Number 3
December 1996

Herbs in this issue:




A Note From Dr. Leung


     I am puzzled by the way AIDS drug research has been conducted.  Given the high-powered folks in charge of this research, including prominent scientists from government, industry, and academia, why hasn’t something been done right from the start to include substances to help the immune system?  After all, isn’t AIDS an acronym for Autoimmune Deficiency Syndrome?  Why have these scientists spent so much money and effort to develop virus killers but hardly any serious effort in boosting the patient’s general immune health?  The anti-HIV drugs they have developed are all highly toxic; even the most recently developed ones (the highly touted protease inhibitors) don’t do much to help the patient’s immune system.  Doesn’t it seem obvious that you can’t just kill the virus and leave the body to rot? 

     Two of the major reasons for using combination formulas in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) are:  (1) to enhance the functions of the key herbs in the formula; and (2) to mitigate their potential toxic side effects.  These have been learned through thousands of years of practical clinical experience.  Modern medicine


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.


seems to have discovered the same thing and has been applying it in cancer chemotherapy for at least 20 years and in AIDS treatment for several years now.  Isn’t it time that we utilized more of this principle in AIDS treatment?  Instead of hoping that the newly developed anti-HIV drugs (nucleoside analogs, protease inhibitors, or whatever) would also happen to boost the immune system, why don’t we incorporate other substances that are known to do so and yet are not toxic?  I know it won’t be easy for anyone to convince modern drug researchers and clinicians to adopt a concept not of their own.  But I don’t think it will hurt for me to mention it.  After all, many lives and lots of our tax dollars are at stake.

        Our immune system is the key to health.  Like the yin-and-yang concept in TCM, it must be balanced.  When it is not, we become ill.  There are many factors that throw off our yin/yang balance.  They include mental and physical stresses, toxic substances (water, air and food pollutants), adverse side effects of drugs (legal or illegal), radiation, and pathogens (viruses, bacteria and fungi), among others.  When this happens, TCM often uses herbal tonics to help restore this balance.  In the AIDS situation, we must simultaneously nurture the immune system to a balanced state so as to allow the body to help the drugs eliminate the AIDS virus, as well as fight the drugs’ often horrible side effects.  Over the past 20 years in China, traditional herbal tonics have been used to treat the side-effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy in cancer patients by boosting their immune system, obviously with satisfactory results, otherwise their use would have been dropped long ago.  Although this practice has been going on in China all these years, few American researchers or clinicians have heard or bothered to do anything about it.  A handful that have are considered outside of the mainstream medical establishment.  Nevertheless, these open-minded few have incorporated this practice in their clinics, reportedly with satisfactory results.  There are valuable compounds or groups of compounds in these traditional tonics which can help restore a weakened immune system.  Some of these have been identified as polysaccharides, glycosides, saponins, flavonoids, triterpenoids, and lignans, among others.

        When it comes to our health, we must keep our immune system (yin and yang) functioning in a balanced manner.  Avoid things and situations that damage it, including drugs (even legal ones), tobacco, environmental pollutants, food additives (especially those you take everyday, such as artificial sweeteners), junk food, and overly stressful work.  It won’t hurt to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, and take adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals, as well as relevant herbal products, especially those containing traditional tonics from reputable companies.



Herb Notes


          Herbs That Help the Immune System.  Many herbs have been shown by modern science to have a beneficial effect on our immune system.  The majority of these are Chinese tonic herbs while only a few are Western.  You have probably heard of echinacea.  It is the most well-known Western immunostimulant herb, consisting of tops, roots, and/or rhizomes of mostly three species, Echinacea purpurea, E. pallida, and E. angustifolia.  Its activities are well documented in the Western scientific literature.  The more common Chinese immunostimulant or immunomodulating (balancing) herbs with fair to extensive scientific documentation (mostly Chinese and Japanese) include the following:1-5  astragalus root, danggui, dangshen (codonopsis), lycium fruit, Asian ginseng, epimedium, baizhu (atractylodes), schisandra, ganoderma (reishi), Chinese black mushroom (Lentinus edodes), nuzhenzi (Ligustrum lucidum), licorice root, eleuthero (Siberian ginseng), baishaoyao (white peony root), fo-ti (heshouwu), shudihuang (cured rehmannia), shanyao (Dioscorea opposita), dazao (jujube), and kudzu root, among others.

