Number 6
March 1997

Herbs in this issue:

Lycium fruit

Mung bean

Bitter gourd

A Note From Dr. Leung


    The question of whether a natural chemical is better than a synthetic one has come up at various times.  There hasn’t been any formal debate about it, because, according to chemists and regulatory agencies, especially the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a chemical is a chemical, whether it is from a natural or synthetic source.  At first glance, they seem to be right.  And in theory, they are absolutely correct, as the chemical structure of a natural chemical is exactly the same as its synthetic counterpart.  But in practice, the two versions may not necessarily be the same.  Here is what I think.  Some of you may say I am splitting hairs, but hear me out.

     In commerce, there is no such thing as an absolutely pure chemical, be it man-made or from nature.  So far, even with our advanced analytical technology, we still cannot be sure that a particular chemical we analyze does not contain a trace amount of impurities, whether those impurities are present in nanogram (one billionth of a gram) or lower quantities.  Consequently, in practice, all chemicals used as drugs, food additives, and nutritional supplements are allowed a certain amount of impurities to be present. 


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.


Depending on the sensitivity of a particular analytical method developed for a particular chemical, the range of the amount of impurities varies.  For example, in the United States Pharmacopoeia (USP), the drug book that sets our drug standards, the purity of chemical drugs is always defined in a range, normally somewhere between 98% and 102% (never an even 100.000000%), to allow for the sensitivities (or lack of) of the analytical methods used.  While some chemicals are known to be associated with certain known impurities (the limits of which are often specified), others contain impurities of which nothing (e.g., long-term toxicity) is known, regardless of how little is present.  Here lies the dilemma.  We know that some chemicals are extremely toxic, even in nanogram quantities.  Could these unknown impurities present in modern synthetic drugs and food additives be causing all these terrible, toxic yet often subtle, side effects that more and more are turning people away from modern chemicals towards natural foods and remedies?  Also, could this be the reason why advocates of health foods and natural drugs shun synthetic ones?  Here is my theory.  While both the natural and synthetic versions of a chemical contain impurities, these impurities are quite different.  In a genuinely natural chemical from a traditional herb or food, one that is extracted without involving reactions with other synthetic chemicals, the impurities present have been safely ingested along with this chemical in the herb/food for a long time, often many centuries.  They are not new to our biological system, even though we may not know what these impurities are.  On the other hand, its synthetic version has been produced usually through numerous synthetic steps (chemical reactions), generating many new chemicals as impurities.  The chemists try their best to purify the resulting chemical by removing these impurities.  Still, there are always traces of these unknown impurities left.  I have no idea how many of these impurities have been tested for their toxicity or even identified,.  These impurities (many are new chemicals to this planet) have never before entered our biological system and hence, have absolutely no long exposure history.  We basically have been playing Russian roulette since the modern synthetic era began during the last century, when we started ingesting synthetic chemicals, either as drugs or food additives.  I believe the main reason we have so far completely ignored or covered up this little-known fact is for expediency.  We have needed these new drugs and food additives, and can’t simply stop using them for the sole purpose of testing and proving the safety of every chemical impurity without totally stalling the advance of modern civilization.  Those aches and pains we know so well, some often serious, are considered a small price to pay for our advanced and civilized lifestyle.  For quality control and regulatory purposes, the USP and our FDA have no choice but to stand firm in insisting that there is no difference between the natural and the synthetic version of a chemical.  It appears that after so many decades of self-interest promotion, the chemical industry and the drug regulators no longer consider the existence of these potentially very toxic chemical impurities in synthetic drugs and food additives.  Yet, when they find a trace of a toxic chemical in an herb, they would readily declare the herb unsuitable for human consumption, despite the fact that they fail to consider or investigate the toxicity of any of the impurities (could be literally thousands) present in common synthetic drugs and food additives (yes! the ones on ingredients labels you can’t even pronounce!).  Definitely, there is a double standard here.  But I guess that’s life.  However, I still would like to see some information on how much work has been done on the impurities of common synthetic drugs, food additives, and nutrients, and to have this information available to consumers, so that they can make their own choice.


