referenced in ancient uses of this plant too. Furthermore, as we age, testosterone levels drop and Cistanche tubulosa can help ameliorate this decline, and thus have a youthfulness promoting effect as is also mentioned in traditional uses. Cistanche tubulosa is gentle! As indicated by the Rou Cong Rong name, Cistanche tubulosa takes things nice and easy. The increase in testosterone levels are profound with Cistanche tubulosa, but it does it in a gentle way, by enhancing the biochemical pathways in our body that are used for producing testosterone. Furthermore, Cistanche tubulosa also balances this testosterone boosting benefit with a growth hormone increasing benefit. This is not something that is often seen in testosterone enhancers, and because growth hormone has a pleasant calming effect, it takes the aggressive edge off the testosterone elevating effects. This makes Cistanche a great daily tonic for optimizing hormonal profiles. Speaking of the “taking it easy”… Cistanche tubulosa also has fantastic mood boosting properties! It achieves this by interacting with our gut brain axis. As you know most of the neurotransmitters in our brain originate in our gut. Cistanche tubulosa helps promote this gut-brain axis connection, and through this highly novel pathway produces a very comfortable and pleasant mood boost. For this reason, it has quickly become a mood boosting favourite of mine. But maybe that’s just the increase in testosterone and growth hormone. 😊
Testosterone – Lets Geek Out A Little: The biosynthesis of testosterone takes place in leydig cells of the testes. To create testosterone, cholesterol is shuttled into the inner membrane of mitochondria by a transporter called steroidogenic acute regulatory protein (StAR). Once in the mitochondria, the cytochrome P450 enzyme CYP11A1 converts cholesterol to pregnenolone. From there, two things can happen to pregnenolone. The first possibility is that pregnenolone gets oxidized by an enzyme called hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (3-β-HSD). Once oxidized, this yields androstenedione, which is then converted to testosterone by another enzyme called 17-beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (17-β-HSD). The other possibility is that pregnenolone is converted to multiple different C19 steroids by the cytochrome P450 enzyme CYP17A1. The incredible thing about Cistanche tubulosa, is that it upregulates all the enzymes and transporters we just discussed. This means that Cistanche tubulosa positively impacts almost every stage of testosterone biosynthesis! Wowzers!!! Another interesting aspect of Cistanche tubulosa is that it boosts luteinizing hormone (LH) levels. LH also plays a crucial role in testosterone synthesis, and by increasing its levels, testosterone synthesis can be increased. This is especially the case when Cistanche is combined with Tongkat Ali (Aka: Malaysian Ginseng), as the extra LH results in even greater testosterone synthesis when taking Tongkat Ali!
Growth Hormone: Cistanche tubulosa has been shown to activate ghrelin receptors, which is also sometimes referred to as the “hunger receptor” because it tells the body when it needs to eat. Echinacoside and acteoside both bind to ghrelin receptors, with echinacoside having the strongest binding affinity. When ghrelin is activated, it also increases the secretion of growth hormones. This is a pretty fascinating effect, and something that is not often seen in nature. Especially not alongside potent testosterone increasing effects! An interesting thing to note about Cistanche and its effects at the ghrelin receptors, is that it does not always seem to cause the classical hunger effects as are seen in other selective ghrelin agonists. In fact, Cistanche tubulosa may exert somewhat of an “adaptogenic” effect on ghrelin receptors and appetite… brining it up if its low and settling it down if its high.
Mood Boost – Gut Brain Axis: Cistanche tubulosa has a very interesting effect on mood! It seems to produce this effect by regulating the levels of various bacteria in the gut. This is still not fully understood mechanistically, but most of the neurotransmitters in our brain originate from our diet and gut. For example, the bulk of the serotonin in our brains comes from the amino acid L-Tryptophan which we acquire from our diet. L-Tryptophan is then converted to 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) and 5-HTP is then converted to 5-hydroxytryptamine (Serotonin). The fascinating thing is that about 90% of this process occurs in specialized cells in the gut called enterochromaffin cells, and it just so happens that various bacteria (Bacteroides and Parabacteroides) that Cistanche tubulosa helps to increase is the same bacteria that helps supports the biosynthesis of serotonin in these enterochromaffin cells! Furthermore, the bacteria Ruminococcus is negatively correlated with serotonin levels in the brain, and conveniently Cistanche tubulosa actually downregulates the levels of this bacteria. This balancing act that Cistanche tubulosa pulls off is also correlated with better regulation of specific short-chain fatty acids such as acetate, hexanoic acid iso-butyrate and iso-valeric acid. This likely is also mediated through gut microbiota, and the proper regulation of these short-chain fatty acids also appears to play a big role in mood. Overall, Cistanche tubulosa really took me by surprise with its mood promoting effects, and anecdotal reports from users do indeed seem to confirm that Cistanche tubulosa has a fantastic effect on mood, especially after giving it sometime!
Focus and Memory: Most of Cistanche’s focus and memory support comes from the same methods as we talked about in the mood boost section above. By promoting the creation of more neurotransmitters (via modulation of the gut-brain axis), Cistanche helps with neural communication, which is a necessary part of sustaining a healthy nervous system. One study showed that after consistent use of Cistanche, people were able to recall significantly more information and faster than control groups. They also found that Cistanche’s benefits remained consistent throughout testing.
Cistanche tubulosa might be the new kid on the block for testosterone and growth hormone. However, its use for these benefits dates back over 2000 years and is now being substantiated by modern science. It seems to work even better when combined with Tongkat Ali as an adaptogenic super combo.
Disclaimer: The above article is merely a guide and is in no way a recommendation or a treatment protocol for any health conditions or diseases. You should always consult with a qualified healthcare provider before changing your supplement, training or nutritional strategy. Supplementation should not be attempted by pregnant or breastfeeding women, anyone on prescription medication or children under the age of 15 unless advised by your qualified health care provider.