Uva Ursi

Latin Names: Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, Arctostaphylos spp.

Other Names: Bearberry (English), Kinnikinnik (Native American), Pinguica, Manzanita (Spanish)

Taxonomy: Vegetable Kingdom, Ericaceae family

Part Used: Leaves and fruits / berries

Basic Qualities: Moderately cooling and drying

Other Qualities: Binding and Astringent

Taste: Acrid, bittersweet, astringent

Humoral Dynamics: Phlegmatic – a diuretic that drains excess fluids from the body.  Choleric – dispels excess heat and inflammation.  Melancholic – a binding astringent and astringent tonic that tones and heals the tissues and mucosa, especially of the genitourinary tract.  If you remember that the basic qualities of Uva Ursi are cooling and drying, all the above humoral dynamics make sense, and are explained by these basic qualities.

Tropism: The kidneys, bladder and genitourinary tract; the stomach, liver and spleen; the pelvic cavity and its organs, including the uterus; the mucosal tissues of the body.

Constituents and Pharmacology: The leaves are very rich in tannins, as are the seeds and inner parts of the berries. The main active constituent of Uva Ursi is Arbutin, a glycoside which metabolizes into hydroquinone, upon which i ts diuretic, disinfectant and antimicrobial properties depend. Other important constituents include allantoin and ursolic acid.

Medicinal Properties: Antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiseptic, astringent, astringent tonic, cicatrizant, disinfectant, diuretic, tonic, vulnerary.

Cautions and Contraindications: The leaves of Uva Ursi are very astringent and rich in tannins, which can make them problematic for those whose mucosal tissues are hypersensitive and easily prone to irritation, especially in the genitourinary tract, although other mucosal tissues and smooth muscles are also potentially vulnerable, like griping or cramping in the stomach and GI tract.  Because of this, some herbalists, like Michael Moore, feel that Uva Ursi is not suitable for long term use, but for short term use in urinary tract infections; if the infection does not respond in a few days, try another remedy.  The berries, called Frutas de Pinguica in Mexican herbal medicine, are a lot milder and less astringent, especially when brewed as a tea in their whole form; I personally prefer the berries to the leaves, for this reason.  The astringency of the leaves is usually better tolerated in alcoholic tincture form, but listen to your body, and what it is telling you on that score.  Because Uva Ursi is a diuretic, its use may increase or hasten the excretion of some pharmaceutical medications via the urine, thus reducing their effectiveness; if you should be taking pharmaceutical drugs, check with your doctor before taking Uva Ursi.  Because Uva Ursi can cause uterine contractions, it should not be taken in pregnancy.  Some herbalists believe that the long term use of Uva Ursi will irritate the liver.

Medicinal Uses: The main use of Uva Ursi is as a urinary antiseptic and disinfectant in urinary tract infections. The healing cicatrizant and anti-inflammatory properties of Uva Ursi make it useful as a mouthwash and gargle for sore or bleeding gums, sore throat, cold sores, etc… The tea of the leaves may also be used topically as an external wash for minor cuts and scrapes due to its cicatrizant and vulnerary actions. Some herbalists claim that Uva Ursi can lower high blood sugar in type 2 diabetes, but from what I’ve seen of the scientific literature on this, the evidence for this is rather scanty. As an astringent tonic, Uva Ursi can be used, preferably in combination with other herbs, including soothing, softening demulcent and emollient herbs to moderate its astringency, to stop chronic diarrhea, and to tone up the genitourinary tract and pelvic organs in general as an astringent tonic. Because the prostate gland is a part of the genitourinary tract in males, Uva Ursi can soothe and heal an irritated or inflamed prostate.

Other Uses: Uva Ursi and its close botanical cousin, Manzanita, of Mexico and the American Southwest, is a small tree or shrub with a hard, tough, smooth and fine textured wood, with amazing reddish and orange hues; its wood is used for carvings and other small specialty wood items.  The berries are a favorite food of bears, but humans can eat the fresh berries, too.   The Native Americans call Uva Ursi Kinnikinnik, and add it to tobacco in smoking mixtures. 

Preparation and Dosage: To make a tea from the Uva Ursi leaves, take a rounded teaspoon of the dried leaves and steep it in boiling water for about five minutes; strain and drink. If the tea should be too strong in its astringency, a cup can be sipped on throughout the day. An infusion can also be made from the dried berries, but in larger doses, with a tablespoon of the dried berries being used; one can drink two cups per day of this tea, as its astringency is much less. The ground leaves or the ground berries can be made into an alcoholic tincture, or a fifty / fifty combination of the leaves and berries may be used for this purpose. Simply grind up the leaves, the berries, or a fifty / fifty combination of the two to a rough powder for easier extraction, and use two to three tablespoons of this powder per cup of 80 to 100 proof alcohol to make the tincture. Let it soak in a stoppered jar in a warm, dark place for at least two weeks – it can also be shaken daily to enhance the extraction process. Strain the finished tincture through a strainer and handkerchief, and put in dropper bottles. The dose is ten to fifteen drops, twice per day, on an empty stomach, or between meals.

