Good news: not everything that sounds like “cola” is bad for health! The plant Centella asiatica, commonly called gotu kola, has properties that make it useful for several health concerns, particularly those involving the skin, such as scarring and wound healing, as well as issues related to vein health.
Gotu kola is a perennial plant with kidney-shaped leaves, found in India, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, South Africa, Australia and the South Pacific, China, and Japan. It thrives in shady, moist, or marshy areas. Its bioactive properties were recognized at least as early as 2000 years ago in China, and traditional Indian medicine has employed it for wound healing, varicose veins, venous ulcers, eczema, fever, amenorrhea, and diseases of the female genitourinary tract. Modern scientific evidence strongly supports the plant’s use for wound healing and skin regeneration.
Gotu kola contains compounds that inhibit collagen degrading enzymes while simultaneously increasing the rate of new collagen synthesis. Gotu kola extract applied topically to open wounds in rats has been shown to result in faster healing compared to untreated controls, and in addition to increasing collagen synthesis, it also increased the tensile strength of the newly formed skin, which may facilitate accelerated healing. Additionally, gotu kola stimulates angiogenesis and synthesis of glycosaminoglycans, further contributing to tissue repair and regeneration. Topical application of gotu kola extract showed similar positive results in diabetic rats, a finding that holds promise for human diabetics, with diabetes contributing to generally slow and poor wound healing.
The effects of gotu kola on the synthesis of collagen and other connective tissue has led to its inclusion as a functional ingredient in cosmetic products intended to tighten and firm up the skin. Researchers note gotu kola extracts are effective for burns, psoriasis, and scleroderma. “The mechanism of action involves promoting fibroblast proliferation and increasing the synthesis of collagen and intracellular fibronectin content and also improvement of the tensile strength of newly formed skin as well as inhibiting the inflammatory phase of hypertrophic scars and keloids.” Some studies regarding gotu kola for cosmetic purposes are of poor quality, but evidence generally supports a role for both oral and topical extracts in reducing the occurrence and severity of cellulite and stretch marks.
Another area where gotu kola seems to shine is for vein health and function—in particular, chronic venous insufficiency (CVI). A systematic review of the use of this plant for this purpose noted that patients treated with gotu kola showed significant improvement in leg heaviness, pain and edema. (It should be noted, though, that the authors cautioned “most of the studies were characterized by inadequate reporting and thus had unclear risks of bias, which may threaten the validity of the conclusions.”) Individuals with severe venous hypertension, ankle swelling, and lipodermatosclerosis who received gotu kola extract twice daily for 8 weeks showed significant symptom improvement compared to those taking a placebo. Another study showed that, compared to placebo, gotu kola administered prophylactically before long-distance airline flights (as well as the day of and two days after) resulted in significant reductions in edema, ankle swelling, and other symptoms in subjects with mild-to-moderate superficial venous disease and varicose veins.
Apart from its biological activity influencing skin and vein health, gotu kola may be effective as a mild anxiolytic and antidepressant. Administration of triterpenes extracted from gotu kola led to significant reductions in serum cortisol with increased brain levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, and their metabolites. Other effects it may have in the brain include increasing attention span and enhancing cognitive function. Extracts may help protect neurons from beta-amyloid toxicity, which could hold promise for Alzheimer’s patients. So while the “other” cola might be a pick-me-up and enhance cognition in some people in the short term, gotu kola has beneficial bioactive properties that come without the high fructose corn syrup and caramel color, not to mention the blood sugar spike!