Number 1
September 1996

Herbs in this issue:
Lycium fruit






A Note From Dr. Leung


     Why am I writing this newsletter?  I don’t even like to write and I am a slow writer.  But the following two of my favorite quotes will provide a clue:  (1)  An agitator in the washing machine gets the dirt out; and (2)  Optimism is a state of mind that allows a teakettle to sing while in hot water up to its neck. 

     I have no idea who were responsible for these sayings.  The first one is from the hippie era of the sixties, which a good friend of mine has framed above his desk, while the second is from a fortune cookie that I have kept in my wallet for a number of years now.  The two together symbolize my philosophy and way of life.  For over twenty years I have been advocating product integrity and quality in the herbal industry and have been an out-spoken critic in this field.  My problem is that I can’t keep my mouth shut whenever I see truth being twisted or unethical conduct in business or government.  This often puts me into direct conflict with the offenders, about which I could care less. It also at


Dr. Leung is author of the Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics (Wiley-Interscience), which was published in 1980 and revised in 1996. He is also creator of PHYTOMED, a prototype computer database on Chinese herbal medicine developed under contract with the National Cancer Institute.


times gets me into disfavor among my colleagues who then consider me an “agitator” because I have rocked the boat.  I don’t blame them because their hands are tied as their livelihood depends on financial support from these companies.  However, being a perpetual optimist, I sincerely believe my actions have made a positive contribution to the quality of commercial products over the years, as well as correcting certain misinformation (or lack of information) on Chinese herbs such as the different nature between American and Asian ginseng and that between raw and cured fo-ti.  So, I continue to “sing” like the teakettle, trusting my message will eventually get across. 

          Another major reason that I am writing this newsletter has to do with promotion of Chinese herbs in America during the past few years.  As interest in Chinese herbs skyrocketed, self-proclaimed experts suddenly appeared.  Companies that have dabbled in Chinese herbs but have never been known to have any real knowledge of this subject are now representing themselves as experts in the field.  And companies that have been selling adulterated herbal extracts are also suddenly projecting themselves as progenitors of product quality.  I know of a company that has at times hired Chinese chemists or consultants over the years, but has never been known in the industry to have any genuine expertise.  This company’s name is now all over the place, and it is promoting itself not only as the model herbal company, with extraction and formulation expertise, but also high-powered marketing know-how, and trade and government connections, consulting for pharmaceutical and food companies.  The latter are essentially like new kids on the block and don’t know where to look for real expertise.  I don’t care how much money these companies waste on useless or wrong information supplied by this “expert” company.  What bothers me is that this company is giving Chinese herbal medicine a bad name by providing misinformation that, although enriching its own sales, misleads its clients and the public on the true value and potential of Chinese herbs.  Since this company lacks in-depth knowledge but has high publicity, those companies or organizations genuinely interested in pursuing this field are only getting from one source (not even a prime one) minimal information and amateurish advice on Chinese herbs.  This will prevent the presentation of the true value and potential of Chinese herbs to those interested parties by non-pretentious real experts with professionalism and expertise.  I believe it is my duty to alert those of you interested in this field to the fact that self-promotion does not make one an expert in Chinese herbs, nor does simply hiring a Chinese chemist or occasionally engaging a Chinese doctor make a company expert in this field

          In the current dialog among various health-care professional groups, little recognition is being given to the fact that Chinese herbal medicine has been in existence for thousands of years, long before the modern drug era.  I believe it can coexist with modern medicine in America.  For these reasons I am doing my small part as an “agitator” to make you aware of the other side of the issue.  We need to acknowledge the deficiencies of modern medicine as well as the ravages of modern living (including pollution, toxic drugs, stress, etc.) that directly or indirectly cause many of our current major diseases (cancer, arthritis, heart diseases, etc.).  Modern drugs are notoriously inadequate in treating these illnesses; instead, they may cause more diseases than they alleviate.  More and more evidence is showing that nutritional and herbal supplements are more helpful to people with these illnesses than modern drugs.  After doing research on Chinese herbal medicine for over 16 years, I am convinced of the safety and efficacy of many of the traditional herbal remedies.  In future issues,  I plan to bring you reports from the Chinese medical and herbal literature (most for the first time in English) that highlight interesting, practical and useful information on herb use and herb research as well as information on developments in this field of which you should be aware, yet no one would tell you, due to political and financial indebtedness of your usual information sources.  I will also comment on misinformation and misconduct in the field whenever I encounter them.  My information source is PHYTOMED (currently non-commercial) which draws on information from over sixty Chinese journals of herbal medicine and related fields.  In addition, I have friends in the industry who keep me informed of its happenings so that I can in turn keep you posted on new developments, good or bad.


