Number 2
October/November 1996

Herbs in this issue:
Aloe vera


Job’s tear

Antioxidant herbs

A Note From Dr. Leung


     People most often ask, “How do I know which herbal product is a good one to  buy?”  I am embarrassed to say that I don’t have a straight-forward answer.  Let me try to explain. 

     Before herbs were commercialized, one used to prepare one’s own herbal preparations.  Back then, people who used herbs knew their herbs.  Now things have changed.  Even though there are still herbalists or people who grow and prepare their own herbs and know how to use them, they are only a tiny fraction of all herb consumers.  The majority of consumers buy their herbal products in health food or drug stores, through mail order companies, or from multilevel distributors.  Most don’t know what the herbs in the products look or taste like.  Since the use of herbs by the general public for health maintenance is still in its infancy in America, most people are not knowledgeable enough to make wise decisions.  For years, information on herbs was provided by companies who sold these products or by authors who were paid by these companies to write about herbs used in their products. 


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.


This information was mostly promotional in nature, with some truth mixed with a heavy dose of self-serving mumbo jumbo.  Then, for several years, good, truthful information was disseminated by certain information organizations until the passage of the 1994 DSHEA (Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act).  Since then, interest in herbal products has suddenly skyrocketed and with it came big money.  As these organizations derive their support from this money source, information from them can no longer be considered objective, as they are now financially heavily indebted.  Any truthful information that casts an unfavorable light on any of their financial supporters is no longer readily available to the public.  Furthermore, it appears that some major supporters are subtly (others not so subtly) using these organizations and their publications as promotional tools, each taking advantage of the new environment created by the DSHEA.  It seems that every couple of weeks I receive brochures that promote conferences on herbal medicine in one form or another, with the same company “experts” as presenters, moderators, or panelists, giving the same information, slightly modified to suit different audiences.  Everyone is trying to cash in, with the presenters doing their subtle advertising and the organizers collecting their fees from attendees.  Their main targets are drug companies, government institutions (our tax dollars!), and innocent newcomers who want to take advantage of this new business opportunity, and who are generally ignorant about herbs.  All these activities don’t help the dissemination of truthful information on herbs.  If you were not already an expert, you would have a hard time telling truth from part truths or promotional information, especially when it relates to hot or potentially hot products such as mahuang, kava kava, echinacea, melatonin (a hormonal drug from pineal glands of animals, or synthesized; not an herbal product), etc.

          With the above historical background, let me tell you how a good-quality herbal product should be made.  First you need a good logical formula.  Second, you must use genuine good-quality ingredients in the formula.  And third, the product must be put together professionally (including sanitary conditions).  In practice, however, herbal products are not manufactured like this.  Most herbalists, formulators, and manufacturers, although experienced and competent in their own fields, know little about how commercial herbal ingredients are produced.  They might have an excellent formula but they don’t know how to acquire good genuine ingredients.  Their end product is only as good as the integrity of their suppliers.  Unlike pure chemicals that can be chemically analyzed and controlled, the quality of herbal ingredients (e.g., extracts) varies considerably and so do their prices.  Thus, many herbal products on the market contain herbal ingredients that are of inferior quality.  A typical example is aloe vera.  It is one of the most adulterated herbal ingredients.  About 15 years ago, there were frosts in Texas for two or three consecutive winters and over 90% of its aloe vera crop was destroyed.  Most of the aloe vera companies did not do anything about it, yet claiming no shortage.  Only one company I know sought and established a secure source of this product in a warmer climate and is now the largest user and supplier of genuine aloe vera.  In contrast, there are many brokers of aloe vera who buy the genuine material from a major supplier.  They then dilute it with carriers and resell the diluted ingredients to major manufacturers of drinks, juices, dietary supplements, and cosmetics.  Sadly, most manufacturers, especially cosmetic companies, no matter how large or “reputable,” simply don’t care as long as the price is cheap and the suppliers vouch for the purity of their aloe vera.  All these companies want is to be able to put the name “aloe vera” on their product label.  It appears that some of these otherwise reputable companies were trapped into their current situation 15 to 20 years ago by a couple of very entrepreneurial companies.  At that time, when the aloe vera craze started, many major companies wanted to incorporate it into their cosmetics or drinks.  As they knew nothing about this “new” ingredient, they had to rely on major suppliers for specifications.  It turns out that a few of the suppliers that started supplying these major companies were actually selling adulterated aloe vera (cut with gums, hydrolyzed starch, lactose, mannitol, or water).  The companies that buy these ingredients have since been basing their purchases on standards set for the adulterated aloe vera (genuine aloe vera would not meet these specifications).  Now, how do these manufacturers come clean and admit that they have been using adulterated aloe vera all these years?  They are really in a bind because sooner or later people will find out.  Only a company with extraordinary integrity and guts would voluntarily admit its mistake and then spend considerably more money by switching to the real thing, because some of these adulterated aloe vera ingredients sell for a fraction of the actual cost of the raw material!