          I goofed! - caught by a subscriber from Wakaw, Saskatchewan.  In the January issue (No. 4), I reported on using banana peel or stalk for hypertension.  I didn’t recognize the possibility of the bananas having been chemically sprayed (with who knows what) before being shipped to supermarkets.  Unless you live in the South, where banana is readily available and unsprayed for local markets, or you have personal knowledge that bananas being sold in certain supermarkets have not been chemically treated, I don’t recommend boiling banana peel or stalk for hypertension.



Hypoglycemic Herbs


        Symptoms of diabetes mellitus include excessive passage of urine, deficient insulin, high sugar levels in the blood and urine, thirst, hunger and weight loss.  Hypoglycemic herbs lower blood sugar levels and hence can be beneficial to people with diabetes.  There are many Chinese herbs, herbal formulas, and their chemical components that have hypoglycemic properties.  Here are some better-known ones.1-6

        Polysaccharides.  Polysaccharides isolated from numerous Chinese herbs have been shown to have hypoglycemic effect in animals when injected ip, iv, im, or sc.  These herbs include:  Asian ginseng, huangqi (astragalus root), yin’er spores (Tremella sp.), ear mushroom (Auricularia auricula),  zhimu (Anemarrhena rhizome), zicao (Arnebia/Lithospermum spp.), mahuang (Chinese ephedra), Job’s tear (Coix lachryma-jobi seed), sangbaipi (mulberry root bark), aconite, zhuling (Polyporus umbellatus), kunbu (kelp), gaoshan hongjingtian (Rhodiola sachalinensis herb), shanyao (Dioscorea japonica), ciwujia (eleuthero), sugarcane, lingzhi or reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), tea, zicai (Porphyra tenera, the seaweed used in “seaweed soups” in Chinese restaurants), cangzhu (Atractylodes japonica), and others.

        Herbs/Foods.  Traditional Chinese herbs/foods (or their decoctions have shown hypoglycemic effects) include:  lycium fruit, digupi (lycium root bark), astragalus root, baizhu (Atractylodes macrocephala rhizome), dangshen (codonopsis), wumei or mume (Prunus mume), dihuang (rehmannia, both cured and raw), nuzhenzi (ligustrum), bitter gourd or bitter melon (Momordica charantia),  jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum of the gourd family, which contains ginseng saponins, including ginsenosides Rb1, Rb3, Rd and Rf2, that sooner or later would find their way into so-called “standardized ginseng” products), sangbaipi (mulberry root bark), and watermelon skin.  There are many other herbs/foods traditionally used for diabetes in China.  I will give a more detailed listing of these anti-diabetic and hypoglycemic herbs/foods at a later time.

(1) Z. Li, “Effect of Chemical Components of Botanical Drugs on Sugar Metabolism,” Zhongcaoyao, 18(1): 34-37(1987);  (2) L.F. Cheng and S.Z. Zhang, “Research Advances in the Hypoglycemic Effects of Chinese Herbs, Herbal Formulas, and Their Active Constituents,” Zhongchengyao, 18(1): 40-41(1996);  (3) X.J. Cheng et al., “Hypoglycemic Effects of the Polysaccharides of Gaoshan Hongjingtian - Comparison of Different Routes of Administration,” Zhongguo Zhongyao Zazhi, 21(11): 685-687(1996);  (4) X.R. Li et al., “Pharmacology of Astragalus Polysaccharide Injections. 3. Effect on Blood Sugar and Glycogen Levels,” Zhongchengyao, 11(9): 32-33(1989);  (5) S.J. Wu and D.Y. Li, “Research Status on Hypoglycemic Plant Polysaccharides,” Zhongcaoyao, 23(10): 549-554(1992);  (6) Z.Q. Hao et al., “Hypoglycemic Effect of Ligustrum lucidum Fruit,” Zhongguo Zhongyao Zazhi, 17(7): 429-431(1992);  Leung, A.Y. and S. Foster, Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics, 2nd Ed., Wiley-Interscience, New York, 1996;  Leung, A.Y., Chinese Healing Foods and Herbs, AYSL Corp., Glen Rock, N.J., 1984, p. 172-174;  Leung, A.Y., Better Health With (Mostly) Chinese Herbs and Foods, AYSL Corp., Glen Rock, N.J., 1995.



