Espinheira Santa purportedly is anticancerous, antacid, antiulcerous, menstrual stimulant and a detoxifierESPINHEIRA SANTA

Family: Celastraceae

Genus: Maytenus

Species: ilicifolia

Synonyms: Celastrus ilicinus, Gymnosporia ilicina, Maytenus ilicina

Common Names: Espinheira santa, cancerosa, cangorosa, maiteno, limaosinho

Price: £22.50 – 1lb / 454 gm Bag

Parts Used: Leaves

From The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs:

Main Actions Other Actions Standard Dosage
  • reduces acid
  • relieves pain
  • prevents ulcers
  • kills germs
Decoction: 1 cup 2-3 times daily
  • aids digestion
  • cleanses blood
Capsules: 1-2 g 2-3 times daily
  • kills cancer cells
  • increases urination
  • kills leukemia cells
  • mildly laxative
  • inhibits tumors
  • promotes menstruation
  • detoxifies
  • reduces fertility

Espinheira santa is a small, shrubby evergreen tree growing to 5 m in height with leaves and berries that resemble holly. It is native to many parts of South America and southern Brazil and it is even found in city landscapes for its attractive, holly-like appearance. With over 200 species of Maytenus distributed in temperate and tropical regions throughout South America and the West Indies, there are many Maytenus species that are indigenous to the Amazon region which have been used medicinally by indigenous tribes.


This particular Maytenus species has not been used as extensively by the indigenous peoples in the Amazon region as other Maytenus trees in the area. It has been used by some native groups in Paraguay, where women use the plant as a contraceptive and fertility regulator, and to induce menstruation and abortions. Espinheira santa has a much longer and better documented history of use in urban areas and South American herbal medicine practices than in tribal areas, probably because of the types of illnesses that it treats. In Brazil, the leaves of the plant are brewed into a tea for the treatment of ulcers, indigestion, chronic gastritis, and dyspepsia (with a recorded history of use for these purposes dating back to the 1930s). The leaf tea is also applied topically to wounds, rashes, and skin cancer. In Brazilian pharmacies today, a topical ointment is made with espinheira santa and sold for skin cancer. In other herbal medicine systems in South America, espinheira santa for is used for anemia, stomach and gastric ulcers, cancer, constipation, gastritis, dyspepsia, liver disorders, and as a contraceptive. In Argentinean herbal medicine, the entire plant or leaves are infused or decocted for its antiseptic and wound healing properties and it is commonly used internally for asthma, respiratory and urinary tract infections, diarrhea, and to induce menstruation. Espinheira santa is used for skin cancer, however its most popular use has been for the treatment of ulcers, indigestion, chronic gastritis, and dyspepsia.


Espinheira santa is a source for a group of well known chemicals (found in the leaf, bark and roots of the tree) called maytansinoids. These chemicals represent a class of substances which have been studied since the early 1970’s for their antitumorous and anticancerous activities and are today, being developed into chemotherapy drugs. A different class of chemicals found in espinheira santa – triterpene chemicals called cangorins – have also evidenced significant antitumorous, antileukemic, and anticancerous properties.

The main plant chemicals in espinheira santa include: atropcangorosin, cangoaronin, cangorins A thru J, cangorinine, cangorosin A & B, celastrol, dispermol, dispermone, friedelan, friedelin, friedelinol, friedoolean, friedooleanan, ilicifolin, ilicifolinoside A thru C, kaempferol trisaccharides, kaempferol disaccharides, maitenine, maytanbutine, maytanprine, maytansine, maytenin, maytenoic acid, maytenoquinone, pristimeriin, pristimerin, quercetin trisaccharides, quercitrin, salaspermic acid, tingenol, and tingenone.


Espinheira santa has been the subject of many clinical studies, fueled by its e ffectiveness in treating ulcers and even cancer, with research beginning as early as the mid-1960s. Toxicity studies in 1978 and 1991 showed no toxicity in rats and mice in dosages up to 1 g per kg of body weight. Due to its reported traditional use as an abortive aid and contraceptive, researchers studied those aspects specifically but were unable to clinically validate these uses. In one study, a water extract fed to pregnant mice daily did not induce abortion and did not cause any fetus change. Another research group injecting pregnant rats with leaf extracts (up to 100 mg/kg) reported that it did not cause abortive effects or toxic effects to the fetus, but did interfere in fertilization and implantation in non-pregnant rats. A study in 2002 confirmed these results, again stating that a leaf extract had estrogenic actions, which suggested the anti-fertility effect may be the interference of uterine receptivity to the embryo, but did not induce abortions or have any embyrotoxic effects. It was also reported in 1998 by the same scientist that it had no effect in male mice on sperm production.