Herbal Formulation: Because of the strong astringency of Uva Ursi, especially the leaves, Uva Ursi is best incorporated into herbal formulas, with its astringency moderated or buffered with other ingredients that have a soft, soothing demulcent or emollient nature. As an astringent tonic, it also combines well with other herbs that are tonic and energizing in nature, where its particular virtue is to tone up the pelvic organs and the genitourinary tract.

Classic Combinations: Perhaps the best demulcent herb and antidote to the harsh or astringent properties of Uva Ursi is Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), for a number of reasons.  First of all, it has a soothing demulcent action that counterbalances the harsh astringency of Uva Ursi, and also has a nourishing tonic effect on the genitourinary tract.  Licorice also has an anti-inflammatory action that is quite similar to that of adrenocortical hormones, which supports, reinforces and broadens the anti-inflammatory action of Uva Ursi.  Licorice also has an anti-diuretic action that moderates or counterbalances the diuretic action of Uva Ursi.  And finally, Licorice softens any harsh effects that Uva Ursi may have on the liver.  Another good demulcent and emollient for the genitourinary tract that can counterbalance the astringency of Uva Ursi is Marshmallow root (Althea officinalis).  Definitely, Marshmallow root can soften the potentially harsh effects of Uva Ursi on the genitourinary tract and its mucosa, but in my opinion, its remedial effects are not as diverse or far reaching as those of Licorice root.  Or, both Licorice and Marshmallow roots can be used together with Uva Ursi in formulas to cleanse and heal the genitourinary tract.  Another good demulcent and emollient herb that can buffer the harsh astringency of Uva Ursi is Flax Seeds (Linum ussitatissimum), which is also, like Marshmallow root, a specific for soothing urinary irritation and inflammation.  For lowering high blood sugar and improving pancreas function in type 2 diabetes, Uva Ursi can be combined with Juniper berries (Juniperis comunis), which Dr. Christopher called Cedar berries.  Both herbs are useful in lowering blood sugar, but their natures and energetics are opposite yet complementary in many ways – while Uva Ursi is binding and astringent, Juniper berries are pungent and dispersing, so there is a good complementary counterbalance in this combo.  Also, both of these herbs have diuretic effects, and both can cause minor irritation to the genitourinary mucosa, but in different ways; so I recommend adding a good demulcent like Licorice root to this duo.  With Buchu (Barosma betulina) for treating urinary tract infections, urinary dribbling and colic, and as a constitutional tonic and metabolic stimulant in type 2 diabetes.  Because Buchu is a warming, dispersing, aromatic herb like Juniper berries, there is the same opposite yet complementary counterbalancing of qualities and energetics going on in this herbal duo as well.  Juniper berries can also be added to this duo to treat urinary tract infections and high blood sugar.

Description: Manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita, Arctostaphylos pungens, Arctostaphylos spp.) is a small tree or shrub that grows wild all over the mountains of California and the American Southwest.  Its appearance is dazzling and unforgettable, with oval shaped leaves of a bright, electric green color, reddish purple berries, and stout, twisted trunks and branches of a hard, durable wood that screams out in flaming red and orangeish hues.  The purple berries color, and are prominently visible, in the fecal droppings of bears that have wandered through the mountains, which are so prevalent that they can almost be used to track bears.  Because the berries are a favorite food of bears, Uva Ursi, and its close Western botanical cousin Manzanita, which means, “little apple” in Spanish, are commonly called Bearberry, or Bear’s Grape.  In the eastern US, and in Europe, there is Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, which is the true Uva Ursi, but in Mexico and the American Southwest, you have Manzanita, which is called Pinguica in Mexican herbal medicine, but for all practical purposes in a therapeutic sense, the two varieties are virtually identical.  And so, I will be treating them as one in this description. 

In American or “gringo” herbal medicine, the leaves of Uva Ursi are used, almost exclusively.  In Mexican herbal medicine, although the leaves of Manzanita / Uva Ursi are used, being called Hojas de Pinguica, the berries, called Frutas de Pinguica, seem to be used much more frequently.  And this is a good thing, in my opinion, since the berries, and a tea or infusion made from the whole berries, is much less astringent than the leaves, and much more tonic in their effects on the human organism.  If the berries are ground to a powder, one finds that their inner parts, especially the seeds, have just about the same level of astringency as the leaves.  It is precisely this astringency which can make Uva Ursi irritating to the genitourinary passages of sensitive individuals; as the level of inherent sensitivity of the urinary and genitourinary mucosa varies considerably from one person to the next, I advise my readers to listen to their body and how it is reacting to Uva Ursi, whether it be the berries or the leaves. 

