Chinese herbalists have relied on rhubarb rhizomes and roots for thousands of years. The rhizomes and roots contain powerful anthraquinones and tannins that act as stimulant laxatives and astringents, respectively. In traditional Chinese medicine, rhubarb is also used to treat gastric ulcers, chronic renal (kidney) failure, and pregnancy-induced hypertension (high blood pressure), pre-eclampsia and eclampsia. European herbalists have recommended rhubarb as a laxative, diuretic, and to treat kidney stones, gout (foot inflammation), and liver diseases. Externally, it is recommended to heal skin sores and scabs.
The current practice of using rhubarb to treat cancer (as an ingredient in the herbal Essiac® formula) lacks the support of controlled clinical trials. However, rhubarb is being tested for multiple other conditions, including hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol) and obesity.
Use for gingivitis, chronic renal failure and upper gastrointestinal bleeding seem to be the most promising, although more research should be done in these areas, specifically with rhubarb as a monotherapy.
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Note: Garden (English) rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum or Rheum rhaponticum) is considered food rather than a medicinal herb and contains very small amount of anthraquinones.
These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.
Bleeding (upper gastrointestinal)
Rhubarb has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for many gastrointestinal disorders, including upper gastrointestinal bleeding. Preliminary evidence suggests that rhubarb may be beneficial in reducing upper gastrointestinal bleeding. Higher quality studies are necessary to confirm this hypothesis.
Pyralvex® has been used for decades as a salve for gingivitis and the oral mucosa; Parodium® was introduced more recently as a similar treatment. Their active components both include rhubarb extract. The results from several clinical studies investigating Pyralvex® and Parodium® indicate that these combination treatments may be beneficial in treating gingivitis. However, additional study is needed in this area.
Renal failure (chronic)
A traditional Chinese medicine, rhubarb has shown positive effects on renal (kidney) failure in the lab and seems promising in human studies. In some studies, rhubarb is more effective than captopril, and rhubarb combined with captopril is more effective than either substance alone. Higher quality studies are necessary to confirm this hypothesis.
Age-associated memory impairment (AAMI)
Preliminary study has investigated rhubarb along with other herbs in the treatment of AAMI. Studies of rhubarb alone are needed to discern rhubarb's effect on aging and memory.
A combination mixture containing rhubarb seemed to alleviate aplastic anemia. However, the role of rhubarb in the treatment of this condition is still to be determined and additional study is needed in this area.
Rhubarb has been used in multiple cultures as a laxative. Although preliminary study is promising, more studies using rhubarb alone are needed to confirm these results.
Fatty liver (non alcoholic)
A combination therapy, which included rhubarb, has been studied for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Because the therapy involved multiple herbs and other treatments, the effect of rhubarb on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is difficult to discern. Additional study using rhubarb alone is needed in this area.
Gastrointestinal cancer surgery
Rhubarb has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for many gastrointestinal disorders. Currently, there is insufficient available evidence to recommend for or against the use of rhubarb for gastrointestinal cancer surgery.
Gastrointestinal tract disorders
One double-blind controlled trial examined the effect of the herbal extract "Amaro Medicinale Giuliani" and its constituents, including rhubarb, on mild gastrointestinal disturbances. Although the herbal extract and a combination of rhubarb and gentian seem promising, higher quality studies with rhubarb as a monotherapy are need to discern rhubarb's effect on gastrointestinal disturbances.
Hemorrhage (nephritic syndrome)
One controlled trial indicates that a combination of rhubarb and sanchi powder seemed to reduce the hemorrhagic effects of nephritic syndrome more than dicynonum. However, higher-quality studies using rhubarb as a monotherapy are needed to discern rhubarb's effects on coagulation and bleeding time.
Two studies have been conducted on rhubarb and its effects on hepatitis. In the case series, high doses of rhubarb decreased the symptoms and serum levels associated with hepatitis. However, more higher quality studies are needed to establish rhubarb's effect.
One double-blind, controlled trial indicates that topically applied rhubarb-sage extract cream may reduce the symptoms of herpes. More high quality studies using rhubarb as a monotherapy are needed to discern rhubarb's effect on herpes symptoms.
Two very different uses of the rhubarb plant have been examined for their effects on hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol). In one study, a combination product containing rhubarb (
One clinical trial has looked at the effect of a combination therapy that includes rhubarb on nasopharyngeal carcinoma (cancer of the nasopharynx). More higher quality studies with rhubarb as a monotherapy are needed to discern how rhubarb affects nasopharyngeal carcinoma.
Nephritis (mid-advanced crescentic)
A preliminary study using the combination therapy of decoction of qingre huoxue recipe (QHR), which contains less than 10% of rhubarb, may improve renal (kidney) function in patients with mid-advanced crescentic nephritis. Higher quality studies using rhubarb as a monotherapy are needed to evaluate rhubarb's effect on nephritis.
One three-stage study as looked at the effects of rhubarb on simple obesity. Although the study indicates a positive effect compared to two other obesity treatments and a control group, more high quality studies are needed to confirm rhubarb's role in weight gain and loss.
Two studies on rhubarb's effect on pre-eclampsia (a pregnancy disorder characterized by high blood pressure, swelling, and kidney malfunction) indicate that it may be a helpful treatment. More high quality trials are needed to confirm this hypothesis.
Sepsis (systemic inflammation reaction syndrome - SIRS)
One study indicates that rhubarb may be helpful in treating systemic inflammation reaction syndrome. However, more high quality, large studies are needed to confirm this hypothesis.