Early research performed in Brazil in the early 1970s revealed that espinheira santa, as well as a few other species in the Maytenus family, contains maytansinoid chemical compounds that showed potent antitumor and antileukemic activities in vivo and in vitro at very low dosages. Then in an 1976 plant screening program by the National Cancer Institute, an alcohol and water extract of the leaves was documented with toxicity to cancer cells at very low dosages and U.S. and European pharmaceutical companies began to show an interest in it. Two of the chemicals, named maytansine and mayteine, were extracted and tested in cancer patients in the United States and South America in the 1970s following the NCI research. Although there were some significant regressions in ovarian carcinoma and some lymphomas with maytansine, further research was not continued due to the toxicity at the dosages used. Research with the compound mayteine revealed little to no toxicity and validated its uses in traditional medicine for various types of skin cancers. In the 1990s Japanese researchers discovered a different set of compounds (triterpene chemicals) in espinheira santa which they named cangorins (cangorin A through J). These new chemicals showed cytotoxic and/or inhibitory activity against various leukemia and cancer tumor cells and the researchers have published more than eight studies on their discovery and results.

Although espinheira santa is still used in South American traditional medicine for various types of cancer, its most popular use has been for the treatment of ulcers and digestive complaints. Its potent anti-ulcerous abilities were demonstrated in a 1991 study which showed that a simple hot water extract of espinheira santa leaves was as effective as two of the leading antiulcer drugs, ranitidine (Zantac®) and cimetidine (Tagamet®). The same study showed that espinheira santa caused an increase in volume and pH of gastric juice. In 1997 a Japanese research group filed a patent on the biologically active anti-ulcer compounds found in espinheira santa as a new anti-ulcer drug.


Espinheira santa is still widely sold in Brazilian stores and pharmacies today for stomach ulcers and cancer. With its popularity and beneficial results in South America, as well as its recent western research, espinheira santa is slowly becoming more popular and well known in the United States. Leaf infusions and/or leaf powder in capsules or tablets are currently being used for ulcers, as an antacid, as a laxative, as a colic remedy, to eliminate toxins through the kidneys and skin, to support kidneys, support adrenal glands, support digestive functions, and as an adjunctive therapy for cancer.

Main Preparation Method: decoction or capsulesMain Actions (in order):
anticancerous, antacid, antiulcerous, menstrual stimulant, detoxifier Main Uses: 

  1. for cancer (melanoma, carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, lymphoma, leukemia)
  2. for stomach disorders (ulcers, acid reflux, gastritis, dyspepsia, indigestion, and to tone, balance, and strengthen the gastric tract)
  3. as a menstrual stimulant and for estrogen hormonal balancing during menopause
  4. for adrenal exhaustion and to support adrenal function
  5. for detoxification (skin, blood, kidney, stomach, adrenals)

Properties/Actions Documented by Research:
antacid, antiulcerous, anticancerous, antileukemic, antitumorous, contraceptive, estrogenicOther Properties/Actions Documented by Traditional Use:
analgesic (pain-reliever), anti-inflammatory, anti-asthmatic, anti-fertility, antiseptic, astringent, blood cleanser, carminative (expels gas), detoxifier, diuretic, gastrototonic (tones, balances, strengthens the gastric tract), laxative, menstrual stimulant, sialogogue (increases saliva), tonic (tones, balances, strengthens overall body functions)

Cautions: Do not use with estrogen-positive cancers. It may have contraceptive and estrogen-like actions.







Traditional Preparation: One cup of a standard leaf decoction is taken two to three times daily (or with meals as a digestive aid). If desired, 2–3 g of leaf powder in tablets, capsules, or stirred into juice or water once or twice daily can be substituted. A standard leaf decoction can also be applied directly to the skin for topical use for wounds, rashes, and skin cancer. See Traditional Herbal Remedies Preparation Methods page if necessary for definitions.


