Number 5
February 1997

Herbs in this issue:

Ginkgo biloba

Lily bud

Sour jujube kernel

Peanut leaf

A Note From Dr. Leung


     One of the things I learned while growing up in a cosmopolitan city like Hong Kong is the contrast between East and West in treating illnesses.  We learned early on that illnesses are closely related to our diet.  When we are ill, we need to watch what we take into our body.  For example, according to Cantonese tradition, if one has a fever or a “hot” condition (such as canker sores, blood-shot eyes, bad breath and dry and hoarse throat), one should avoid warming foods or herbs, such as lamb, beef, Asian ginseng, chili pepper, cinnamon, and other strong spices.  On the other hand, cooling foods or herbs are just what one needs for such a condition, which include American ginseng, watercress, kudzu root, mung bean, and bean curd.  In contrast, when one is treated by modern Western medicine, except on extremely rare occasions, one is allowed to eat anything because modern medicine does not believe in food taboos as they have no “scientific” rationale.  Since I have grown up in a


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.


traditional Chinese environment and received a solid Western scientific education, I have always been torn between tradition and science regarding this issue.  We rarely took any modern drugs while we were growing up but on the few occasions that I did, I wholeheartedly endorsed the Western way because it allowed me to eat my favorite foods.  I was certainly guilty of expediency.  But I was young.  For a long while, up until several years after I obtained my doctorate, I leaned towards modern medicine, even though all the time my traditional upbringing was prominent in the back of my mind.  Then, as I learned more about the deficiencies of modern medicine and of drug treatment, the voice of my background and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) started to speak louder to me.  Now, I am convinced that both conventional Western medicine and TCM have strong points and weak points and they can coexist to serve us well.  Nevertheless, I have a healthy skepticism towards both systems, especially when proponents of each often try to outdo the other.  But in reality, there is no need to do so, as there is plenty of room for each to exercise its good.  Getting back to food taboos.  I think it won’t hurt for one to be open minded about it.  Here is a little “scientific evidence” I recently came across in my files to support food taboos.1  It is by no means a quality report, but the results intrigued me.

          In a brief report from the Department of Surgery of Jiaxing Municipal No. 1 Hospital of Zhejiang Province, the incidence of postoperative infection was evaluated among 4,357 patients who underwent surgery between 1978 and 1982.  Among the 2,171 patients who observed food taboos, i.e., eating only mild and plain foods and not eating so-called fashi or fawu (nutritious foods that cause the “flare up” of certain diseased conditions, such as chicken soup, fish, shrimp, crab, mutton, green onions, and jiucai or Allium odorum), only 71 had infections.  In contrast, among the 2,186 patients who maintained a normal diet after surgery, 191 had experienced infections.  The difference was almost threefold!  I personally think it is worthwhile to investigate this type of food taboo further in a more controlled manner.  And I don’t think it is difficult to design a good protocol for this either.  After all, the terms fashi and fawu are not recently made-up terms; they have been around for centuries, a result of practical human experience with diet and diseases.2  According to Chinese diet taboos, “nutritious” foods (yes, chicken soup included!) do not necessarily suit all occasions; some actually aggravate certain diseased conditions.  This is something modern nutritionists should heed.

(1) J.J. Ying et al., “The Clinical Significance of Food Taboos in Surgery,” Zhongxiyi Jiehe Zazhi, 5(7): 439(1985);  (2) J Huang, “Preliminary Evaluation of Fawu,” Zhongguo Zhongyao Zazhi, 17(9): 563-565(1992).



Health Tips


          Nutritional Fads.  The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines a fad as “a practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal.”  Many herbal supplements fall under this definition.  They come and go.  I am not concerned about most of them, as they are generally innocuous; even if they don’t do anything for you, they won’t hurt you, except that they may make a lot of money for those who promote them.  What I do want to draw your attention to are the ones that could be very dangerous.  What immediately comes to mind are the following; they are currently really “hot,” but who knows for how long:

        Melatonin - It is a hormone with a chemical structure related to serotonin, produced by the pineal gland, first isolated from beef cattle.  It has various hormonal functions, including regulating skin pigmentation and body temperature.  After tryptophan was banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a natural sleep aid a few years ago following serious and fatal toxicities resulting from a contaminated batch of tryptophan produced by biotechnology, the nutritional supplement industry had been searching for a “natural” replacement when they found melatonin.  Now, it is sold everywhere as a nutritional supplement, promoted as a natural sleep aid, reliever of jet lag, and others.  However, it is anything but natural, certainly not the way it is produced and marketed.  It is a hormone, now produced by chemical synthesis.  This hormone is not unlike any others such as the sex hormones or the growth hormones.  Their balance in the body is very delicate.  If you continuously introduce an excess of these hormones into your body for an extended period of time, you will have serious functional problems.  Occasionally eating an animal organ containing a particular hormone is one thing; continuously introducing a hormone (especially at high doses) into the body is another, and it is unnatural.  This hormone is no different than any other modern drug.  It has no long-term use history and its long-term safety is not yet known, despite reports so far have not shown it to be seriously toxic even at high doses.3  But how about latent toxic effects that may appear twenty years from now when a current 20-year-old insomniac will turn forty!  If it were treated as a new drug, at least it would be under much stricter control so that its purity would be guaranteed by chemical analyses, and the chances of having contaminated or adulterated melatonin freely distributed and sold to the public would be greatly reduced.  At present, anyone, including children, can readily get hold of melatonin products and take them in any amounts, day in and day out.  Depending on the source, the melatonin can contain trace to significant amounts of impurities (some could be very toxic) from a synthetic process.  Some of these impurities are brand new chemicals that have never been part of our natural system, and their toxicities never tested.  When you have these chemical contaminants along with melatonin, you are not talking about just melatonin.  Who knows what you have out there in these melatonin products.  I will talk more about natural versus synthetic chemicals in the next issue of this newsletter.

