Horsetail herb, also known by its botanical name Equisetum, is a popular remedy for osteoporosis. The first thing everyone needs to know about horsetail is that it can be very helpful but it is not something anyone should take indefinitely. It is important to take an occasional “vacation” from horsetail supplements. It is also important to understand that horsetail is helpful but it’s not a cure-all. Horsetail should be taken with other important supplements and nutrients, in the context of a comprehensive program to support bone health.
What is horsetail?
Horsetail has been used as an herb at least since Greek and Roman times. The plant pops up from the ground every spring with shoots that look like stalks of asparagus. As it matures and dies, silica crystals that look like feathery crystals accumulate on its stems and give the plant a bristly texture, something like a horse’s tail.
Ancient herbalists employed horsetail as a styptic, to stop bleeding. They also used it to treat conditions we would now regard as kidney problems and to relieve tuberculosis. Modern uses of the herb include cosmetics for rejuvenating dry skin, treatments for kidney stones, urinary tract infections, brittle nails, and recovery from minor burns, and nutritional support for osteoporosis.
What does horsetail do for osteoporosis?
The silicon content of horsetail is useful for increasing the mineral content of bone, but this herb is not useful just as a nutrient. Scientific studies have established that horsetail:
- Helps bones absorb the calcium they need.
- Stimulates the stabilization of the collagen that “glues” bone crystals together by the prolyl hydroxylase enzyme.
- Stimulates the production of new osteoblasts, the cells that build new bone.
- Inhibits the activity of osteoclasts, the cells that break down existing bone.
Horsetail contains polyphenol compounds that as a natural antihistamine. These antihistamines interfere with inflammation that also breaks down bone.
How do we really know that horsetail works?
The clinical research into the use of horsetail in treating osteoporosis is limited but the findings are positive. Italian researchers gave 122 women a formula called Osteosil. This over-the-counter product is a combination of horsetail and calcium. The study was not tightly controlled so that the results rise above statistical scrutiny, but the women who took the horsetail product had greater improvements in bone density than those who did not.
Some studies have found that horsetail plus a variety of nutritional supplements gets better results than the prescription drug raloxifene. However, it is important to understand that horsetail by itself is not enough for supporting healthy bones and recovery from osteoporosis.
What is the best way to use horsetail supplements?
Horsetail isn’t a wonder-herb. The researchers who have studied all started with prescription medications as the first line of treatment. When they found that the standard prescription of raloxifene plus calcium and vitamin D really didn’t get significant results in most users, they began adding nutritional supplements. They added zinc to enhance bone mineralization. Then they added vitamin C in modest doses to support anti-inflammatory enzymes. Then they added L-arginine, L-lysine, and L-proline amino acid supplements to provide the raw materials for making the collagen that helps bones stay together. Only after they tested the effects of standard prescription medications (which they did not drop from treatment plans) and good nutrition did they add horsetail as an herbal treatment.
Horsetail only works when all the other essential nutritional elements are in place. People who are overweight or who do not get a lot of sun typically need a vitamin D supplement. As little as 1000 IU a day will slowly bring vitamin D levels back to normal, although it takes longer in people who have a lot of fatty tissue because the fat locks up the vitamin. There is an upper limit to how much calcium the body can absorb, and that is about 400 mg per dose. Taking more than 400 mg of calcium at any one time does not do any good. It is unusual for anyone to suffer an amino acid deficiency, but when the consumption of protein foods is limited, then the L-arginine, L-lysine, and L-proline supplements help. It is not unusual to suffer a zinc deficiency, but it is important to limit zinc to protect copper. For long-term supplementation, no more than 30 mg of zinc a day is helpful, and it is best also to take 1-3 mg of copper. Magnesium may also be helpful, as may be boron.
Two precautions for using horsetail
There are a number of forms of horsetail. Because the active ingredients of the herb that stimulate bone growth and inhibit bone breakdown are not water-soluble, it is best to use a horsetail tincture or horsetail capsule rather than a horsetail powder or a horsetail tea. Different products have different concentrations of the herb, so follow label directions.
Horsetail contains compounds similar to nicotine, so it should not be given to children. Treatment with horsetail is more effective if it is intermittent, three months on, three months off, to maximize bone response.