Research suggests that water extracts of espinheira santa may have estrogenic effects and reduce fertility in females. Women seeking treatment for infertility, attempting to get pregnant, or those with estrogen positive cancers should not use this plant.

Drug Interactions: One study with mice injected with a water extract of leaves recorded barbiturate potentiation activity. However the same study notes no potentiation activity when administered to mice orally.

Argentina for abortions, asthma, antiseptic, cancer, diarrhea, increasing saliva, menstrual difficulties, respiratory tract infections, urinary tract infections, wounds, and as an antiseptic
Brazil for asthma, bile disorders, cancer, digestive problems, gallbladder support, increasing saliva, inflammation, intestinal problems, pain, ulcers, wounds, and as a antiseptic, aphrodisiac
Paraguay for abortions, birth control, libido, menstrual regulation
Elsewhere for arthritis, asthma, cancer, contraception, digestive problems, rheumatism, spasms, tumors, water retention, wounds, and as an antiseptic


The above text has been printed from The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs by Leslie Taylor, copyrighted © 2005

All rights reserved. No part of this document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, including websites, without written permission.

A complete Technical Data Report is available for this plant.

† The statements contained herein have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The information contained in this plant database file is intended for education, entertainment and information purposes only. This information is not intended to be used to diagnose, prescribe or replace proper medical care. The plant described herein is not intended to treat, cure, diagnose, mitigate or prevent any disease. Please refer to our Conditions of Use for using this plant database file and web site.

Referenced Quotes on Espinheira Santa

Physicians’ Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines, 2nd Ed., Medical Economics Company, Inc. Montvale, NJ, 2000:

“The quinoid triterpene maytenin contained in the drug exhibits antimicrobial and tumor-inhibiting properties, particularly in topical administration for the treatment of basal cell carcinomas. Maytansine exhibits significant cytotoxic and antitumoral efficacy (similar to that of vinca alkaloids). Additionally, an ulcer-preventing effect has been demonstrated in both animal and human studies. Congorosa (Argentinean name) is used maily in South American folk medicine. In Brazil, external uses focus primarily on skin conditions such as eczema and skin ulcers. Internal uses include skin cancer, gastrointestinal complaints, gastrointestinal ulcers, hyperacidity, flatulence, gastralgia, dyspepsia, pain, states of exhaustion and anemia. In Argentina, Congorosa is used for asthma, alcoholism and as a vulnerary.”

1. “Espinheira Santa regulates stomach hydrochloric acid production and is therefore useful for stomach ulcers, especially those produced by nervousness. It also helps heal wounds. Other effects on the digestive system include its ability to restore intestinal flora, inhibit pathogenic bacteria, produce laxative effects, and benefit colic. Espinheira Santa is thought to neutralize acid throughout the whole system and aid elimination of toxins through the kidneys and skin. it is sometimes used as an anti-asthmatic agent.”

2. “Espinhiera santa has been used for nervous disorders and helps to soothe and heal stomach ulcers. It helps support the adrenal glands which may help to improve energy levels, immune response and digestion. It helps to neutralize acids throughout the body. It helps with kidney function, skin respiration, and nourishes stomach yin. South American Indians used the tree to “cure” arthritis and rheumatism.”

3. “ACTIONS Soothes nervous stomach, Neutralizes acid, Calming, Aids Kidney function TRADITIONAL USE: Used as a remedy for nervous disorders. Believed effective in treating ulcers of the stomach. Neutralizes acid throughout the system. Aids elimination via kidneys and skin. Espinheira Santa has been used as an auxiliary in the treatment of ulcers. MERIDIAN INDICATIONS: Nourishes Stomach Yin, Increases Yin. EVA POINTS: Stomach, Circulation, Kidney.”

11.” Espinheira santa’s effects also include the elimination of toxins in the body. This plant is sometimes used as an anti-asthmatic agent. Espinheira santa benefits the intestinal tract and the immune system indirectly by inhibiting pathogenic bacteria and helping restore the intestinal flora, a characteristic shared with Una de gato.”