(3) Anon., “Melatonin,” Lawrence Review of Natural Products, Jan. 1996.

        Mahuang - I have already written about this herb in the first issue of this newsletter.  Mahuang is now a big seller and money maker for the nutritional supplement industry.  The current fad is to use this as a stimulant - to give one a “high.”  This effect is due to ephedrine that is normally not used for this purpose, nor is the herb, mahuangMahuang has traditionally been safely and effectively used for specific therapeutic purposes, such as cold and flu, fever, asthma, and cough, among others.  It has never before been used as a part of one’s daily diet.  Only in America, in a nation of “uppers” and “downers,” can one turn mahuang into an “upper.”  We, as a nation, seem to have the knack of taking something beneficial or innocuous, and quickly turning to abuse it.  For example, coca leaf to the Andean Indians is practically a staple of their daily diet, yet see how it has ended up in our society - abused cocaine!  When comparing mahuang (ephedrine) with melatonin, it is worth noting that at least ephedrine’s toxic side effects are well known, against which one can properly be warned, and it is then up to the individual consumer to pay attention. 

        There is no way to eliminate nutritional fads.  They will always be with us as long as there is human greed.  However, we can try to minimize them.  The only way to accomplish this is through education.  Consumers need to have more information from impartial sources that are free of vested interests.  In the case of the above examples, consumers should be made aware that these “nutritional” items either have never been traditionally used for their current intended purposes or have only been used for specific purposes.  Then if they still want to take the chance, it will be their choice.



Herb Notes


          Ginkgo biloba.  You probably have heard of ginkgo biloba, as it is now in many herbal or nutritional products. Actually, Ginkgo biloba is a tree, considered as a living fossil, known only from cultivation.  It is widely cultivated as an ornamental tree, especially in Japan and northern China.  Traditionally the seed, also known as ginkgo nut, is eaten in moderation, as it is toxic, usually cooked in soups and stews; it is considered lung soothing and is prescribed in TCM for bronchitis, asthma, cough, and numerous other conditions.  The recorded use of ginkgo seed in China for food and medicine dates back 2,000 years.  That of the leaf, however, dates back only about 500 years (which is still a respectable number, especially by Western herbal standards), and with limited applications, such as for diarrhea and externally for freckles and chilblain.  The current popular use of ginkgo leaf extract in cerebral and peripheral vascular diseases, short-term memory loss, heart disease, tinnitus, depression, and other conditions, is a direct result of modern research and clinical use of the leaf extract in Europe over the past 20 years only.  It is basically a modern medicine, with well documented modern data.  Yet in their promotional literature, some manufacturers and marketers date this use back to ancient times.  They are either ignorant or are purposely misleading the public into believing that ginkgo biloba leaf has an ancient use history, yet in fact, only ginkgo seed does.  When one sees such a claim in a company’s promotional literature, one should be skeptical about its products.

Leung, A.Y. and S. Foster, Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics, 2nd Ed., Wiley-Interscience, New York, 1996,  pp 274-277;  Tyler, V.E., Herbs of Choice - The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals, Pharmaceutical Products Press, New York, 1994, pp. 108-111.



Herbal Sleep Aids


        There are many Chinese herbs and foods that help insomnia.4,5  They include Asian ginseng root, schisandra berry, lingzhi (reishi), suanzaoren (sour jujube kernel), lily bud, peanut leaf and shoot, lotus seed embryo, fuling (Poria cocos), common jujube fruit, pearl and mother of pearl, mulberry fruit, baiziren (Oriental arbor-vitae seed), yuanzhi (Polygala tenuifolia root), baihe (lily bulb), dangshen (Codonopsis pilosula), walnut, shouwuteng (Polygonum multiflorum stem), amber (yes, the one used in jewelry), hehuan (Albizia julibrissin flower or stem bark), huanglian, (Coptis rhizome), maidong (Ophiopogon japonicus root tuber), and others.  Many of these herbs/foods have dual or opposite functions, depending on our body’s needs.  For example, both Asian ginseng and schisandra can work either way, as a sedative or as a stimulant.  Also, when ingesting these sleep aids, it is a common practice in TCM to avoid greasy and spicy foods.You don’t need me to tell you this, because you yourself probably have experienced sleep disturbances after eating a rich and spicy meal. We really don’t exactly know why, but this happens.  If you have sleep problems that are not helped by conventional medicines, it won’t hurt to give the following a try. 