By far, the most common use for Uva Ursi is in the treatment of urinary tract infections, with a preference given to acute urinary tract infections, since many herbalists feel that the strong astringency of Uva Ursi advises against its long term use.  But as I have written above, the artful blending of Uva Ursi with soothing demulcent and emollient herbs like Licorice root and Marshmallow root can go a long ways to mitigate, reduce or counterbalance the harsh astringency of Uva Ursi.  The diuretic, disinfectant and anti-inflammatory properties of Uva Ursi in urinary tract infections depend primarily on its Arbutin content.  Arbutin is a glycoside which is metabolized into hydroquinone in the human body.  The astringent qualities of Uva Ursi make it a good astringent tonic to firm and tone up the genitourinary tract and all the pelvic organs of the body, especially in combination with the right buffering herbs and tonics.  Not only can Uva Ursi tea be used to stop diarrhea, but it can also tone up the bladder and increase proper bladder control, being a strengthening tonic to the bladder sphincter muscle.  The astringent tannins of Uva Ursi, combined with the Arbutin as well as the healing vulnerary effects of the Allantoin it contains, make Uva Ursi a great antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, as well as a healer for the whole genitourinary tract.  As we age, the organs of the pelvic cavity become lax and lose their tone, and the use of Uva Ursi, in the right preparation, dosage and formulation, can work wonders in maintaining proper tone in these organs.

Another reputed use of Uva Ursi is to treat diabetes and to lower blood sugar.  Since Arbutin is a glycoside, similar to the glycosides in Ginseng, another herb that lowers blood sugar and stimulates the metabolism, Uva Ursi could be of some use in this department.  Definitely, the famous American herbalist, Dr. Christopher, believed in the efficacy of Uva Ursi for treating diabetes, and so he included it in an herbal formula of his to treat diabetes, along with Juniper berries, which he called Cedar berries – another herb that lowers blood sugar if it is too high.  Since Uva Ursi is an astringent tonic that tones and stimulates the stomach and organs of the GI tract, as well as those of the urinary tract, Uva Ursi can be useful in cases of diabetes in which there is a run-down laxness and lack of tone in these vital organ systems.  In spite of the claims of Dr. Christopher and Jack Ritchason, ND, the author of The Little Herb Encyclopedia, that Uva Ursi lowers blood sugar in diabetes, it seems to me, from a survey of the literature on this subject, that the evidence is scanty at best.

Uva Ursi tea can be used as a healing mouthwash or gargle for those who suffer from loose teeth, sore or bleeding gums, canker cores or cold sores, due to its astringent properties.  Because it is an astringent and a cicatrizant, Uva Ursi tea can be used topically as a wash to help heal minor cuts and abrasions on the skin.  Although Uva Ursi has been recommended for many more serious conditions by other herbalists, I will leave off my discussion of Uva Ursi here with some of its more solid and proven uses.  Other claimed uses for Uva Ursi are to treat arthritis, Bright’s disease, digestive disorders, dysentery, female problems, gonorrhea, urinary stones and gravel, nephritis, obesity and weight loss – due to its diuretic effect, mainly for cellulite and fluid retention, rheumatism, urethritis, uric acid and gout, and vaginal discharges.  I leave it to you, dear reader, to explore more extensively what it can do for your own health.

Related Species: Although Uva Ursi may be a valuable herb for treating kidney, bladder and urinary tract infections, as well as a whole host of other problems and conditions, its high level of astringency can be problematic for many individuals.  Another healing herb for the urinary tract that is an astringent tonic, but whose astringency is far gentler and less problematic is Pipsissewa or Prince’s Pine (Chimaphila umbellata).  It has many similar chemical constituents to Uva Ursi, and although it does contain tannins and is an astringent tonic herb, its astringency is not as harsh as that of Uva Ursi; consequently, it can be used for longer periods of time, and is generally regarded as being safer.  Pipsissewa’s overall therapeutic profile is quite similar to that of Uva Ursi, and is used to treat a lot of the same conditions, centering around infections of the urinary tract.  Pipsissewa’s main constituents are hydroquinones, flavonoids, triterpines, phenols, methyl salicylate, essential oil, and tannins.  In addition to treating urinary tract infections, Pipsissewa is also used to treat gout, arthritis and rheumatism, kidney stones, colds, whooping cough and bronchitis.  Although it contains many similar chemical constituents to Uva Ursi, Pipsissewa’s nature and temperament is warmer, as well as more stimulating and aromatic.  The preparation and dosage methods for Pipsissewa are also similar to those for Uva Ursi.

Pipsissewa – Benefits, Uses and Side Effects
The Little Herb Encyclopedia by Jack Ritchason, ND, Third Edition, pp. 233 – 235.  @ 1995 by Jack Ritchason.  Published by Woodland Health Books, Pleasant Grove, UT, USA.
Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, Revised and Expanded Edition, by Michael Moore, pp 156 – 159.  @ 2003 by Michael Moore.  Published by Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe.

DISCLAIMER:  The information in this article is for educational purposes only, for general health maintenance and prevention, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical disease or condition. The reader assumes all personal responsibility and liability for the application of the information contained in this article, and is advised to seek the services of a physician or licensed healthcare practitioner should his or her symptoms or condition persist or worsen.