12. “It was more intriguing to learn that like the shaman in Peru, who uses the bark of chuchuhuasi, Professor Accorsi mixed pau d’arco with a species of Maytenus (M. ilicifolia Mart.), which is commonly known in Brazil as Espinheira santa. And elsewhere in the tropics, there are reports of Maytenus in African folk medicine for treating excessive mucus discharge, wounds,and cancer.

These plants contain antibiotic compounds that in animals have shown potent antitumor and antileukemic activities at very low dosages (of micrograms per kilogram of body weight). In Brazil, as part of ongoing research with local herbs to find cancer treatments, earlier clinical studies found good results with the compound mayenin, a quinoid triterpene derived from the roots of Maytenus ilicifolia. Applied topically to treat carcinomas, it showed little irritation .Other tests using the compound intravenously in patients with resistant carcinomas found best results in epidermal carcinoma (larynx, tongue base, and tonsil pillars). No toxic effects were found, but neither were there any “cures”. It appears that the best results are from topical uses, just as indicated by folk medicine.

Records in Brazil hold that the leaves of espinheira santa (Maytenus ilicifolia), which appear remarkably like those of holly, are applied as an analgesic (pain reliever), an intestinal antiseptic, and a tonic. Applications of the leaves include an ointment for treating skin cancer and a decoction as a wash for cancers. Other names in Brazil include limaosinho and cancerosa . This is the species Professor Accorsi combined with Pau d’arco.

According to various herbalists in Brazil, espinheira santa is widely available and more commonly used for such problems as acne, anemia, stomach ulcers, cancer of the uterus, and constipation. Comparable activity to a well-known anti-ulcer drug (cimetidine) was shown with a water extract of two Maytenus species (M. aquafolium and M. ilicifolia) in animals. Gastric ulcers, chronic gastritis, and dyspepsias have long been treated with Maytenus in Brazilian folk medicine, but this was the first time an anti-ulcerogenic effect was demonstrated scientifically. Oral administration showed a protective effect against ulcer formation. Maytenus also caused an increase in gastric juices and a higher pH.”

Third-Party Research on Espinheira Santa

All available third-party research on espinheira santa be found at PubMed/Medline. A partial listing of the third-party published research on espinheira santa is shown below: Anticancerous & Antileukemic Actions:

Liu Z, et al. “Metabolism studies of the anti-tumor agent maytansine and its analog ansamitocin P-3 using liquid chromatography/tandem mass spectrometry.” J. Mass. Spectrom. 2005; 40(3): 389-99.

Nakao, H., et al. “Cytotoxic activity of maytanprine isolated from Maytenus diversifolia in human leukemia K562 cells.” Biol. Pharm. Bull. 2004; 27(8): 1236-40.

Cassady, J. M., et al. “Recent developments in the maytansinoid antitumor agents.” Chem. Pharm. Bull. 2004; 52(1): 1-26.

Ohsaki, A., et al. “Four new triterpenoids from Maytenus ilicifolia.” J. Nat. Prod. 2004; 67(3): 469-71.

Horn, R. C., et al. “Antimutagenic activity of extracts of natural substances in the Salmonella/microsome assay.” Mutagenesis. 2003 Mar; 18(2): 113-8.

Buffa Filho, W., et al. “Quantitative determination for cytotoxic Friedo-nor-oleanane derivatives from five morphological types of Maytenus ilicifolia (Celastraceae) by reverse-phase high-performance liquid chromatography.” Phytochem. Anal. 2002 Mar-Apr; 13(2): 75-8.

Miura, N. et al. “Protective effects of triterpene compounds against the cytotoxicity of cadmium in HepG2 cells.” Mol. Pharm. 1999; 56(6); 1324–28.

Liu, C., et al. “Eradication of large colon tumor xenografts by targeted delivery of maytansinoids.” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 1996 Aug; 93(16): 8618-23.

Shirota, O., et al. “Cytotoxic aromatic triterpenes from Maytenus ilicifolia and Maytenus chuchuhuasca.” J. Nat. Prod. 1994; 57(12): 1675–81.

Itokawa, H., et al. “Cangorins F–J, five additional oligo-nicotinated sesquiterpene polyesters from Maytenus ilicifolia.” J. Nat. Prod. 1994; 57(4): 460–70.

