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Himalayan Sea Buckthorn Joins the Fight Against COVID-19

How This Hardy ‘Wonder Plant’ May Help with a Host of ‘Thorny’ Problems



Sea buckthorn berries, thorns, and leaves in Ladakh (India).  ©Abhipednekar76/Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0
Sea buckthorn berries, thorns, and leaves in Ladakh (India). ©Abhipednekar76/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Through the ages, certain herbs and plants have maintained a reputation as a treatment or remedy for all kinds of health problems—from ancient ailments to infectious diseases that are new to humans, such as COVID-19. Hiding their potency beneath the ground in roots (ginger, turmeric) or behind thorns (rose hips) only seems to enhance their powers and mystique.


Sea buckthorn is one such plant: a hardy, thorny, fruiting shrub that has been used for hundreds of years in numerous cultures as a health-imparting herb.


Sea buckthorn’s reputation has not diminished with time; in fact, it is growing, keeping pace with today’s challenges. Long considered to be a unique, "magical" herb suitable for treating ailments known and unknown, it is called “Sanjeevani Booti” or “life-giving herb” in Indian culture.


The main parts of the plant, including the roots, thorns, twigs, flowers, and fruit were used traditionally by the people of India’s cold, arid region as medicine and nutritional supplement, as well as for fuel and fencing. 


Today, sea buckthorn is widely sold as a health supplement. It has been the subject of extensive research and documentation for many years, with a strong focus on its health benefits, medicinal properties, and its phytochemical composition and pharmacological characteristics.


Recently, preclinical testing of sea buckthorn has been conducted for efficacy against the COVID-19 virus and as a treatment for high-altitude sickness for Indian soldiers.

Recently, preclinical testing of sea buckthorn has been conducted for efficacy against the COVID-19 virus and as a treatment for high-altitude sickness in Indian soldiers serving at India’s northern border. 


Historical Use and Propagation of Sea Buckthorn


Sea buckthorn (Hippophae spp. L.) is a member of the Elaeagnaceae family. It is highly regarded by people in India’s alpine region and is often referred to as the “Wonder Plant,” “Ladakh Gold,” “Leh Berry,” “Golden Bush” or “Gold Mine.”

Global Sea Buckthorn distribution.  ©Wikimedia
Global Sea Buckthorn distribution. ©Wikimedia

In Eurasia, about 150 varieties of sea buckthorn have been verified based on differences in the plant’s use-value, habitat, and appearance of its berries.


A wind-pollinated, thorny, dioecious shrub (the shrubs are either male or female), sea buckthorn has slender leaves ranging from two to six centimeters in length with short petioles (leafstalks) and smooth margins. Silvery scales cover both sides of the leaves. The berries come in vibrant shades of red, orange, or yellow, and remain on the shrub through the winter.


Sea buckthorn leaves and orange fruit.  ©Kirechko/Wikimedia Public domain
Sea buckthorn leaves and orange fruit. ©Kirechko/Wikimedia Public domain

The plants are commonly found along rivers, channels, and in the vicinity of agricultural fields. They can also thrive in inhospitable environments, such as sandy, rocky, barren wastelands, and even salt-affected soils.


Sea buckthorn enjoys widespread distribution in the Leh and Kargil districts of Ladakh (India). It displays exceptional resilience to abiotic stresses like challenging soil conditions, moisture levels, and nutrient availability, as well as extreme winter temperatures of -40℃ (-40 °F). This hardy plant is highly adaptable to drought conditions, as well.


Suru Valley, Ladakh (India).  ©Wikimedia
Suru Valley, Ladakh (India). ©Wikimedia

The Nutritional Value and Usage of Sea Buckthorn


Sea buckthorn’s berries and seeds are used in ayurveda—a classic ancient Indian system of medicine developed in the period 5000–500 BC—and Ladakh's ancient traditional "Amchi" medical system to treat a variety of ailments.


