Uva Ursi – Bearberry

Arctostaphylos Uva Ursi, commonly referred to as Bearberry or “Kinnikinnick” (a first nation word to designed a “smoking mixture”) is a trailing evergreen shrub that produces red berries. Evidence of the plant being used medicinally dates as far back as the second century.

It is largely used to treat urinary tract, bladder, and kidney infections. It can also be used to soothe upset stomachs, boost the immune system, reduce inflammation, ease bronchitis, clear up constipation, and to detoxify the body. Native American tribes also smoked the leaves of plant for spiritual purposes, as they believe the exhaled smoke brings their wishes to higher powers.

uva ursi with red fruits in nature
Leaves and ripe berries of bearberry

The leaves of the Uva Ursi are sold commercially as a crushed leaf or powder and can be brewed into a tea, used as a tincture, or ingested orally by capsule. Only the leaves of the evergreen shrub are used for medicinal purposes, not the berries.

Effect when smoked: mild and relaxing. Some have likened the effect to mild intoxication.

How is it to smoke uva ursi? It has a medium smoke with an earthy, powerful flavor

Be careful: The herb should not be used daily for more than 1-2 weeks because of it’s toxicity.

Overview

Uva ursi is a trailing evergreen shrub that produces pink and white flowers in the spring, and in the summer, the flowers are replaced by red berries. Other names for this plant include kinnikinnick, rockberry, beargrape, and sandberry; among others.

The name uva ursi is Latin and the English translation is “bear’s grape”. It was given the name due to the red berries of the plant, which bears like to eat. A low-growing shrub, in a garden, uva ursi is often used as a ground cover. It grows well in rocky soils in locations that receive full or partial sun. The shrub can grow in a variety of terrains, such as open wooded areas, beaches, and mountains. While it can grow in both warm and cold climates, it prefers a temperate environment. It grows naturally in regions around the world, including North America, Europe, the Himalayas, Siberia, and the Iberian Peninsula. 

History

Bearberry was first documented for medicinal use in The Physicians Myddfaia Welsh herbal directory that dates back to the 13th century. Clusius also described using the herb in 1601, and Gerhard, et al, suggested that the herb be used for medicinal purposes in 1763. 

According to folklore, Marco Polo claimed that the Chinese used the plant as a natural diuretic to treat urinary tract infections. Native Americans also smoked the leaves of the bearberry plant. They crushed the leaves, mixed with other herbs and tobacco, smoked it using pipes in religious ceremonies, as they believed the exhaled smoke brought their wishes to higher powers. When uva ursi leaves are used in combination with tobacco and other herbs, it is known as “kinnikinnick”, which means “smoking mixture” in the native language of the Algonquian tribe.

In some areas of Europe, the leaves of the bearberry plant are used as a traditional medicine. Bearberries leaves are actually officially classified as “herbal medicine“. 

Uva Ursi Health Benefits

Medicinally, uva ursis is largely used to treat urinary tract infections, including bladder and kidney infection. The plant contains glyocsides, which, in the human body turns into hydroquinone, a substance that contains antibacterial qualities. As such, it helps to reduce bacteria levels in the urine; hence why it is most commonly used to treat infections in the urinary tract.

The plant also possesses astringent qualities, which has an effect on the body’s mucous membranes. Therefore, it is believed that the uva ursi can be an effective way to reduce inflammation. It should be noted, however, that there is no clinical evidence available to support this claim.

Uva ursi’s ability to fight infections is lined to the numerous natural chemicals that it contains, such as hydroquinone and arbutin, as well as tannins, a property that creates the astringent effect that are associated with the plant.

When applied topically, it has been found that uva ursi had a lightening effect on the skin, according to a pilot study on hyperpigmentation in adults. This study found that out of the six adults who participated, four experienced hyperpigmentation after uva ursi was applied to their skin and they were exposed to ultraviolet light.

