Botanical Name: Gynura procumbens
Common Names: Mollucan Spinach, Leaves of the Gods, Sambung Nyawa which means ‘extending life’ (Malay), Daun Dewa, Bai Bing Ca, jian feng wei, daun sambung mjawa.
Sambung was discovered many centuries ago on the African continent. The genus Gynura comprises of 44 species and is distributed from tropical Africa to South and East Asia with one species in tropical Australia.
Sambung is an evergreen shrub and now found in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. It has found its way around the world and is widely used as an accepted medicine for diabetes and elevated levels of cholesterol and triglycerides and many more uses you will read about below. In Malaysia it is known as Sambung nyawa, which means “prolongation of life”, in Chinese it is called Bai Bing Cao which means “100 ailments”.
It was/is widely used to relieve kidney discomfort in Indonesia and people have been using it for the treatment of fever in Vietnam. In Thailand, it is commonly used to alleviate inflammation, rheumatism and to cure viral ailments.
Sambung grows easily from stem-cuttings. I don’t have much luck growing it from seed. I have tried a few times but have had no success, so I have given up. It’s just so easy to grow from cuttings and layering so I don’t see the point in spending any more time trying to work out why the seeds don’t germinate. I have made a video you can view here on the ways I propagated it.
It is best grown in well-draining, fertile soil that is kept moist at all times. Sambung prefers to grow in semi-shade, but can slowly be adapted to grow in full sun, provided the plant does not dry out at the roots. Initial planting under direct sunshine will result in burnt leaves and stunting in growth, but the growth should resume once the plant has acclimatised to its new growing conditions. In warm climates the plant is perennial, and will provide harvests for many years.
Sambung grows as a scrambling perennial plant with stems that can extend 5 – 6m. It can reach in height from 1 – 3m if left to grow wild, but it is easy to keep it as a small bush in pots with regular pruning. The fleshy leaves are bright green and rather smooth to touch. The shape of leaves can vary depending on the growing conditions and they can range from roundish to ovate in shape but are all shallowly toothed at the margins. Growth slows or stops in cold weather, and a hard freeze will kill the top growth, but in spring the plant quickly regenerates from the root system.
In shade, the leaves are darker green and appear rather flat but under direct sun, the two sides of each leaf may develop a slight V shape along the mid-rib and take on a lighter green colour. The leaves are also smaller when grown in the full sun. The stems can be totally purple or have patches/specks of purple. In spring the plants go through a flowering cycle and are covered in orange blooms, attracting Monarch butterflies to the nectar.
When growing very well and leaves are in excess so you can feed some to laying hens, or better still grow some plants in a poultry forage system.
Sambung is an excellent salad green. Leaves have a mild flavour, and some people say far better than spinach as a vegetable, while others say the leaves taste like green beans. The young leaves and stems taste crunchy and succulent. Leaves hold their texture well when cooked, making this a good choice for those who don't like the mucilaginous texture of many other cooked greens.
You can use the leaves on sandwiches in place of lettuce, add it to your smoothies, it can be used raw in salads, stems and leaves can be added to soups, stir-fries, casseroles, condiments and sauces, rice dishes and other savoury meals. The stems can also be used as vegetable medleys in the same way you would use celery.
Sambung is generally regarded to be a relatively harmless herb to consume. Many people just make it “a way of life” to eat 2-3 leaves a day, for the many benefits to health the plant may provide. In Java; the young shoots of this plant have been eaten raw as a vegetable for centuries. While Singaporeans find it more palatable if the leaves have been blanched in hot water before consumption, rather than eating them raw. All comes down to your preference. Try this amazing herb and decide for yourself.
Holistically, your body knows what it needs, deep inside, and that if a medicinal plant tastes particularly good to you, chances are your body needs it. I am guessing that everyone will find Sambung pleasant to taste. It is known as “Longevity Spinach” and don’t we all want to live a few more years.
In the food industry, it has been incorporated into products such as tea, kimchi, coffee powder, chocolate, candy and chewing gum. (Tan et al, 2016)
Plants are natural resources that serve as a valuable commodity and many of them are traditionally used for treatment of diseases. As scientific technologies advance, many of the plants with medicinal properties are analysed and are found to contain bioactive components for healing of various types of diseases. Scientific research is confirming what we have known for many years about the traditional uses of a lot of the plants and herbs that we consume today.
Sambung is one of those herbs where there has been a lot of scientific research for, especially for its uses in diabetes. It has rapidly gained in popularity as more people grow it and become familiar with its health benefits.