        Among the compounds responsible for the beneficial immunological effects of these herbs/foods, the polysaccharides so far appear to be the most common type.  Examples include the polysaccharides of ginseng, lycium, astragalus, epimedium, nuzhenzi, Chinese black mushroom, licorice root, and jujube.  You may have heard about “ginsenosides.”  These are a class of chemicals from ginseng that are made up of sugars and triterpenes.  They are called glycosides and are also known as ginseng saponins because they form a foamy lather in water.  These ginsenosides are responsible for some of the activities of ginseng, not all.  Yet some manufacturers of chemicals (who are entering the herbal field in a big way) and some food and herbal product companies have quickly capitalized on this and put out products representing ginseng but containing only ginsenosides from ginseng, not its whole spectrum of beneficial ingredients.  Under the guise of “standardized products” or products containing “standardized extracts” such as “standardized ginsenosides,” these companies are taking the easy way out to maximize profits.  Instead of spending time, effort, and money to locate or manufacture genuine good-quality extracts, they selectively remove the fraction from ginseng which contains the gensenosides, “standardize” it and market or use it as an equivalent (at least implied) of ginseng, making a healthy profit.  What happens to the polysaccharides and the other goodies that are left after ginsenosides have been extracted?  Throw them down the drain?  No way!  They are probably being sold as “ginseng extracts” elsewhere to other non-suspecting manufacturers.  Mark my word, when the time is ripe or when the current marketers can no longer profitably exploit the “standardized ginsenosides” concept, polysaccharides or other ginseng active components will show up in new products accompanied by slick marketing!  Incidentally, ginsenosides are no longer unique to ginseng.  They were discovered more than ten years ago in a lowly gourd plant, Gynostemmma pentaphyllum, which is known as jiaogulan in Chinese.  This inexpensive plant contains gynosaponins, several of which are identical to some ginsenosides in ginseng.  Sooner or later, don’t be surprised to find ginseng drinks, capsules, or tablets from the store to contain “active” ingredients that are not from ginseng! 

(1) Y.H. Zhao and Y.Q. Li, “Research in the Effects of Chinese Herbal Medicines on Immune Functions,” Tianjin Zhongyi Xueyuan Xuebao, (2): 42-45(1996);   (2) B.L. Xu et al., “Effects of Herbal Tonics on Cellular Immune Functions,” Zhejiang Zhongyi Zazhi, 31(5): 219-220(1996);   (3) Y. Zhao and L. Zhang, “Research Progress in the Immunoregulatory effects of Chinese Materia Medica,” Zhongcaoyao, 25(11): 603-606(1994);   (4) J. Zhou, “Recent Research Progress in the Biological Activities of Plant Polysaccharides in China,” Zhongcaoyao, 25(1): 40-44(1994);  (5) J.P. Guo et al., “Research Progress in the Pharmacology of Kudzu Root,” Zhongcaoyao, 26(3): 163-165(1995);   Leung, A.Y. and S. Foster, Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs and Cosmetics, Wiley-Interscience, New York, 1995.



Healing Foods


          Kudzu (gegen). The tuberous root of Pueraria lobata, kudzu has been both a food and medicine in China since ancient times, with a written record of over twenty-five hundred years.  It is widely eaten in soups and stews for what we Cantonese call “hot air” conditions that are characterized by one or more of the following:  headache with a feeling of heaviness in the head, fever, dryness of mouth, bitter taste in the mouth, blisters in the mouth, canker sores, swollen gums, bad breath, dry and uncomfortable feeling in the throat, bloodshot eyes, pain during urination, etc.  Many of these “hot air” conditions can now be correlated to bacterial and viral infections, such as colds and flu.  Kudzu root is available in Chinese herb shops and food stores in major Chinese communities in North America, sometimes also in the fresh form.  Simply cook the sliced root tuber with lean pork or chicken until tender.  Drink the soup and eat the meat, also the kudzu, if you don’t mind the fibrous texture.  If you are a vegetarian, just cook the kudzu without the meat and drink the liquid.

        Traditionally, kudzu is also used to treat drunkenness and hangover, for which the flower and flour are also said to be effective.  Kudzu flour is readily available, the flower less so.

        Although kudzu root is traditionally used mainly in treating cold and flu and associated fever and headache, stiffness and soreness in the neck, inadequate eruption of measles, diarrhea, and dysentery, numerous other major uses have been developed in recent years.  The most common ones include the treatment of hypertension, angina pectoris, migraine, sudden deafness, diabetes, nasal sinusitis, urticaria, psoriasis, and itching.  The major effective chemicals have been identified as isoflavonoids that include puerarin, daidzein, and daizin.  These flavonoids have beneficial cerebrovascular and cardiovascular effects, including dilating coronary and cerebral vessels and increasing coronary and cerebral blood flow.6  They also have antioxidant and immunostimulant effects.5,7

        Here is a recipe for hypertension taken from a popular health journal [Huaxia Changshou, (5): 19(1996)]:  Kudzu root (60 g), fresh watercress (250 g), and 6 honeyed jujubes are simmered together for a long time.  The soup is then drunk and the watercress eaten.  Do this once a day for 15 days. 


          Peanuts in Vinegar for Hypertension.  I have recently come across this remedy in 3 popular health journals [Huaxia Changshou, (5): 19(1996);  Jiankang Zhinan, (4): 45(1996);  Jiating Yixue, (9): 42(1996)].  I don’t know whether this is a truly new, effective remedy or simply copied from some related source simultaneously by three authors.  The remedy varies slightly among the three sources, but basically involves soaking raw dried, shelled peanuts in vinegar for 7 days in a nonmetal container.  Then, eat 7 to 10 peanuts once or twice daily, in the morning or before bedtime.  It certainly won’t hurt to give it a try.  As with other food therapies, don’t expect results in less than 2 to 4 weeks.