Health Tips


         Glauber’s Salt (Mangxiao).  Mangxiao is natural sodium sulfate decahydrate (Na2SO4.10H20), or Glauber’s salt in English.  It is sometimes erroneously translated as mirabilite, which is anhydrous sodium sulfate (Na2SO4).  In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), mangxiao is considered to have strong cooling properties and has been used for centuries to quench fire (fever, etc.) and to reduce swelling (inflammation), which is also considered to be a “hot” condition;  it is also considered to have the ability to soften lumps and nodules.  With its first recorded use in China dating back about 2,000 years, mangxiao is used both internally and externally for various conditions.  As Glauber’s salt, it has also been used in Western medicine, especially to relieve constipation, and was formerly official in the National Formulary. Conditions for which mangxiao is used include appendicitis, urinary stones, thyroid tumor, toothache, urinary retention, neurodermatitis (lichen simplex chronicus), skin ulcers, inflammations caused by traumatic injuries, and phlebitis, all of which were recently reported in different journals of traditional Chinese medicine [Zhongyi Zazhi, 34(10): 581-584(1993); Zhongyi Zazhi, 32(8): 459(1991);  Shiyong Zhongyiyao Zazhi, (3): 35(1996);  Sichuan Zhongyi, (4): 52(1993);  Shandong Zhongyi Zazhi, 15(6): 282(1996)].  The following are 2 topical uses which may come in handy.

        Contact dermatitis.  This can be caused by contact with insects or certain chemicals, and could be very uncomfortable and annoying.  Symptoms include itching, pain, burning sensation, swelling, blisters, lesions, or even fever and headache in serious cases.  Here is a treatment reported from a hospital for prevention and treatment of skin diseases from Hubei Province [Zhongyi Zazhi, 34(10): 584(1993)]:  10 g of mangxiao is dissolved in a small amount (10-30 ml) of warm water (25-40C).  The resulting solution is used to soak or wash the afflicted areas continuously for 15-20 minutes, 3 times daily.  The author reports good response after 1 day of treatment, and complete healing in 2 to 5 days.  Although the number of cases treated are not given, the author does cite one case of dermatitis on both hands caused by paint after washing with gasoline.  After unsuccessful treatment with anti-inflammatory creams, the patient was successfully treated with mangxiao, effecting complete healing after 2 days of treatment.

        Enlarged prostate.  Treatment simply involves mixing 100 g of mangxiao with 50 ml of water, wrapping the wet mass in cheesecloth, and placing it on one’s lower abdomen for up to 8 hours a day.  This report from Chengdu, Sichuan Province [Zhongyi Zazhi, 34(10): 584(1993)], describes a 64-year-old male with ultrasound-diagnosed prostatic hypertrophy being treated at the hospital by topical mangxiao. For 3 days prior to admission, the patient had difficulty during urination, accompanied by pain, as well as lower abdominal distention,.  After 3 hours of treatment, he passed 300 ml of urine, followed by another 500 ml after 8 hours.  After 10 days, he no longer had a problem with urination, and was discharged.

        The cooling and “nodule-softening” properties of mangxiao have been known since ancient times.  Herbs with these kind of properties have traditionally been used to treat skin eruptions, sores, boils, swellings (e.g, soft tissue injuries, inflamed muscles and tendons due to traumatic injuries, etc.), feverish conditions, and internal lumps and palpable masses (e.g., tumors).  Some of these herbs are often quite toxic.  The reason I bring up Glauber’s salt here is that this is a relatively common and safe chemical in America, as well.  Unless one is foolish enough to ingest large doses (great runs to the bathroom), it is quite safe, especially when used externally.  After being dissolved in a minimal amount of water, Glauber’s salt can be soaked up with cheesecloth, gauze, or cotton; when applied directly to afflicted areas, this should also be helpful in such common conditions as skin rashes, sores, boils, sprains, and tendinitis.