Considerable work has already been done to identify and isolate the chemical constituents from different extracts of Sambung. Numerous studies have exposed that various extracts of Sambung leaves contains several active chemical constituents such as flavonoids, saponins, tannins, terpenoids and steroid glycosides. Previous studies had also reported that Sambung leaves extracts contain rutin, kaempferol and two potential antioxidant components. (Mou, Dash, 2016)
Flavonoids are polyphenolic compounds with potential beneficial effects on human health: they reportedly have anti-allergic, anti-platelet, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumour and antioxidants activities. (Mou, Dash, 2016)
Sambung was traditionally used to decrease cholesterol levels, for eruptive fevers, kidney diseases, migraines, constipation, and rheumatism, to reduce high blood pressure, to control diabetes and for the treatment of cancer.
Before we get into the scientific papers on this great herb, our (Australian) wonderful late great herbalist Isabelle Shipherd has these two paragraphs in her book about a couple of her clients that have used Sambung and made their condition so much better.
“I came to hear of this herb from a man who called at the Herb Farm several years ago, who told me of his friend of 84 years, who had taken the leaves as a tea. He said, “His friend when 70 years of age was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He heard about the herb a few years after his cancer diagnosis and started taking the tea, and completely cleared prostate cancer. He has kept up taking the herb (5 years now), and today he looks like a man of 60.” He made the tea with 9 large leaves, finely cut, placed in a saucepan with 2 cups of water, and brought to a low simmer for 2 minutes. The liquid was strained and drunk either hot or cool.”
“Let us share a story with you about someone who is very special to Diabetes Living. He has been a type 1 diabetic for 44 years; an instructor to children on how to get improved control over their diabetes; an entrepreneur in the diabetes care industry; and a very sick man for the majority of his life. Four years ago, this man met his wife, a Thai native with a complex history of Thai medicine and herbal healing. His wife told him, “In Thailand, I have a plant that will fix your diabetes”. This man laughed, knowing with his entire being that it was impossible. It wasn't’t until this man traveled with his wife to Thailand and first tasted this miraculous plant, Paetumpung that he knew his life would never be the same. After eating the plant multiple times a day for over a month, his life was forever changed. His diabetes was under much better control and he was able to reduce his insulin requirements for the first time in 44 years. His neuropathy, and other diabetes ailments were immensely better. His blood pressure and cholesterol was down, and his energy was up.”
Anti-hyperglycaemic activity (Diabetes)
Diabetes had been reported as one of the common disease that might affect people. In general, diabetes occurs due to low levels of insulin in the body, which leads to high glucose levels in the blood. Many patients are reluctant to use pharmacological drugs due to the possible side effects. So by introducing Sambung herbal therapies to the patient we could reduce the occurrence and risk of diabetes (Kamran A, 2018)
Reports are that if Diabetics eat 6-12 leaves a day they will no longer require insulin. Scientific studies on rats verify this. In Thailand it is said to be effective on Type 2 Diabetes and has proven to lower blood glucose on type 1 diabetes as well.
Infertility in Males with Diabetes
William and Pickup (2004) reported that about 90% of diabetes mellitus patients are of male at reproductive age. It is often associated with reproductive health problems such as sexual dysfunction, impotence and fertility. Sambung has the potential to improve sperm quality. Mahanem Mat Noor and Nani Rahayu (2012) showed that Sambung extract is able to improve sperm quality. The increase in sperm count indicates that this plant promotes the process of spermatogenesis in the testes. (Khaidatul/Mahanem, 2012)
Glucose plays an important role in sperm development since glucose provides the nutrients required as well as energy in supporting sperm maturation and motility (Khaidatul/Mahanem, 2012). In the metabolism of glucose process in the testes, glucose is transported into the Sertoli cells via glucose transporter. According to Oonk and Grootegoed (1987) there is an insulin-specific receptor in the Sertoli cells. This confirms that insulin is involved in the transportation of glucose into the Sertoli cells. Regulation of insulin in glucose metabolism in the Sertoli cells plays a crucial role in producing normal sperm in the testes. Daily oral administration of Sambung extract for 14 consecutive days significantly reduces the FBG(fasting blood glucose) level and increase the fertility and libido of diabetic-induced male rats. (Khaidatul/Mahanem, 2012)
Based on the results obtained in the above study, the testosterone level elevated after 14 days of treatment. Testosterone hormone plays and important role in maintaining the function of male reproductive system. This suggests that Sambung extract affects male sexual behaviour through hormone regulation. (Khaidatul/Mahanem, 2012).
For non-diabetics, it is said, the herb does not have this lowering glucose level affect, and it is interesting, that, non-diabetics are able to get the other therapeutic benefits of Sambung without the danger of having their blood sugar levels manipulated below normal levels.
