Calamus is not a well known herb in modern Western herbalism and medicine—I didn’t learn about it in naturopathic medical school (so most of my peers don’t know it), but in an extracurricular program taught by some of the leading herbalists in the country. Herbalists are mostly of a grassroots nature, learning and using herbal medicines in their local communities, as herbalists and folk healers have done maybe as long as plants and humans have lived together, so they have a certain expertise and understanding that doctors do not.
Calamus is an interesting plant. It was originally used in European digestifs/aperitifs (traditionally drank before/after meals to stimulate and improve digestion, but now also enjoyed in fancy bars around the world just for pleasure); was carried out of its original home of Asia across the Northern hemisphere by tribes traveling over hundreds of years and thousands of miles, planting it wherever they landed, so as to have a familiar medicinal with them (that’s a similar story to dandelion’s coming to America – but for another blog).
Reflective of how the plant traveled so far, Native American tribes used it as an endurance herb, among other uses, similar to South America’s coca (no cocaine here, though), in order to travel fast and far with little food, or participate in the four day long Sun Dance; the plant is sterile and cannot reproduce itself into new ponds (it looks and grows like cattail), so if you see it growing somewhere, you know that someone once carried it there. In India, calamus is known as Vacha, which means “voice” in Sanskrit, because of its ability to improve the clarity of and sustain the voice, in singers and people giving long lectures, and also the more esoteric sense of the voice – the 5th chakra: our ability to determine what’s true and false, decide what ideals are ours and which are not, and speak decisively and clearly what our needs and truths are. Doing this requires a keen mind, discernment, and alignment with some truth higher than the small self, all of which calamus helps with, according to traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Ideally, we would have this level of mental balance, intellect, and understanding throughout life, and by both repairing our nervous system and maintaining it in a good state, calamus even acts as a brain rejuvenator and longevity medicine.
Clinically, I use it most in situations of functional neurological problems: brain fog, difficulty concentrating, poor memory, inattention, depression, etc.; and overt neurological problems: physical or toxic trauma to the nervous system, CRPS, multiple sclerosis, stroke, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy and other seizure disorders, etc., and it is often useful (not curative, because these disorders have multiple factors that must be addressed, but clearly useful, with reduction in symptom severity common). Scientific literature supports calamus’ use in neurological problems (as well as an antimicrobial, anticancer, antioxidant; in diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, pain, ulcers, and alcohol induced liver damage). I listed a few of the 500+ papers on Acorus calamus available from peer-reviewed journals below – there are too many to put them all – for the perusal of the science-minded. A brief search of any of the literature databases (PubMed, ScienceDirect, Google Scholar, etc.) will yield more studies than you likely have the free time to read.
Attached: the author’s calamus barrel and a medicinal rhizome (lobster/root-like structure that the medicine is made from)
Please note: all herbs can be dangerous or uncomfortable if taken without full knowledge of how to use them properly (including knowing how to be sure that what you bought online is what it says it is) and of the human body. This blog post is not medical advice and does not stand in, in any way, for seeing a health professional. Please get the advice of your doctor before taking calamus.
Muthuraman, Arunachalam, and Nirmal Singh. “Attenuating Effect of Acorus Calamus Extract in Chronic Constriction Injury Induced Neuropathic Pain in Rats: An Evidence of Anti-oxidative, Anti-inflammatory, Neuroprotective and Calcium Inhibitory Effects.” BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 11.1 (2011): 24.
Sandeep, Divyasree, and Cherupally Krishnan Krishnan Nair. “Protection of DNA and Membrane from γ-radiation Induced Damage by the Extract of Acorus Calamus Linn.: An in Vitro Study.” Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology 29.3 (2010): 302-07.
Shukla, Pradeep K., Vinay K. Khanna, M. Mohd Ali, Rakesh Maurya, My Khan, and Rikhab C. Srimal. “Neuroprotective Effect of Acorus Calamus against Middle Cerebral Artery Occlusion-induced Ischaemia in Rat.” Human & Experimental Toxicology 25.4 (2006): 187-94.