        One word of caution when purchasing mangxiao from Chinatown:  Mangxiao comes as crystals or granules, and is readily soluble in water.  On prolonged standing, however, it will lose its water of hydration to form anhydrous sodium sulfate (as powder or lumps), which is no longer mangxiao, and is not as readily soluble in water.  So, make sure what is offered to you is not “old” mangxiao.



Healing Foods


          Diet therapy of diabetes [Jiangsu Zhongyi, (5): 13(1990)].  There are many food recipes for treating diabetes.  However, unlike drug or herb treatment, diet therapy is not meant to produce rapid results.  When incorporated into one’s regular diet, over time, these remedies may help normalize one’s diabetic condition.  In any case, they won’t hurt.  Here are a few relatively simple recipes:  (1) About a half-pound of fresh spinach root and 1 oz. each of lily bulb (baihe) and mung beans are boiled in water for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the lily bulb and mung beans are tender.  Drink the soup, and eat the rest over the course of the day.  (2) Soak 1 oz. of lycium fruit in water until soft and discard the water.  Slice open lengthwise a fresh bitter gourd and remove the seeds; cut into thin slices.  Heat up some vegetable oil (2 or 3 tablespoons) to high heat.  Add a small handful of cut-up green onions and stir fry briefly (a few seconds).  Then add the lycium fruit and bitter gourd.  Stir fry a few minutes, or until done.  Add a little salt to taste and serve.  (3) Simmer together 1 oz. of kudzu flour, 2 oz. of rice, and about a half-pound of winter melon (with skin removed) in sufficient water to make a medium thick soup.  Will take about an hour.  Consume the soup in portions during the day.

        All above ingredients can readily be purchased at any Chinatown food store.


          Mung Bean (lu dou; “green bean”) [Xinzhongyi, 28(11): 6,8(1996)].  The plant is known under numerous botanical names, including Phaseolus radiatus, Phaseolus aureus, Phaseolus mungo, and Vigna radiata; it belongs to the pea family.  The seeds (mung beans) have been consumed in China for many centuries, both as food and medicine, depending on the occasion; so have the sprouts (bean sprouts), which can easily be made by soaking the beans in fresh water until they germinate and the sprouts reach 2 to 3 inches long.  Mung bean is well known for its cooling (heat dissipating) and detoxifying properties, and has in recent years also been used to treat lead poisoning and poisoning by agricultural chemicals, as well as high blood cholesterol.  Mung bean is not only nutritious, but also very useful on various occasions.  Here are a few classic recipes:  (1) For summer heat and xiao ke (excessive thirst, TCM term for diabetes), boil 1.5 oz. of mung beans in water until broken up.  Drink the soup and eat the beans.  (2)  A mung bean rice soup can be prepared as follows:  About 1 oz. of mung bean and 3.5 oz. of rice are cooked in water for 30 to 60 minutes, until a thin to medium-thick soup results.  It can be lightly seasoned and eaten for the following conditions:  summer heat, abdominal distention, urination difficulties, children’s diarrhea in summer, and prickly heat.  It is also recommended for people who smoke and drink too much and those exposed to agricultural chemicals.  (3) This is for those who either are more adventurous or have had prior experience with Chinese herbs, because its taste is a little unusual.  Boil about 2 oz. of mung beans, 1/3 oz. of huanglian (Coptis chinensis), oz. of kudzu root, and 1/6 oz. of licorice in water for 30 to 60 minutes to make a thin soup.  This is recommended for summer heat, fever, and excessive thirst. 

        All the herb/food ingredients in the above recipes are readily available from Chinatown food stores or herb shops.  The first 2 recipes should be particularly beneficial to people who regularly come in contact with toxic chemicals (e.g., farmers, chemical operators, lawn service workers, and those working in the pesticide industry).  It won’t hurt for them to start including mung bean in their diet.

Leung, A.Y., Chinese Healing Foods and Herbs, AYSL Corp., Glen Rock, N.J., 1984, pp. 105-107.