The therapeutic efficacy of sea buckthorn was first described in the 8th century in the Tibetan medical classic rGyud-bZhi (Four Textbooks of Tibetan Pharmacopeia), which is the classical medical textbook of Sowa-Rigpa (Amchi/Tibetan medicine). Today, it is considered by Tibetan locals to be a powerful, all-inclusive “wonder oil,”  given its benefits for internal and external use. 


In the 1980s, the Russian Space Department gave sea buckthorn to astronauts as a nutritional supplement and to combat radiation in space.

There’s even been a “cosmic” use for sea buckthorn: In the 1980s, the Russian Space Department gave sea buckthorn to astronauts as a nutritional supplement and to treat excessive radiation exposure in space. 


More than 200 sea buckthorn-based formulations have historically been used, either alone or in combination with other medicinal plants. The most common formulations of sea buckthorn are used to treat lung and phlegm diseases, blood disorders, menstruation problems, throat infections, liver problems, spleen and stomach disorders, cancer, and diabetes.


The multitude of vitamins in these pea-sized, light-orange to dark-orange fruit berries are well known. They are one of the best sources of vitamin C (360-2500mg per 100g), not to mention a good source of polyunsaturated fatty acids, including omega-3 and omega-6. In addition, the high-quality, late-maturing berries, juice, and seeds contain a variety of minerals.


The berries primarily provide two sources of important products: juice from the fleshy tissue, and a single seed from each berry. The juice is a healthy beverage, high in suspended solids and rich in vitamin C and carotenes. Sea buckthorn fruit berries and seed oil contain over 190 different types of bioactive compounds, respectively, including minerals, vitamins, polysaccharides, unsaturated fatty acids, terpenoids, polyphenolic compounds, nonsteroidal compounds, flavonoids, organic acids, and volatile components. The seed oil contains vitamin K (109.8 to 230 mg/100g), which promotes blood clotting. The oil is extremely unsaturated and is used in cosmetics, phytopharmaceuticals, or UV skin protectant preparations due to its light absorption and emollient qualities.


Sea buckthorn oil capsules.  ©Wikimedia
Sea buckthorn oil capsules. ©Wikimedia

Sea buckthorn contains a variety of secondary metabolites and bioactive compounds that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticoagulant, antiplatelet, anticancer, anti-hyperglycemic, anti-hyperlipidemic, antimicrobial, antiviral, and neuroprotective activities. Because it contains such a variety of bioactive compounds, sea buckthorn products should only be taken under the guidance of an expert healthcare provider. Combining sea buckthorn with blood-thinning drugs or supplements, for instance, could raise the risk of bleeding.


Possible Efficacy Against COVID-19


Preclinical studies conducted by the Defense Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS) and the Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences (INMAS) in Delhi have revealed that sea buckthorn can effectively safeguard military personnel in the Himalayan border region against health issues associated with high altitudes, such as hypoxia, frostbite, and UV radiation


Experts believe that widespread cultivation of sea buckthorn could also offer solutions to combat the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, based on in vitro results, Chinese researchers have proposed iso-rhamnetin, a flavonoid compound in sea buckthorn, to be a potential therapeutic candidate compound against COVID-19. However, these studies are yet to be proven with adequate scientific data and accepted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other scientific bodies.


Promotion by the Government of India


Sea buckthorn berries and juice.  ©Samael334/istock
Sea buckthorn berries and juice. ©Samael334/istock

The Indian government’s Defense Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR) succeeded in developing technology capable of producing a drink made from the highly acidic berries of sea buckthorn. The process has been enthusiastically adopted by manufacturers, and ready-to-serve beverages are now available in the Indian market under the brand names of “Leh Berry,” “Ladakh Berry,” and “Power Berry.” 


The tea prepared from its leaves is high in flavonoids, vitamins, and therapeutic properties. As this is an effective plant for boosting the immune system, an array of products such as antioxidant herbal supplements, sea buckthorn oil, soft gel capsules, sea buckthorn beverage, jam, jelly, UV protection oil, bakery items, animal feed, etc. are at various stages of development and commercialization.


