The earliest works on medicinal plants included witch hazel, primarily noting its use to treat eye inflammations, hemorrhoids, bites, stings and skin sores, diarrhea and dysentery, and many other conditions for which a plant high in tannins would produce relief by virtue of its astringency. Herbalists consider it one of the best plant medicines to check bleeding, both internally and externally. A tea made from the bark or leaves is given to stop internal bleeding. A poultice of the fresh leaves or bark was considered useful for relieving the pain and swelling of inflammations. Dipped in a cotton ball, witch hazel water is dabbed on insect bites to calm pain and relieve itching.
Depending upon how a preparation is made witch hazel products contain varying amounts of active compounds such as flavonoids, tannins (hamamelitannin and proanthocyanidins), small amounts of volatile oil, and other components, which may be responsible for its astringent action and to stop bleeding. The bark contains 31 times more hamamelitannin than the leaf extract, so preparation is important. In distilled witch hazel products much of the tannin content is lost.
A recent study shows there may be more at work in witch hazel than has been previously known. A specially filtered fraction of the extract, containing mostly proanthocyandins, was found to have significant anti-viral activity against Herpes simplex virus type 1. The same fraction was also found to have a strong antiphlogistic (inflammation-reducing) effect. In contrast, fractions high in hamamelitannin were found to have weaker antiviral or antiphlogistic activity. The significance of this study is that it shows that compounds other than tannins may play a role in witch hazel's recognized antiphlogistic effects, as well as newly recognized topical antiviral activity. Such studies serve to improve products available to consumers by helping manufacturers refine extraction processes to enhance the best possible therapeutic results.
Strong antioxidant activity against superoxide (a highly reactive form of oxygen), released by several enzymes during the inflammatory process may also play a role in witch hazel's anti-inflammatory effects. In a recent study, Japanese researchers sought plant compounds that protect cells in skin tissue from damage against harmful forms of oxygen. Witch hazel was found to have strong activity against reactive oxygen in skin tissue. The scientists proposed that witch hazel extracts should be further researched for their potential application in anti-aging or anti-wrinkling products to apply to the skin.
While most herbs are sold as dietary supplement, witch hazel is one of very few American medicinal plants still approved as an ingredient in non-prescription drugs by the Food and Drug Administration. Witch hazel is approved as an over-the-counter astringent in the external analgesic (pain-relieving), skin protectant categories, and as an external anorectal, primarily used for symptomatic relieve of hemorrhoids (as pads, ointments, or suppositories). In Germany, the bark and leaf are approved for treatment in mild diarrhea, inflammation of the gums and mucous membranes of the mouth, and mild irritation or local inflammation of the skin, hemorrhoids, and varicose veins. There, witch hazel is considered astringent, inhibits-inflammation, and locally styptic.
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