Recent Research


Lycium polysaccharides

          Lycium fruit (gouqizi) used in Chinese medicine is the ripe fruit of wolfberry, or Lycium barbarum L.  It is a bright orange red to red berry, slightly soft even when dry.  It is about the size of a raisin and tastes sweetish and quite pleasant.  It comes from northern China.  Traditionally it has a reputation of being beneficial to the eyes, though it is also well known as a general and sexual tonic.  It is used to improve night and blurred vision as well as in treating general weakness and both female and male sexual problems (esp. impotence).  It is often cooked with liver, mutton, or other herbs and foods. 

          As it contains large amounts of b-carotene (one of the highest among plant sources), scientists investigating its properties tend to attribute its vision-benefiting properties to this compound.  However, if one knows how lycium fruit is traditionally used for this purpose, which is decoction, one would doubt that b-carotene is the total answer, because during cooking, much of this vitamin is destroyed.  Hence whatever in lycium fruit that benefits the eyes must be something more than just b-carotene.  Other major chemical components present in lycium fruit include sizable amounts of amino acids, betaine, and polysaccharides. 

          The lycium polysaccharides (LBP) now appear to be the most important active components of lycium fruit.  In recent reviews on the pharmacology of the active principles of lycium fruit, research results over a twelve-year period are summarized.1,2  They show LBP to have broad pharmacological activities in animals and humans, which include:  regulating the immune system, antitumor, antioxidant,3 antiaging, antimutagenic (related to cancer-prevention), and antistress effects.  These experimental results are typical of tonics.  Although they don’t prove that lycium fruit is effective for any particular function, they do give support to its traditional use as a tonic for various conditions. 

          Another bit of information on lycium fruit is that it is traditionally used as a yin tonic.  This means that if you are generally vigorous or on the hyperactive side, and tend to constipate, regular ingestion of lycium fruit, either in the form of soup, tea, or extract, would help your constipation, hyperactivity, and general well being. 

(1)  J. Zhou, “Recent Research on Plant Polysaccharides in China,” Zhongcaoyao, 25(1): 40-44 (1994); (2) H. Li, “Pharmacology of the Active Principles of Lycium Fruit,” Zhongcaoyao, 26 (9): 490-494 (1995); (3) B.B. Ren et al., “Protective Action of Lycium Fruit and Betaine on Lipid Peroxidation of RBC Membrane Induced by H2O2,” Zhongguo Zhongyao Zazhi, 20(5): 303-304 (1995);  Leung, A.Y., and S. Foster, Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs and Cosmetics, Wiley-Interscience, New York, 1995, pp. 358-361.



Digoxin in Common Chinese Herbs!?

          This is for those of you who are technically oriented.  Digoxin is one of the major cardiotonic glycosides present in digitalis (foxglove), which is used to treat congestive heart failure and related disorders.  In a recent article published in a Hunan traditional Chinese medical journal4 researchers from two hospitals report results of analyzing 274 herbs that are commonly used in the traditional treatment of heart problems.  Using a radioimmunoassay (RIA), the authors detected digoxin in decoctions (diluted to 10% concentration) of 82 herbs.  The detectable amount of digoxin by this RIA was 10-12 nanogram (ng) per liter (1 ng = 1 billionth of a gram) or roughly at 0.0000001% level - very low indeed!.  Although no specific detected amount of digoxin in each herbal decoction is given, the range is reported from approx. 300 ng/l to 8000 ng/l; and the detected digoxin in the decoction was stable at room temperature over a 30-day period. 

`        The following common herbs are among the 82 reported to contain digoxin:  mahuang (Chinese ephedra), zisuye (Perilla frutescens leaf), congbai (green onion bulb), bohe (cornmint), sangye (mulberry leaf), juhua (chrysanthemum flower), niubangzi (burdock fruit), shengma (Cimicifuga rhizome), zhimu (Anemarrhena asphodeloides rhizome), longdancao (Chinese gentian root), lianqiao (forsythia fruit), huangbai (phellodendron bark) qinghao (Artemisia annua), sigualuo (luffa), wujiapi, jiangpi (ginger skin), huajiao (Sichuan peppercorn), gaoliangjiang (Alpinia officinarum rhizome), rougui (cassia bark), kushen (Sophora flavescens root), dongguapi (winter melon skin), dingxiang (clove), tinglizi (Lepidium apetalum or Descurainia sophia seed), qianghuo (Notopterygium root/rhizome), sanqi (Panax notoginseng), jianghuang (turmeric), huangqi (Astragalus root), gancao (licorice root), heshouwu (fo-ti), humaren (black sesame seed), wuzhuyu (Evodia fruit), etc.

          This is the first time I have seen digoxin reported in common herbs.  But one must keep things in perspective.  As I have always pointed out in my writings and talks, what counts is not detecting some toxic or valuable chemical in an herb, but rather the amount present.  As more and more advanced analytical technology is being developed, you are going to see more and more reports on presence of minute amounts of “good” and “bad” chemicals in common foods and herbs.  Nevertheless, before we even consider the above findings as legitimate, they have to be duplicated by someone else.  So, let’s wait and see!