          The aloe vera example is only one of many in herbal products.  Then, there are also those companies which know that they have cheap adulterated ingredients in their products but nevertheless shamelessly promote them as genuine high-quality products, employing credible-sounding experts as their spokespersons.  Again, these experts, like the herbalists and formulators, often have no idea how herbal ingredients are produced.  Hence, they simply repeat the company marketing line.  Most of these companies are strictly marketing companies that don’t even make their own products, nor have they any idea of their quality.  And frankly, many don’t care.  Their specialty is advertising and marketing and there is a lot of money to be made by just selling the name of a famous herb (e.g. aloe vera, ginseng, etc.).   So, beware of products that claim to be of the highest quality, especially those claimed to be produced by proprietary processes or by pending patents (some pending for over 15 years!).



Recent Findings


           Glycyrrhizin-induced Lactation in Non-Nursing Women.  Along with flavonoids, glycyrrhizin is a major active component of licorice.  It is intensely sweet and is widely used in flavoring foods (especially candies) and tobacco.  Licorice is probably the most widely used herb in the world, being used in countless Chinese herbal formulas to harmonize the effects of other herbs.  For this reason, one of its Chinese names is guo lao, meaning “elder statesman.”  Licorice is also frequently used as the major herb for treating numerous conditions, including gastrointestinal ulcers, sore throat, cough, bronchial conditions, food poisoning (frequently combined with mung bean and ginger), abdominal pain, insomnia, sores, and abscesses.  However, prolonged use often leads to sodium retention and potassium depletion, resulting in fluid retention and high blood pressure.  These toxic side effects of licorice are due to glycyrrhizin. 

Here is another side effect of glycyrrhizin that I had not heard about, which was reported in a Chinese journal for new drugs and remedies.1  In this report from a hospital in Qu Ye in Shandong Province, two women (ages 30 and 35) with acute hepatitis were treated with an intravenous drip of a glycyrrhizin solution.  Within 5 days of treatment, both women felt soreness and swelling in their breasts which ejected milk when pressed.  Glycyrrhizin treatment was immediately stopped and replaced with oleanolic acid (also used in China for treating hepatitis) and ascorbic acid.  Lactation symptoms disappeared within 8 days.  Glycyrrhizin was confirmed as the causative agent when hepatitis recurred in one woman 6 months later and was again treated with glycyrrhizin intravenous drip, again inducing lactation, which disappeared when glycyrrhizin was withdrawn.

Two things are worth noting here:  (1) The glycyrrhizin was injected intravenously and not taken orally as one would a typical herbal remedy.  Also, as it is in a purified injectable form, it is no different than any other modern drug.  It is extremely unlikely that glycyrrhizin can cause lactation if consumed in the usual fashion as a flavoring agent or in licorice preparations.  (2)  The authors do not give the dosage other than the amount (80 ml) of the injection (Lot 880624) that was manufactured by Hai Ning Drug Factory of Zhejiang Province.  For your information, the daily dose of glycyrrhizin used in European phytomedicine is 200-600 mg (not pure but calculated to be present in the root or its preparations).