There are several other medicinal uses that are connected to uva ursi; however, there isn’t enough scientific evidence to support the efficacy for these uses, which include:

  • Immune system strengthening
  • Easing stomach upset
  • Detoxification of the body
  • Easing constipation
  • Soothing bronchitis symptoms
Uva ursi dried medicinal herbs on white background
Uva ursi dried medicinal herbs

For medicinal purposes, only the leaves of the plant are used; not the berries. Uva ursi leaves are crushed or ground into a fine powder. Both the crushed and powdered leaves can be used in a variety of preparations; for example, it can be steeped as a tea and drank, it can be placed in capsules and taken orally, or it can be added to oils and used as a tincture. Additionally, derivatives of the uva ursi shrub can be used topically.

Smoking Uva Ursi

As mentioned, uva ursi has long been smoked by Native Americans in religious ceremonies. The leaves of the plant are ground up and mixed with tobacco and other herbs, which, when combined, are referred to as “kinnikinnik”, the Algonquin word for “smoking mixture”.

According to some historical documents, when the leaves are smoked on their own, it has a narcotic-like or stimulant effect; however, because it is almost always mixed with tobacco and other herbs, the effects when smoked are reduced and create a feeling of mild intoxication.

There are several historical references related to smoking uva ursi. One such reference comes from a book titled “Life in the Far West”, which was written by Frederick Geo. Ruxton in 1848:

There are also certain creeks where the Indians resort to lay in a store of kinnik-kinnik (the inner bark of the red willow), which they use as a substitute for tobacco, and which has an aromatic and very pungent flavour. It is prepared for smoking by being scraped in thin curly flakes from the slender saplings, and crisped before the fire, after which it is rubbed between the hands into a form resembling leaf tobacco, and stored in skin bags for use. It has a highly narcotic effect on those not habituated to its use, and produces a heaviness sometimes approaching stupefaction, altogether different from the soothing effects of tobacco.

Side Effects & Toxicity

It’s important to note that uva ursi has been associated with several possible side effects. While use of the herb is generally considered safe for adults when taken in small doses and over a short period of time, there is a possibility of adverse and even severe side effects when large quantities are taken over a long period of time.

Short-term uva ursi side effects can include the following:

  •          Upset stomach, nausea, and vomiting
  •          Discolored urine (greenish-brown in color)
  •          Sleep disruptions/insomnia
  •          Irritability

Long-term, high dosage uva ursi side effects could potentially result in:

  •          Difficulty breathing
  •          Kidney and liver damage
  •          Vision/eye problems
  •          Seizures
  •          Death

There are signs of toxicity that users should be aware of. If you are experiencing any of the following after using uva ursi tea, applying it topically, ingesting it orally, or smoking uva ursi, you should immediately stop using and seek medical attention:

  •          Tinnitus (ringing in the ears for no apparent reason)
  •          Nausea and vomiting
  •          Shortness of breath/inability to breath
  •          Shaking and convulsions
  •          Delirium

When discussing potential uva ursi side effects, it is important to note that there are possible contraindications; in other words, use of the herb should not be combined with other supplements, medications, vitamins, or drugs, or it should not be used by people who have been diagnosed with certain medical conditions. You should not take uva ursi if you are using or have been diagnosed with any of the following:

  •          Lithium
  •          A kidney disorder
  •          High blood pressure
  •          Crohn’s disease
  •          Ulcers
  •          Digestive health issues
  •          Liver disease
  •          Thinning of the retina
  •          Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or corticosteroids
  •          Iron supplements

Additionally, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not use uva ursi. The herb should also never be given to children.

Uva Ursi Legality

To date, uva ursi is legal to use. As the time of writing, there were no reports of the herb being illegal to consume or use for medicinal or any other purposes in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Japan, or Australia. Many natural health practitioners recommend using the herb to treat certain ailments.

With that said, however, if you intend on using uva ursi, it is a good idea to check in with your health care provider to ensure that it would be deemed safe for you to use. Patients who are unaware that they are suffering from underlying health conditions and begin using the herb could potentially exhibit negative and possibly dangerous side effects. Therefore, as with any supplement, speaking to your health care professional before you begin using herbal products is recommended.

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