Sambung has also long been used as traditional treatment for cancers such as leukemia, uterine and breast cancers. Cancer is a global disease which severely effects the human population. Medicinal plants continue to provide discovery of new drugs that could be major leads against various pharmacological targets, particularly in cancer disease. Approximately about 80% decrease in azoxymethane induced aberrant crypt foci in rats preventing colon cancer when treated with ethanolic extract of Sambung. Sambung triggered a significant decrease in expression and activity of cytochrome P450 enzymes such as CYP3A4, CYP1A2 and CYP1A1 that may lead to drop in the conversion of the respective procarcinogens to cancer triggers. (Kamran A, 2018)
In general, the blockade of angiogenesis pathways will result in inhibition of growth, invasion and metastasis of tumour cells. Sambung was shown to exhibit antiangiogenic activity. (Kamran A, 2018)
Sambung contains asparaginase. Asparaginase is an enzyme that has been found to lower levels of acrylamides in the body. Researchers say, acrylamides are seen as cancer causing substances that are created when some foods are fried, baked, grilled or roasted. Acrylamides have also been found in foods, grown on mineral deleted soils. The addition of asparaginase to foods is one strategy to lower acrylamide levels in foods, and this is where Sambung comes in by eating a few leaves daily, we provide a natural source of asparaginase.
Short term (10 weeks) treatment of the ethanolic extract was found to suppress the progression of nitroquinoline 1-oxide-induced tongue carcinogenesis during initiation phase. Longer period (26 weeks) of administration was demonstrated to lead to high suppression of oral carcinogenesis. The ethanolic extract was also shown to be effective against carcinogenetic effect on the liver. (Tan et al, 2016). Sambung has also been tested on osteosarcoma cell line. The treatment has resulted in inhibition of cell proliferation and was observed to suppress the invasive and migratory abilities of the cancer cells. (Tan et al, 2016)
Sambung has also demonstrated its potential in preventing breast cancer. It was shown to cause effective suppression in proliferation of breast cancer and epithelial cells of mammary glands. Besides, the further studies conducted has proven that the treatment of Sambung was able to reduce the tumour incidence in the animals tested. (Tan et al, 2016)
Cancer patients frequently consume herbal medicine as complementary and alternative medicine while undergoing chemotherapy (Cheng et al, 2010). In view of this, co-treatment studies of Sambung and chemotherapy drugs have been carried out. The combination of Sambung extract with doxorubicin or 5-fluorouracil resulted in strong synergistic effect against breast and colon cancer cells. However, co-treatment of Samgung with cisplatin appeared to be antagonistic as this combination failed to further suppress cancer cell proliferation. This demonstrates that the concomitant use of Sambung with different chemotherapy drugs might result in variable treatment efficacy. (Tan et al, 2016)
Sambung leaves extract is used to treat local inflammation and rheumatism. The ethanolic extract of Sambung leaves has found to possess significant anti-inflammatory actions through steroids that have been isolated from the plant extracts. Flavonoids found in Sambung have also been reported to have an anti-inflammatory effect. (Mou, Dash, 2016)
Wound healing enhancement activity
Normal wound healing response begins as soon as the tissue is injured. Wound healing is the process of repair that follows injury to the skin and other soft tissues. Following injury, an inflammatory response occurs and the cells below the dermis begin to increase collagen production. Later, the epithelial tissue is regenerated. Wound healing, or wound repair is an intricate process in which the skin repairs itself after injury (Zahra et al, 2011)
When an ethanolic extract was tested, it showed significant dermal healing signs, less scar width and considerable faster healing rate. Topical application significantly accelerated the rate of wound healing, by increasing the regulation of collagen expression and promotes angiogenesis. Antioxidants have been reported to show a significant role in the wound healing process and expressively improve wound healing and protect tissues from oxidative damage. Sambung contains a wide array of free radical scavenging molecules and flavonoids were the major naturally occurring antioxidant components in this plant. According to Akowuah et al, flavonoids present in Sambung may be responsible for wound healing activity because it lessens lipid peroxidation and promotes the strength of collagen fibres. (Kamran A, 2018). Krishnan et al revealed that the root extract has the highest antioxidant activity when compared to the other parts of the plant. (Kamran A, 2018)
Sambung is mentioned in traditional Chinese medicine as a topical anti-inflammatory remedy. In Thailand it is externally used as anti-itching, anti-inflammatory and anti-herpes virus. Sambung leaves poultice is applied for rheumatism and muscle pains, ulcers, wounds and inflammations.
