Uva-ursi folium (bearberry leaf) has been traditionally used to treat symptoms of lower urinary tract infections. The most representative constituent of this herbal drug is arbutin that is rapidly absorbed in the small intestine and undergoes hepatic conjugation to form hydroquinone (HQ) conjugates. As free HQ is crucial for the safety of the herbal preparation, we reviewed published and unpublished experimental and human studies to clarify some outdated assumptions and to support the safety of therapeutic daily doses of Uva-ursi folium extract. Specifically, data on pharmacokinetics and the human exposure of arbutin and HQ were reviewed. A therapeutic recommended human daily dose of bearberry leaf extract (420 mg hydroquinone derivatives calculated as anhydrous arbutin) liberates free HQ in urine at a maximum exposure level of 11 µg/kg body weight (bw)/d. By means of an experimental no observed effect level value, a permitted daily exposure dose below which there is a negligible risk to human health was estimated for free HQ (100 µg/kg bw/d). Dietary sources of arbutin/HQ that are regularly consumed long term by humans generate comparable free HQ exposure levels. There is no direct evidence, regarding human data, supporting the fact that free HQ causes convulsion, hepatotoxicity, nephrotoxicity, or promotion of tumors in humans. Free HQ had no activity promoting pancreatic, bladder, stomach, or liver carcinogenesis. In conclusion, under the recommended use conditions Uva-ursi folium is a safe therapeutic option for treating lower urinary tract infections.
Keywords: Arctostaphylos Uvae ursi folium; Hydroquinone; arbutin; bearberry leaf; carcinogenic potential; hepatotoxicity; nephrotoxicity.