(1) W.F. Shi and S.X. Tian, “Glycyrrhizin-induced Lactation in Two Non-Nursing Women,” Xinyao Yu Linchuang, 13(2): 123(1994);   Leung, A.Y., and S. Foster, Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs and Cosmetics, Wiley-Interscience, New York, 1995, pp. 346-350.



Herb Notes


Herbal Antioxidants.

Four or five years ago, the word “antioxidant” was used on a hush basis, because it had not yet gained “respectability.”  At that time, only we “alternative health people” (meaning kooks) used it.  Then all of a sudden, it gained respectability.  Now, some well-known brands of vitamin and mineral supplements prominently carry this buzzword, and drug companies that manufacture these formulas often heavily promote them as antioxidant formulas, even though nothing in the formula has been changed.

Antioxidants are universally present in foods and herbs, including vegetables, fruits, and seeds.  Some well-known ones are vitamins A, C, and E, b-carotene, and selenium.  If I wanted to stretch the truth, I could practically pick any food or herb and called it an “antioxidant” because chances are one or more of its hundreds of chemical components has antioxidant properties, even though this chemical may be present in trace amounts.  But that would be foolish and, if translated into commercial products, unethical, though not illegal.  I have frequently come across such products.  Here is an example that recently caught my attention.  It contains a total of five powdered dried herbs (all vegetables, including broccoli as the major ingredient) with 90 tablets, each containing less than 0.5 g of dried vegetable powder or about 4 g of fresh vegetables.  The recommended dosage of this is 3 to 9 tablets a day or equivalent to 12 g (0.4 oz) to 36 g (1.2 oz) of fresh vegetables per day.  Thus, the amount recommended is 1 to 3 bites of broccoli a day at a price of about 10 cents per bite!!  How much antioxidants or phytonutrients (now also a buzzword, though it simply means “plant nutrients”) does one get from this expensive product?  I would say practically nil, unless one takes a whole bottle (the equivalent of 12 oz of fresh vegetables) a day!  Yet the product is advertised as rich in antioxidants!  It might be rich in antioxidants, but you would have to take a whole bottle each day to get enough.  So watch out for double talk and don’t be fooled by slick advertising!

Over the past 10 to 15 years, much scientific research has been performed on antioxidants in herbs, mostly in test tubes (in vitro) and laboratory animals;  few studies were on humans.  Chinese tonics have been used for centuries to help build resistance and to prolong life.  Modern research has found them to be rich in strong antioxidant components many of which have not yet been identified.  The following is a list of these Chinese antioxidant tonics with some scientific substantiation:2-5

Astragalus root                                          Danggui                                  Schisandra berry

Licorice root                                              Lycium fruit                            Ginseng (Asian/American)

Jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum) )          Ganoderma (reishi)                 Codonopsis (dangshen)

Shechuangzi (Cnidium monnieri)                     Fo-ti (heshouwu)                      Job’s tear

Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng)                      Cherokee rosehip                    Nuzhenzi (Ligustrum lucidum)

Ear mushroom (Auricularia auricula),             Yin er (Tremella fuciformis)         Sanqi (Panax notoginseng)

Also, commonly used Chinese herbs that have been shown to have strong antioxidant components include:2,6

            Danshen (Salvia miltiorrhiza)                        Green tea                               Turmeric                 

              Giant knotweed (huzhang)                          Ginkgo biloba leaf                     Chinese hawthorn (shanzha)              Houttuynia cordata herb                              Ginger                                    Forsythia fruit       

          The compounds found to be responsible for their antioxidant effects span a wide spectrum of chemical structures that include: polysaccharides, flavonoids, lignans, saponins, tannins, phenols, alkaloids, triterpenoids, etc.  Some of these are stronger in their antioxidant effects than common vitamins and minerals.

