Venus Flytrap in Medicine

Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) leaf, close-up.

If you or someone you know has lymphoma, you may have encountered products containing Venus flytrap extract that claim to have anticancer properties.

While this marvel of creation certainly deserves attention, there is no evidence Venus flytrap extracts can be used to treat cancer, and side effects have been reported with its use, so buyer beware.

Where Does Venus Flytrap Grow?

Children and adults, alike, can’t help but be fascinated by this perennial plant that traps insects, then consumes them for their rich source of nitrogen.

Seemingly exotic, the Venus flytrap, or Dionaea muscipula, is actually a North American plant native to low-lying swampy areas of the southeastern United States.

Closeup: The Plant Itself

It is an herbaceous perennial that grows up to 17 inches high, with leaves about three to five inches long, with two layers modified at the end to form the trap.

The leaf sides have 15 to 20 bristles on the very edge, and three of the sensing bristles on the surface – the sensitive bristles, when stimulated by a hapless insect or the tip of a pencil, snap shut with the bristles locking closed.

The trapped insect is digested over about 6 days, after which the trap slowly re-opens.

How is it Used?

The entire fresh plant is used medicinally. Juice from the pressed fresh plant stimulates the immune system, has antineoplastic and anti spasmodic uses, according to the Physician’s Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines; also according to this source, the chief active ingredient is believed to be a substance called plumbagin, and unproven uses include the treatment of Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma as well as solid tumors.

According to the American Cancer Society, it is also used in mixtures like Carnivora, a patented formula that includes many ingredients in addition to Venus flytrap extract. Venus flytrap extract, alone, is sold in capsule and liquid form to be taken by mouth and as an injectable liquid.

Is it Helpful in Cancer?

Multiple sources indicate a lack of evidence in support of the use of Venus flytrap extract for treating cancer.

The American Cancer Society states, “Available scientific evidence does not support claims that extract from the Venus flytrap plant is effective in treating skin cancer or any other type of cancer. Some side effects have been reported with its use.”

They state, “Most of the studies done on the herbal extract were conducted by the physician who patented the drug Carnivora, who also has a large financial stake in a clinic that administers the drug and in the company that manufactures the drug.” They also note that supporters also claim that Carnivora is effective for treating colitis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, neurodermatitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, HIV, and certain types of herpes.

The bottom line for now appears to be that, although animal and laboratory studies show promise, further studies are necessary to determine whether the results apply to humans.

Precautions and Adverse Reactions

According to the PDR of Herbal Medicines, Venus flytrap extract, when delivered to the body in ways other than through digestion, has led to elevated body temperature, chills and circulatory damage, with circulatory collapse a possibility.

Adverse effects may be due to contamination with bacterial toxin. Skin contact with the fresh plant may also cause irritation.

According to the American Cancer Society, “Liquid extracts of Venus flytrap, including Carnivora, do not appear to be toxic when taken by mouth, but not enough is known about the active ingredients for scientists to ensure that they are safe.”

They also note that most of the liquid extracts of Venus flytrap contain between 25 percent and 30 percent alcohol, which may cause harmful interactions with medicines such as disulfiram and metronidazole.

As with all herbal and alternative medicines, people are urged to consult the doctor, pharmacist and health care team before beginning alternative therapies sold as dietary supplements.

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