Arisawa, M., et al. “Cell growth inhibition of KB cells by plant extracts.” Natural Med. 1994; 48(4): 338–347.

Itokawa, H., et al. “Oligo-nicotinated sesquiterpene polyesters from Maytenus ilicifolia.” J. Nat. Prod. 1993; 56(9); 1479–1485.

Itokawa, H., et al. “Antitumor substances from South American plants.” Pharmacobio. Dyn. 1992; 15(1): S

Fox, B. W. “Medicinal plants in tropical medicine. 2. Natural products in cancer treatment from bench to the clinic.” Trans. R. Soc. Trop. Med. Hyg. 1991; 85(1): 22-5.

Ravry, M. J., et al. “Phase II evaluation of maytansine (NSC 153858) in advanced cancer. A Southeastern Cancer Study Group trial.” Am. J. Clin. Oncol. 1985 Apr; 8(2): 148-50.

Suffnes, M. J., et al. “Current status of the NCI plant and animal product program.” J. Nat. Prod. 1982; 45: 1–14.

Cabanillas, F., et al. “Phase I study of maytansine using a 3-day schedule.” Cancer Treatment Reports. 1976; (60): 1127–39.

Chabner, B. A., et al. “Initial clinical trials of mayansine, an antitumor plant alkaloid.” Cancer Treatment Reports. 1978; (62): 429–33.

O’Connell, M. J., et al. “Phase II trial of maytansine in patients with advanced colorectal carcinoma.” Cancer Treatment Reports. 1978 (62); 1237-38.

Wolpert-Defillipes, M. K., et al. “Initial studies on the cytotoxic action of maytansine, a novel ansa macrolide.” Biochemical Pharmacology. 1975; 24: 751–54.

Melo, A. M., et al. “First observations on the topical use of primin, plumbagin and maytenin in patients with skin cancer.” Rev. Inst. Antibiot. 1974 Dec.

Monache, F. D., et al., “Maitenin: A new antitumoral substance from Maytenus sp.” Gazetta Chimica Italiana 1972; 102: 317–20.

de Santana, C. F., et al. “Primeiras observacoes sobre o emprego da maitenina em pacientes cancerosos.” Rev. Inst. Antibiot. 1971; 11: 37–49.

Hartwell, J. L. “Plants used against cancer: A survey.” Lloydia. 1968; 31: 114.

Anti-ulcer & Antacid Actions:

Cipriani, T. R., et al. “A polysaccharide from a tea (infusion) of Maytenus ilicifolia leaves with anti-ulcer protective effects.” J. Nat. Prod. 2006; 69(7):1018-21.

Ferreira, P. M., et al. “A lyophilized aqueous extract of Maytenus ilicifolia leaves inhibits histamine-mediated acid secretion in isolated frog gastric mucosa.” Planta Med. 2004 Jun; 219(2): 319-24.

Jorge, R. M., et al. “Evaluation of antinociceptive, anti-inflammatory and antiulcerogenic activities of Maytenus ilicifolia.” J. Ethnopharmacol. 2004 Sep; 94(1): 93-100.

Tabach, R., et al. “Evaluation of the anti-ulcerogenic activity of a dry extract of Maytenus ilicifolia Martius ex. Reiss produced by a jet spouted bed dryer.” Pharmazie. 2003 Aug; 58(8): 573-6.

Leite, J. P., et al. “Isolation and HPLC quantitative analysis of flavonoid glycosides from Brazilian beverages (Maytenus ilicifolia and M. aquifolium).” J. Agric. Food Chem. 2001; 49(8): 3796-801.

Queiroga, C. L., et al. “Evaluation of the antiulcerogenic activity of friedelan-3beta-ol and friedelin isolated from Maytenus ilicifolia (Celastraceae).”J. Ethnopharmacol. 2000 Oct; 72(3): 465-8.

Souza-Formigoni, M. L., et al. “Antiulcerogenic effects of two Maytenus species in laboratory animals.” J. Ethnopharmacol. August 1991.

Anti-inflammatory, Pain-Relieving & Muscle-Relaxant Actions:

Jorge, R. M., et al. “Evaluation of antinociceptive, anti-inflammatory and antiulcerogenic activities of Maytenus ilicifolia.” J. Ethnopharmacol. 2004 Sep; 94(1): 93-100.