(2) Z.Q. Sun, “Research Progress in the Effects of Chinese Herbs on Superoxide Dismutase (SOD),” Zhongcaoyao, 26(1): 45-47 (1995);  (3) N.W. Fu et al., “Anti-tumor-promoting and Antioxidant Effects of Licorice Flavonoids G9315,” Zhongcaoyao, 26(8): 411-413, 422(1995);  (4) D.Q. Wang et al., “Protective Effect of Total Flavonoids of Radix Astragali on Mammalian Cell Damage Caused by Hydroxyl Free Radicals,” Zhongguo Zhongyao Zazhi, 20(4): 240-242(1995);  (5) B. Tang et al., “Regulatory Effect of Lingzhi Anshen Liquor on Erythrocyte Immune Function and Antioxidation in Immunosuppressed Mice,” Zhongguo Zhongxiyi Jiehe Zazhi, 16(3): 167-169(1996);  (6) Y.L. Zhou and R.X. Xu, “Antioxidant Effect of Chinese Herbs,” Zhongguo Zhongyao Zazhi, 17(6): 368-369, 373(1992).



Healing Foods


          Job’s tear (Coix seed or Chinese pearl barley).  Readily available in Chinese food stores and herb shops, it tastes like regular barley.  It is most well known for its diuretic effect and its ability to ease painful joints.  It is rich in nutrients. Its oil contains the active compounds coixenolide (antitumor) and coixol (anti-inflammatory, antihistaminic), and its polysaccharides (coixans A, B, and C) have hypoglycemic effects.

         Job’s tear is frequently used in the diet therapy of the following conditions:  painful joints, rheumatism, edema, acne (pimples), eczema, warts, chronic enteritis, etc.  Here is a recipe from a recent issue of a Chinese cosmetology journal [Zhongguo Kexue Meirong, (4): 39(1996)] for treating acne.  It simply calls for cooking 2 oz of Job’s tear with 2-3 oz of rice and adding sugar to taste.  Eat this once a day for 15 days.  I think you can eliminate the sugar here [see Diet therapy of acne].  The same recipe can also be used for edema, stiff and painful joints, by replacing regular rice with glutinous rice and eliminating the sugar [Shizhen Guoyao Yanjiu, 7(2): 111(1996)]. 

         In a recent report from a military hospital in Jinan, Shandong Province, 44 patients (ages 5-43 yr) with flat warts (chest, face, back of hand, forearm, and neck; 6 mo-4 yr duration) were successfully treated with Job’s tear.7  For adults, 50-60 g (less in children) were cooked in water and eaten daily for 5-12 days.  At the same time, a paste was made with Job’s tear powder and vinegar and applied to affected areas 1-2 times daily.  Twenty-seven patients were treated both internally and externally while 17 were treated only externally.  Among the former group, the flat warts completely disappeared in 24 patients (88.88%) and partially resolved (>30% surface area) in 2, while only 1 showed no response.  In contrast, only 8 of the 17 patients (47.06%) in the external group showed complete resolution and 7 had >30% resolution, while 2 had no response.  Average response time for the internal/external group was 6.5 days and that for the external group 8.5 days.  It was observed that the afflicted areas blistered and increased in size for a few days before the warts dried up and fell off.  The authors gave 2 case examples, both of which had been previously treated with modern methods (liquid nitrogen, interferon, and transfer factor) with unsatisfactory results.  This simple Job’s tear treatment of warts is certainly worth considering.


          Diet therapy of acne [Zhongguo Kexue Meirong, (4): 32(1996)].  Foods recommended - rice, baihe (lily bulb), lotus seed, lotus root, bamboo shoot, lycium fruit, winter melon, mulberry, American ginseng, water melon, cucumber, honey, pear, chrysanthemum flower, persimmon, banana, and plum.  Foods to avoid - chilies, fatty pork, sugar, alcoholic drinks, beef, lamb, chicken, rabbit, seafood, coriander, ginger, etc.  Sorry, folks!  Slim pickings!

(7)  Y.L. Yu et al., “Treatment of 44 Cases of Flat Wart With Job’s Tear,” Shandong Zhongyi Xueyuan Xuebao, 20(2): 120(1996).