Sea buckthorn cake.  ©Maxaline/Pixabay
Sea buckthorn cake. ©Maxaline/Pixabay

In 2012, the Indian government initiated a project called the National Mission on Sea Buckthorn, with an allocation of Rs 1,000 crores (about $120,000 USD), as part of its Climate Change Program. Apart from DIHAR, Dr. Virendra Singh, who has done a seminal work on sea buckthorn at CSK Himachal Pradesh Agricultural University, Palampur, and the Indian Institute of Technology, is actively working on the therapeutic aspects of sea buckthorn to develop various medicinal products in collaboration with other research organizations and private sector companies.


Challenges to Developing Sea Buckthorn Products 


Despite the sea buckthorn plant’s many purposes and benefits, it remains a relatively underutilized and overlooked medicinal plant that deserves greater attention and techno-scientific investment to conserve and popularize it in the following ways:


  • Organized and systematized cultivation of sea buckthorn is critical for the conservation of the species, as it is presently restricted solely to the Trans-Himalayan area.


  • Because the plant is a dioecious wind-pollinated shrub, and the female bears fruit after two or three years, the gender of sea buckthorn seedlings cannot be identified until they blossom, which takes three or four years. As a result, a DNA-based marker for early-sex determination is required to advance its propagation.


  • The plant’s sharp thorns make harvesting the fruit difficult. Ease of harvesting is restricted to the accessible periphery of huge clusters of sea buckthorn plants with nearly inaccessible berries at their inner cores. Peripheral harvesting yields only about 25% to 35% of the fruit. In addition, sea buckthorn’s main growing areas are generally cut off from the rest of India for six months per year.


Long, sharp thorns on a sea buckthorn branch with male flowers.  ©Free-images.com
Long, sharp thorns on a sea buckthorn branch with male flowers. ©Free-images.com
  • Thornless and improved variants need to be bred, screened, and selected.


  • Standardized, systematized propagation methods must be created to speed up mass plant multiplication and improve plant conservation.


  • There is a strong need to develop an appropriate mechanical harvester to save both time and labor.


Future Strategies


Recently, the sea buckthorn plant’s value as an agricultural product has entirely changed its status. The Indian government’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change and various R&D organizations have initiated research and development projects due to the plant’s environmental, biotechnological, nutraceutical, pharmaceutical, and socioeconomic potential.


Traditional usage, along with enhanced economic value and recent scientific studies, have provided enormous benefits to modern civilization from what has been a lesser-known Himalayan plant, From the early 1990s, India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) has helped lead sea buckthorn research in India, initiating various R&D programs while other organizations in India have also worked on projects related to different aspects sea buckthorn. The government of India is researching how to utilize the complete potential of this wild shrub and is encouraging Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs) and other development agencies/groups to explore the value-addition potential of sea buckthorn for new products.


At present, there is a need to provide farmers with better prices and market security and develop and employ fruit harvesting machinery. Natural forests could be converted into productive crop stands by adopting modern forest management techniques to enhance the rate of fruit production and collection and ensure ample supply to sea buckthorn-based industries.

 

Farmers also need high-quality planting material for peripheral plantations, and there is a need to improve agro-techniques for growing sea buckthorn, such as standardization of spacing and pit sizes for better growth performance.

 

Finally, sea buckthorn growers need better agricultural extension and training services, as well as value-addition to their products to increase and meet market demand today and in the future. 

 

*Dr. Mahesh K. Gaur is Principal Scientist at the ICAR-Central Arid Zone Research Institute, Jodhpur, India, and is currently working at its Regional Research Station, Leh (The Union Territory of Ladakh, India). He specializes in aridlands geography and the application of satellite remote sensing, GIS, and digital image processing for natural resources mapping, management and assessment, and also researches drought, desertification, land degradation, indigenous knowledge systems, and the socio-economic milieu of the Deserts of India. He is author/editor of 10 books on Drylands, Desertification, Watershed, Food Security, Remote Sensing, etc. A member of the Association of American Geographers and the Society for Conservation Biology, and several editorial boards of journals, he has been awarded the Citizen Karamveer Award 2011 by iCONGO; and recognitions by the UGC of India and Scientific Assembly of the International Committee on Space Research (COSPAR).

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