        Lily Bud.  It is the dried flower bud of 2 common Chinese lilies (Hemerocallis fulva and H. flava), long used in Chinese cooking, especially in vegetarian dishes.  Known in Chinese as jinzhencai (“gold-needle vegetable”), xuancaohua, and huanghuacai (“yellow-flower vegetable”), it is also called wangyoucao, meaning “forget-about-worrying herb.”  Also known in Cantonese as gum jum choy, lily bud is readily available in Chinese food stores or herb shops in America.  Besides being commonly used as a food, it is well-known as a brain tonic and is used medicinally to relieve anxiety and as a sleep aid.4,6  After being thoroughly rehydrated in water and discarding the bitter-tasting liquid, lily buds can be cooked with chicken or lean pork along with other vegetables.  Or if you don’t mind the taste (slightly bitter and sour), after first rehydrating it in water and discarding this water, you can simply boil it in water for 20 to 30 minutes and drink the liquid as a tea, adding sugar or other sweetener to taste if necessary.  The normal amount to use is 1 ounce per day an hour before bedtime.  It may take a few days to take effect. 

        Lily bud has recently been reported to have sedative effect in mice.7 Although hardly a scientific “proof,” this seems to offer some rationale behind its traditional use as a sleep aid.

        Sour Jujube Kernel (Ziziphus spinosa).  This is probably the most commonly used herb in Chinese herbal sedative and hypnotic formulas.5  It contains a wide range of chemical components, including flavonoids, glycosides, triterpenes, alkaloids, sterols, fatty acids, cyclic AMP, cyclic GMP, and others.  Its flavonoid glycosides (spinosin, swertisin, and zivulgarin), alkaloids, and the triterpene glycosides (jujubosides A and B) all have been shown to have sedative effects in animals.  It is probably the combined, balanced effects of these active components that have enabled sour jujube kernel to be safely and effectively used for over 2,000 years.  The easiest way to use this sleep aid is to finely mill the seeds in a coffee grinder and sprinkle half a teaspoonful (~2 g) of it in your food or drink, whatever that may be, taken an hour before bedtime.  The daily dosage is normally 2 to 15 g (one-fifteenth to half an ounce), depending on the individual, with the higher dosage more commonly used in cooking or in teas. 

        Peanut Leaf.  The Chinese only started using peanut leaf as a sleep aid perhaps 20 to 30 years ago.  Yet it has gained a reputation as quite an effective and safe herb.  Extracts of the leaf were found to have sedative effects in mice, thus offering some scientific substantiation for this usage.8 There is no lack of reports of using peanut leaf to treat insomnia.  I have recently come across a short report in my files, which originated from a hospital in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.9  The author describes the use of fresh peanut stem tips in the form of a tea to treat patients with insomnia:  Simply steep 30 g (~1 oz.) of fresh peanut shoots in 150 ml (~5 oz.) of boiling water as you would tea, and drink the tea an hour before going to bed.  He reports that it usually takes 2 to 3 days to take effect.  He provides 2 case examples, both women (ages 54 and 27 yrs).  The first patient had insomnia for over 1 yr and was able to sleep only 1 to 2 hrs each night, accompanied by nightmares and dizziness.  Modern sedative drugs didn’t help her condition.  After using peanut shoot tea for 3 days, her condition improved significantly, being able to sleep 4 to 5 hrs nightly.   And after continuing this treatment for 10 more days, her insomnia was cured, and no recurrence was observed on follow-up for over a year.  The second patient had insomnia for 2 months, being able to sleep only 2 to 3 hrs nightly, accompanied by dizziness and general weakness.  Modern medical treatment didn’t help.  After fresh peanut shoot treatment for 7 days, the patient’s insomnia was resolved, with no recurrence on follow-up for over 1 month.

        Well, folks, if you live down South in peanut country, and if you have sleep problems, it certainly won’t hurt to give this a try.  But please remember to exercise moderation, especially when trying something new.

(4) B.W. Qian et al., Eds., Chinese Diet Therapy, Shanghai Scientific and Technical Publications, Shanghai, 1987, pp. 100, 375-376;  (5) Anon., “Seeking Sleep Aids,” Shiyong Jiehe Zazhi, 9(9): 545(1996);  (6) M.Y. Chang and D. Wang, “Wanghuacai - a Brain Tonic,” Zhongguo Shipin, (7): 8(1987);  (7) B. Fan et al., “Observations of Sedative Effect of Xuancaohua in Mice,” Shanghai Zhongyiyao Zazhi, (2): 40-41(1996);  (8) R. McCaleb, “Sedative Peanut Leaves,” HerbalGram, (17): 19(1988);  (9) D.M. Yang, “Fresh Peanut Shoots in the Treatment of Insomnia,” Sichuan Zhongyi, (11): 29-30(1990);  Leung, A.Y., Better Health With (Mostly) Chinese Herbs and Foods, AYSL Corp., Glen Rock, N.J., 1995, pp. 85-86;  Leung, A.Y. and S. Foster, Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics, 2nd Ed., Wiley-Interscience, New York, 1996,  pp. 474-476.