Thunder God Vine

August 20, 2009 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

Natural medicines are much like people. They’re complicated and they respond in vastly different ways depending on the given circumstances. In the case of herbal remedies, the issues of how a plant is grown, the extraction method by which the “active ingredients” are attained and the dosage administration can very easily be the deciding factors that determine its therapeutic potential. But there’s an important consideration beyond efficacy that should always be kept in mind – safety. The fact that something is naturally derived does not necessarily guarantee that it’s harmless. A recent study conducted on Tripterygium wilfordii (Thunder God Vine) provides an excellent example of the complexity involved in researching and selecting the best holistic options.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition that causes disfigurement, pain and swelling in joints. RA is not generally considered a degenerative condition in the same way as osteoarthritis (OA). However, it is estimated that about 10% of RA patients eventually suffer disability due to joint destruction. Most doctors and patients are aware of the many anti-inflammatory and anti-rheumatic medications that are currently utilized to manage this incurable disease. But Thunder God Vine is a natural option with decades worth of scientific validation that is neither widely discussed nor prescribed. (1,2,3)

A brand new study appearing in the Annals of Internal Medicine may be just the ticket to help popularize Tripterygium wilfordii (TwHF) in the West and worldwide. The beauty of this current trial is that: a) it was supervised by the National Institutes of Health and the University of Texas; b) it was conducted in a human population; and c) it compared the effects of this root extract to a commonly used anti-inflammatory medication, sulfasalazine (SSZ).

121 volunteers with RA participated in this 6 month experiment. Half of the participants were given 60 mg of Thunder God Vine (TwHF) three times daily. The remainder received 1,000 mg of sulfasalazine (SSZ) twice daily. All of the volunteers were allowed to continue using “stable doses” of prescriptive anti-inflammatory medications. But, they were asked to stop any anti-rheumatic drugs 4 weeks prior to the start of the trial. (4)

Blood tests, x-rays and standardized evaluations were the bases by which the relative failure or success of these therapies were measured. Here are some of the primary findings of this scientific inquiry:

  • More than twice as many of the sulfaslazine (SSZ) patients dropped out of the study as compared to the TwHF volunteers.
  • 65% of the herbal group (TwHF) and 33% of the medication group (SSZ) achieved a 20% improvement based on the American College of Rheumatology criteria (ACR 20).
  • There was a 54% and 38% success rate exhibited in TwHF users in terms of their ACR 50 and ACR 70 symptom scales. ACR 50 and ACR 70 means that these patients experienced 50% or 70% “greater symptom relief in both tender and swollen joints”. Those using SSZ, experienced improvements of only 4%.
  • There was a trend toward lesser joint damage and cartilage narrowing in the TwHF group.

The blood test results were also quite intriguing. Those receiving Thunder God Vine showed a much more significant decline in interleukin-6, a marker of inflammation. The reduction noted was a nearly 6 times greater. Similar observations were made when looking at the levels of “rheumatoid factor” in both groups. Once again, the herbal medicine outperformed its synthetic counterpart.

In terms of side effects, there was quite a bit of important data to mull through. The researchers did not detect any changes in blood pressure, body weight, insulin sensitivity or stress hormone concentrations in the TwHF group. They did however discover an increase in both “good” HDL and “bad” cholesterol levels. However, the changes did not contribute to a negative or positive shift in the ratio of “bad” to “good” cholesterol.

More of SSZ patients reported adverse reactions. It’s also important to mention that the side effects noted in the SSZ group were more likely labeled as “moderate to severe”. Most of the adverse effects in both groups related to gastrointestinal issues.

In prior studies, there have been reports of mild to serious complications associated with the use of TwHF. The concerns presented in some of those studies have led scientists to try to find novel ways to make this natural medicine safer. A few methods that have been investigated include: a) combining TwHF with other herbs such as licorice and/or a variety of traditional Chinese herbal blends; b) creating a “sustained release” tablet that allows for the medicinal properties to disperse over the course of several hours; and c) administering TwHF in topical preparations. (5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13)

TwHF is An Effective Adjunct to Conventonal RA Care
Green Bars = Sulfasalazine Group / White Bars = Thunder God Vine Group

Source: Annals of Internal Medicine – August 18, 2009 (link)

The authors of this most current trial theorize that many of the adverse reactions attributed to TwHF may have to do with issues relating to the extraction and/or purification processes employed by some manufacturers. Here, the scientists used a multi-step procedure to help improve tolerability and reduce the risk of toxicity. These added steps appear to have accomplished their goal.