(6) H.W. Yue and X.Q. Hu, “Medicinal Value of Kudzu Root and Puerarin for the Cardiovascular System,” Zhongguo Zhongxiyi Jieke Zazhi, 16(6): 382-384(1996);  (7) J.L Liu et al., “Preliminary Studies on the Antioxidant Activity of Daidzin,” Zhongcaoyao, 27(4): 229-230(1996);  



Health Tips


          Is Ginseng for You?  It depends.  First of all, there are two types of ginseng:  Asian (oriental) ginseng and American ginseng.  Then, there are also Siberian ginseng (eleuthero), tienchi ginseng (sanqi), “poor man’s ginseng” (dangshen), and many more.  If you are confused, don’t feel bad.  The best and brightest are, too.  The most publicized folly was some research done about 15 years ago which was published in a very well respected American medical journal.  It found that “ginseng” use produced numerous toxic side effects for which the researcher coined the term, “ginseng abuse syndrome.”  But, there is one fundamental problem with this research.  The “ginseng” used was “capsules sold as ginseng,” which could be anything, including possibly sawdust!  And I am not kidding either!  While researching and analyzing commercial Siberian ginseng several years ago, I did come across “Siberian ginseng” being offered by one supplier to a major manufacturer which had no characteristics of Siberian ginseng whatsoever.  And I had no idea what that was.  That was just one of many instances, though extreme, in the field of “ginseng.”

        Most Americans have heard about Asian ginseng, American ginseng and Siberian ginseng.  So, I am going to talk about these three.  Asian ginseng is the root of Panax ginseng and American ginseng that of Panax quinquefolius.  Both roots are fleshy and are considered true ginsengs.  On the other hand, Siberian ginseng is the extremely tough root of Eleutherococcus senticosus, a plant belonging to the same family (Araliaceae) as the true ginsengs. All three have tonic properties.  Asian ginseng has been documented for 2,000 years and used for probably 3,000 to 5,000 years for improving body resistance, treating general weakness and tiredness, for mental and physical exhaustion, and others.  It is warming and should not be used by people with excessive yang, meaning those of the hyperactive type, who are full of vigor, tend to be warm, and tend to constipate.  These people would derive the most benefits from American ginseng, which is cooling and best used by people who have too much yangAlthough with only a few hundred years of Chinese use history, American ginseng is especially a favorite of the Cantonese who most frequently use it for cooling summer heat and fevers.  Asian ginseng is most suitable for people who have just recovered from an illness (especially long-term) or those who generally lack energy, tend to be cold (especially hands and feet), and have an unhealthy, pale complexion.

        How do you know which ginseng product is the right one to buy?  First, make sure it is clearly labeled either as Asian, American, or Siberian ginseng, or look for their botanical names on the label, Panax ginseng, Panax  quinquefolius, or Eleutherococcus senticosus, respectively.  If the product is simply labeled “ginseng,” don’t buy it!  This means it is put out by amateurs or marketers who are only after money.  They have no idea what “ginseng” means, let alone the concept of quality.  On the other hand, even if a product is clearly labeled as one of the three, there is no guarantee that it is the right stuff either.  It can simply be that a savvy marketer is behind the product.  One thing is certain though, if you see company literature (be it on paper or on the Internet) describing the three as if they were equivalent, the people behind it are definitely ignorant and may even be fraudulent.  No matter how slick their promotion or how brisk their sales, avoid them!  Because they have no clue as to what they are doing!  I wouldn’t be surprised if their products contained adulterated or wrong herbs, or mostly carriers.


          Fo-ti (Heshouwu).  Although this herb has been available in America for many years now, there is a lot of confusion about its identity.  Numerous books, including at least one best-seller, have described it, but none has addressed the problem.  The problem is that nobody seems to know what it is, as these authors themselves probably have not seen genuine specimens of it, and yet have gone on to describe fo-ti as if they were experts.  Fo-ti is derived from the root tuber of Polygonum multiflorum, a plant of the buckwheat family.  This root tuber yields two herbs:  the dried raw fo-ti (uncured) and the cured fo-ti.  The two are completely different in nature and most uses.  The former is a strong laxative containing anthraquinone glycosides, while the latter has little or no laxative effects.  Cured fo-ti is also a well-known Chinese anti-aging tonic, especially for darkening hair.  In contrast, raw fo-ti is primarily used as a detoxicant and laxative.  Although there are fo-ti products on the market manufactured by American companies, I doubt they contain the correct herb.  Many probably contain raw fo-ti, as this is much cheaper than cured fo-ti, which requires prolonged cooking with black soybean broth.  At the present time, when you buy a fo-ti product made in America, there is no way you can tell which fo-ti it contains, hence you would not know whether it will give you diarrhea or make you feel better. 

Leung, A.Y. and S. Foster, Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs and Cosmetics, Wiley-Interscience, New York, 1995, pp. 250-253;  Leung, A.Y., Better Health with (Mostly) Chinese Herbs & Foods, AYSL Corp., Glen Rock, N.J., 1995, pp. 28-29.