(4) B.S. Zhu and Y.N. He, “Determination of Digoxin Content in 274 Chinese Herbs,” Hunan Zhongyi Zazhi, 12(2): 40-41 (1996).



Herb Notes 


Mahuang (stem of Ephedra sinica Stapf.; Chinese ephedra)

          You probably have heard of this herb making the news lately.  This is the one that is used in so-called herbal street drugs to give kids a quick high.  Mahuang contains ephedrine which has a stimulant effect on the central nervous system as well as appetite-suppressant effects.  For these reasons, during recent years, this herb has been a very popular ingredient in herbal diet and “energy” formulas.  These products are sold as food supplements, even though mahuang, unlike lycium fruit, licorice or ginger, has never traditionally been used as a food ingredient.  Some of these mahuang-containing products are properly labeled, carrying warning on ephedrine’s potential toxic side-effects, while others bear no warning at all.  Like most treatment herbs, mahuang is safe if you know its properties and use it sensibly.  But if you use it as if it were a tonic or food, you will sooner or later get into trouble, especially if you have a heart condition, high blood pressure, diabetes, or thyroid disease.  Toxic side effects include headache, insomnia, nervousness, dizziness, palpitations, skin flushing, tingling, and vomiting.  Its abuse has been known to be fatal.

          Before its current notoriety, mahuang was well-known as the first Chinese herb from which ephedrine was isolated, which is now commonly used as a nasal decongestant, and also to treat bronchial asthma.  Although mahuang has been used in China for over two thousand years to treat various conditions (bronchial asthma, cold and flu, fever, chills, headache, nasal congestion, aching joints and bone, edema, etc.), it has never been used as a food nor for extended periods of time.  My advice is, if you plan on taking mahuang products for anything other than cold and flu and related symptoms, be extremely cautious, and don’t take them for more than 2 to 3 weeks. 

          There is another thing I have found disturbing regarding mahuang being handled by companies that dabble in Chinese herbal products.  A recent letter from the director of purchasing of a company to its suppliers actually specifies crude mahuang to contain minimum 8% ephedrine.  This company either is totally ignorant or being duped by a friendly supplier who supplies mahuang adulterated with synthetic ephedrine, because crude mahuang only contains 1 to 2% ephedrine; the balance has to come from outside sources - adulteration!  And I know at least one supplier that offers mahuang herb powder with minimum 8% ephedrine.  Both of these companies directly or indirectly support organizations that disseminate herbal information.  Now, I think you know what I mean by financial indebtedness.

Leung, A.Y., and S. Foster, Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs and Cosmetics, Wiley-Interscience, New York, 1995, pp. 227-229; Tyler, V.E., Herbs of Choice - The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals, PPP, New York, 1994, pp. 88-89.



Healing Foods


           Walnut.  Reports on its use to treat urinary stones (kidney, bladder, etc.) have occasionally appeared over the past forty years.  I first reported this use in my Chinese Healing Foods and Herbs (pp. 167-168).  Now I have come across another use in a recent issue of a popular health journal [Jiankang Zhinang, 38(2): 45(1996)].  This time it was used for gallbladder stone.  After simply eating 4 to 10 walnuts daily without interruption for 6 months, the patient had no more symptoms (abdominal pain and distention, nausea and vomiting, chills, fever, etc.).  Also, physical examination revealed that the stone was no longer present.  Before this self-treatment, the patient had been treated by conventional methods for a whole year without much relief.  For people who have urinary or gallstones, it certainly won’t hurt to give walnut a try. 


          Ginger.  The most well-known use of ginger in America is probably for treating motion sickness (nausea).  Lesser-known uses include minor kitchen burns for which the freshly expressed juice is used.  Contrary to public misconception, the juice doesn’t burn (like its taste), but rather, soothes the pain as does fresh aloe vera gel.

         If you have a cold with a persistent cough and nothing seems to help, you may try this:  mash 5 slices of fresh ginger with adequate amounts of walnut meat (2-3 walnuts) and 1 to 2 teaspoons of Chinese red sugar (if not available, try brown sugar).  Eat the mixture 2 times a day for several days. [Jiating Yixue, (9): 41(1996).]


          Chrysanthemum flower.  This is well known in Chinese herbal medicine as good for high blood pressure and so-called toxic conditions, including headache, bad breath, dry mouth, bitter taste, tired and bloodshot eyes, inflammations, etc. 

         It is available in any Chinese herb or grocery store.  Simply steep 3 to 5 flowers in a cup of boiling water for 5 to 10 minutes and drink the tea; do this 2 to 3 times a day.  For acute problems, it usually works fast.  But don’t expect your blood pressure to go down the next day.  Just try to incorporate this as your daily tea.  One word of caution:  some chrysanthemum flowers are processed with sulfur to retard mold growth.  If you can’t tolerate sulfites or can’t eat dried fruit containing sulfite, be careful with chrysanthemum flowers as well.  Common sense and moderation are the key to safety in herb/food ingestion.