There’s little question about the therapeutic activity of Thunder God Vine in the management of rheumatoid arthritis. Many animal and human studies attest to its value. But an effective drug, natural or otherwise, is impractical if it causes more harm than it’s worth. It now seems that science is discovering ways of accentuating the positive attributes of this traditional herb while at the same time leaving behind its more dangerous elements. I’m hopeful that further research will help us better understand how to best utilize this much needed Chinese treasure. (14,15,16,17,18,19)

Note: Please check out the “Comments & Updates” section of this blog – at the bottom of the page. You can find the latest research about this topic there!

Be well!


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Posted in Alternative Therapies, Bone and Joint Health, Nutritional Supplements

12 Comments & Updates to “Thunder God Vine”

  1. Nina K. Says:


    thank you very much for this informative article.

    Nina K.

  2. JP Says:

    You’re very welcome, Nina. 🙂

    Be well!


  3. christy Says:

    Thank you very much for this informative article.

  4. JP Says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, Christy!

    Be well!


  5. Melinda Winner Says:

    What a great article ! It was a really good read . informitive is correct. I actually learn some inportant facts. thanks for sharing

  6. JP Says:

    Thanks, Melinda! I’m happy to know it was informative.

    Be well!


  7. Ginny Gardner Says:

    Thank you for this article, I found it very helpful. However, the only side effect I saw was an elevated cholesterol level. What are some of the others?

  8. JP Says:


    Most of the other side effects, in this most recent trial, related to digestive issues. In general, they weren’t as severe and occurred less often than in those using the prescription medication.

    Be well!


  9. Rebecca Says:

    Thank you for writing this article in a manner that was so easy to understand.It’s very encouraging in context and you were thorough to point out both positive reactions in the patients. You let the data speak for itself.

  10. JP Says:

    Thank you for your kind words, Rebecca. I appreciate it and I’m happy to know it was of value to you.

    Be well!


  11. JC Says:

    Can anyone tell me a good reliable safe source of the Thunder GOD vine? Everything I read says you have to becareful it is made correctly ( the inner parts) since the outter is toxic and can cause death…

  12. JP Says:

    Updated: 09/16/15:

    Rheumatology (Oxford). 2015 Sep 13.

    Lower omega-3 fatty acids are associated with the presence of anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide autoantibodies in a population at risk for future rheumatoid arthritis: a nested case-control study.

    OBJECTIVE: The aim of this study was to investigate omega-3 fatty acid (FA) supplement use and omega-3 FAs in erythrocyte membranes [omega-3 FA % in erythrocyte membranes (RBC)] and their association with anti-CCP autoantibodies in a population without RA, but who are at genetic risk for RA.

    METHODS: The multicentre Studies of the Etiology of RA (SERA) cohort includes RA-free subjects who are first-degree relatives of RA probands or are enriched with the HLA-DR4 allele. In a nested case-control study, 30 SERA cases were identified who were anti-CCP2 antibody positive. We further identified 47 autoantibody negative controls, frequency matched to cases on age at study visit, sex, race and study site. Anti-CCP2 status, self-reported omega-3 FA supplement use and omega-3 FA % in RBCs were obtained from a single visit.

    RESULTS: Anti-CCP2 positive cases were less likely than controls to report omega-3 FA supplement use (odds ratio: 0.14; 95% CI 0.03, 0.68). In addition, the likelihood of anti-CCP2 positivity was inversely associated with total omega-3 FA % in RBCs (odds ratio: 0.47; 95% CI 0.24, 0.92, for a s.d. increase).

    CONCLUSION: The inverse association between anti-CCP2 positivity and self-reported omega-3 FA supplement use and omega-3 FA % in RBCs suggests that omega-3 FAs may protect against the development of RA-related autoimmunity in pre-clinical RA.

    Be well!


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