The applications of Sambung in personal care and cosmetic products have also been reported which including hand-washing solution, hand sanitizer, oral spray, facial masks and skin care creams. (Tan et al, 2016)
According to the Plant Resources of South East Asia, this plant is also used in Africa, where the boiled leaves are applied externally to relieve general body pains and raw leaves for rheumatic pains. Dried and pounded leaves are mixed with oil and applied as a poultice to treat skin complaints. It also used for the treatment of kidney problems and dysentery.
Antihypertensive and cardio protective activity
Hypertension is a key risk factor for several cardiovascular disease including coronary vascular disease and stroke. Over the past few decades, significant effort has been expended to explore medicinal plant with antihypertensive therapeutic effect including Sambung.
Hoe et al found that Sambung could be used to prevent hypertension as it has been reported to result in significant lowering of systolic blood pressure and mean arterial pressure in hypertensive rats. Basic mechanisms regulating blood pressure are control of blood vessels diameter, heart rate, contractility and regulation of blood volume. The chemical constituents present in Sambung can inhibit calcium influx in the muscles of the blood vessels. Due to the absence of calcium, the muscles of blood vessels relax and blood pressure lowers.
The antimicrobial activity of ethanolic extract of aerial plant parts has been established to show virucidal and antireplicative activity against herpes simplex virus HSV-1 and HSV-2. Treatment with Sambung herbal gels reduced the number of patients infected with HSV. (Kamran A, 2018)
Other experiment showed that Sambung extract also used for antifungal activity against fungi such as Candida Albicans and Aspergillus niger. (Kamran A, 2018)
Aqueous and ethanol extract of Sambung were evaluated for antiplasmodial activities in-vetro and in-vivo. Both extracts were found to inhibit parasite proliferation to varying degrees, identified by parasite lactate dehydrogenase (PLDH) assay. The aqueous extract showed was more potent than the ethanol extract at suppressing the growth of both parasites in-vitro.
How to use Sambung
Leaves can be made as a herbal tea using 5-10 cut up leaves to 1 cup of boiling water, stir and leave to steep 5 minutes, drink hot or cool. The flavour is quite pleasant. Other herbs can be added to the tea if desired, like peppermint, lemon myrtle, etc. Leaves (bruised or placed in boiling water to soften them) are applied externally as a poultice, or made into a salve for numerous skin conditions.
Besides all of the above uses for Sambung, it has been used over the years for so much more. As one of its common names “longevity spinach” you can see why it was so called all those years ago.
In summary, Sambung has been noted for anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, anti-histamine, anti-pyretic, anti-oxidant, anti-cancer, anti-ageing, anti-allergy properties, and also actions as a blood cleanser, tonic, diuretic and pain killer. Some of its uses include: treating migraines, dyspepsia, constipation, arthritis, rheumatism, diabetes, dysentery, fevers, malaria, varicose veins, kidney stones, joint and back pain, knitting broken bones and strengthening ligaments, stroke and cardiovascular conditions, high cholesterol, lymphatic diseases, cancers, leukemia, hepatitis, detoxifier, coughs, colds, sore throats, halitosis, laryngitis, flu, sinusitis, depression, urinary infections, renal failure, varicose veins, and as a “skin-care-elixir” for skin diseases, skin care and toning, acne, boils, bites. It supports male reproductive health and performance, including prostate function. Females have taken the herb for breast firming, menstrual cycle problems, and vagina contraction.
What an amazing herb. If you like learning about herbs but don’t have the time to do the research, you should join up to my “Herbal Folklore Study Group” where we learn one herb each month. Each week for a month I will send you an email with valuable information and recipes for the herb of the month. If you are interested to learn more or to sign up – you can sign up for 6 months or just monthly depending on the herb you want to learn about.
Until next time,
An Updated Phytochemical and Pharmacological Review on Gynura procumbens - Kamaran Ashraf, Asian Journal of Pharmaceutical and Clinical Research, 29th October 2018
Gynura procumbens leaf improves Blood Glucose Level, Restores Fertility and Libido of Diabetic-induced Male Rats, Khaidatul Akmar Kamaruzaman & Mahanem Mat Noor, 2017, Sains Malaysiana
Acute toxicity study and wound healing potential of Gynura procumbens leaf extract in rats. Zahra aa, Kadir FA, Mahmood AA, Al hadi AA, Suzy SM, Sabri SZ, Latif II, Ketuly KA, 30th March, 2011
A Comprehensive Review on Gynura Procumbens Leaves, Mou KM & Dash PR, 2016, International Journal of Pharmacognosy.
Gynura procumbens: an overview of the biological Activites, Tan HL, Chan K-G, Pusparajah P, Lee L-H, Goh B-H, 15th March, 2016, Frontiers in Pharmacology.
How can I use herbs in my dairly life? Herbs are Special, Isabelle Shipherd