Hnatyszyn, O., et al. “Argentinian plant extracts with relaxant effect on the smooth muscle of the corpus cavernosum of guinea pig.” Phytomedicine. 2003 Nov; 10(8): 669-74.

Antioxidant Actions:

Vellosa, J. C., et al. “Antioxidant activity of Maytenus ilicifolia root bark.” Fitoterapia. 2006 Apr; 77(3): 243-4.

Soares, L. A., et al. “Development and validation of a LC-method for determination of catechin and epicatechin in aqueous extractives from leaves of Maytenus ilicifolia.” J. Pharm. Biomed. Anal. 2004 Nov; 36(4): 787-90.

Corsino, J., et al. “Antioxidant flavan-3-ols and flavonol glycosides from Maytenus aquifolium.” Phytother. Res. 2003 Sep; 17(8) :913-6.

Vasorelaxant Actions:

Rattmann, Y. D., et al. “Nitric oxide-dependent vasorelaxation induced by extractive solutions and fractions of Maytenus ilicifolia Mart ex Reissek (Celastraceae) leaves.” J. Ethnopharmacol. 2006 Apr; 104(3): 328-35.

Antimicrobial Actions:

Melo, S. F., et al. “Effect of the Cymbopogon citratus, Maytenus ilicifolia and Baccharis genistelloides extracts against the stannous chloride oxidative damage in Escherichia coli.” Mutat. Res. 2001 Sep; 496(1-2): 33-8.

de Lima, O. G., et al. “Antimicrobial substances from higher plants. XXXVI. On the presence of maytenin and pristimerine in the cortical part of the roots of Maytenus ilicifolia from the south of Brazil.” Rev. Inst. Antibiot. 1971 Jun.

de Lima, O. G., et al. “Substabcias antimicrobiano de plantas superiores. Comunicacao XXXI. Maitenina, novo antimicrobiano con acao antineoplastica, isolade de celastracea de pernambuco.” Revista do Instituto de Antibioticos 1969; (9): 17–25.

Hormonal & Antifertility Actions:

Montanari, T., et al. “Effect of Maytenus ilicifolia Mart. on pregnant mice.” Contraception. 2002 Feb; 65(2): 171–75.

Montanari, T., et al. “Effect of Maytenus ilicifolia Mart. Ex. Reiss on spermatogenesis.” Contraception. 1998; 57(5): 335–39.

Bingel, A. S., et al. “Antifertility screening of selected plants in female rats.” Lloydia. 1976: 39(6): 475C.

Constitutents Identified:

Tiberti, L. A., et al. “Identification of flavonols in leaves of Maytenus ilicifolia and M. aquifolium (Celastraceae) by LC/UV/MS analysis.” J. Chromatogr. B. Analyt. Technol. Biomed. Life Sci. 2006 Sep 29;

Cipriani, T. R., et al. “An arabinogalactan isolated from the medicinal plant Maytenus ilicifolia.” J. Nat. Prod. 2004; 67(4): 703-6.

Leite. J. P., et al. “Isolation and HPLC quantitative analysis of flavonoid glycosides from Brazilian beverages (Maytenus ilicifolia and M. aquifolium).” J. Agric. Food Chem. 2001; 49(8): 3796-801.

Ingredients: 100% pure espinheira santa (Maytenus ilicifolia) leaves. No binders, fillers or additives are used. This product is non-irradiated and non-fumigated. It is a wild harvested product—grown naturally in the Brazilian Amazon without any pesticides or fertilizers.

Suggested Use: This plant is best prepared as an infusion (tea): Use one teaspoon of powder for each cup of water. Pour boiling water over herb in cup and allow to steep 10 minutes. Strain tea (or allow settled powder to remain in the bottom of cup) and drink warm. It is traditionally taken in ½ to 1 cup dosages, 2-3 times daily. For more complete instructions on preparing herbal infusions see the Methods for Preparing Herbal Remedies Page.


Animal studies suggests that water extracts of espinheira santa may have estrogenic effects and reduce fertility in females. Women seeking treatment for infertility, attempting to get pregnant, or those with estrogen positive cancers should not use this plant.

Drug Interactions: None reported.

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