Number 11
November/December 1997

Herbs in this issue:



Gynostemma pentaphyllum


Green tea


A Note From Dr. Leung


     I am no expert in international cultures.  But after growing up in a traditional Chinese family in Hong Kong and spending most of my adult years in America, I think I have a good feel for these two cultures.  Even though I now consider myself quite Americanized, I am still very Chinese in certain ways.  I still like exotic Chinese foods – those my wife won’t touch.  And I still haven’t gotten used to American self-promotion, such as a person of mediocre talent/qualification, with skin like an elephant’s hide, lobbying for peer or public recognition.  The traditional Chinese culture frowns on such action.  Their rationale is, if you are good, others will know about it.  Not so with the American way.  Here, it is the thing to do.  It is marketing, which appears to have become, in recent years, an integral part of American culture.  If an American knows a little of a topic, he/she projects himself as an expert.  On the other hand, a typical Chinese would behave just the opposite. Even though he/she may have considerable expertise in a subject, he would seldom show it off and often would tend to downgrade his importance, 


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.


sometimes to the point that he may appear mediocre. This, in American culture, signifies lack of self-confidence.  In the business world, this has resulted in few Chinese managers at the top, but many middle-level Chinese researchers who form the backbone of the research and development organizations that employ them, but which seldom give them the credit due.  In the social scene, if you have dealings with recent Chinese immigrants or old-fashioned Chinese Americans, you might have already experienced it.  When American hosts invite you to dinner, it is not uncommon for them to tell you that they have prepared a special meal for you, which they may claim to have taken special efforts and techniques to accomplish.  In contrast, Chinese hosts may have prepared a banquet for you, but it is not unusual for them to say that the meal they have prepared is not really that good, and that they hope you won’t mind eating the modest meal.

        I have learned, after all these years as an American, that we can use some of the Chinese modesty and the Chinese can be a little more “American.”  This would benefit both cultures in this modern society in their dealings with each other.  It is when American audacity becomes overbearing which produces an “ugly American,” one who carries the self-promotion to such a point that he/she now actually believes he is superior and looks down on non-Americans.  This attitude is often difficult to hide despite the owners’ attempt to do so.  Then when these “ugly Americans” try to make deals with the Chinese and fail, they wonder why.  The Chinese don’t like outsiders to come in and treat them as if they were idiots.  They might like American money and American technology, but they consider themselves culturally superior (their millennia vs. Americans’ mere centuries) and intellectually at least equal, and thus would want Americans to come down a little from their high horse and negotiate as equals.  Another thing that has been giving wrong signals to Americans is that many Chinese are so enamored with American goods and technology that they would gobble up anything that is American.  It always strikes me as odd to see Caucasian models being featured in Chinese cosmetic journals and magazines when the editors could easily have used Chinese models instead.  The only reason I can think of is that either these editors lack self esteem or suffer from a case of inferiority complex – opposite of the Chinese national trait.  With confusing signals like these, no wonder most Americans don’t know how to handle the subtleties when dealing with the Chinese.  My advice is:  Despite their general lack of outward aggressiveness (misinterpreted as confidence by Americans), the Chinese are not dumb.  Don’t underestimate them!


Beijing Workshop on Chinese Herbs (August/September 1998).

       In the field of Chinese herbal products, one of the most important and yet frequently overlooked factors which contributes to their quality and effectiveness is the correct identity and quality of the herbal ingredients.  Many practitioners and writers of Chinese herbal medicine in North America may possess excellent textbook knowledge of herbs and herbal products, but few know where these herbs actually come from and how they have been treated before they present themselves as ingredients in finished products.  It is easy to rattle off a long list of traditional properties, pharmacologic effects, and uses of an herb.  Any student or avid reader of health magazines can do that.  But what most people (including American practitioners) don’t know is that, unless you have the correct herb or herbal ingredient in the product, all those good properties and uses of the herb are irrelevant.  There is no way whereby one can tell whether a product is any good by simply looking at its label.  With western herbs, there is more assurance that their presence in herbal products is indeed genuine, as they have been popular and used in America for many years, and manufacturers are more familiar with them.  Not so with Chinese herbs.  Few manufacturers know how to deal with them, despite claims otherwise.  And misinformation on Chinese herbs abounds, especially promotional literature from certain companies and articles written by some popular authors who call themselves herbalists.  The bottom line: There is simply not enough accurate information on Chinese herbs in the American media.  I wish I could do more in disseminating my share of accurate information on this topic.  But my other obligations have not allowed me to do so.  Hopefully, through continued collaboration with more competent individuals and organizations, we will help bring legitimacy and credibility to the field of Chinese herbs in America.  By the way, I don’t believe I have mentioned that we have been collaborating with the Institute of Chinese Materia Medica, China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine on gathering and disseminating information on Chinese herbs.  During my September visit last year, a hands-on workshop on Chinese herbs was suggested to me.  This workshop, to be jointly sponsored by the Institute and AYSL Corporation and held at the Institute late August or early September, 1998, would consist of lectures and lab work, as well as field work at growing and processing sites around Beijing.  It would teach participants the traditional properties, identification, quality, sourcing, and uses of Chinese herbs, concentrating on ones that are commonly used in America.  Teachers would be professors from the Academy, with myself being a coordinator, bridging the gap between East and West.  The participants would have a great learning experience, as well as experience genuine Chinese culture (food, major sights, etc.).  It helps for one to have a science degree, but we will try to make the workshop materials suitable for a wide range of education levels.  If you are interested, contact us for details:          

e-mail:  extracts@phyto-tech.com




          Herb sourcing in remote China.  I go to China on business a couple of times a year.  During the past few years, one of my business activities is to visit herb growing and processing regions.  These trips have been arranged through a good friend and major West Coast importer.  I came to know him some years ago when I was investigating commercial Chinese herb sources in the United States, especially their identity and quality.  The herbs he provided (e.g., Siberian ginseng) were consistently genuine and of good quality, while those from other importers were often adulterated, especially in the powdered form.  Since then, he has become a good friend and my source of Chinese herbs.  Through his contacts and arrangements, I have visited many parts of China.  Last September, we went to northwestern and northeastern China.  In the Lanzhou area (northwestern China), I had the opportunity to see acres and acres of cultivated danggui, astragalus, dangshen, and lycium.  I always learned something new during such travels.  This time was no exception.  I was quite surprised to learn that astragalus roots from the Lanzhou region are harvested from 2- or 3-year-old plants and not from 4- to 7-year-old plants as reported in the literature and in my Encyclopedia.  In order to visit growing areas of schisandra (Schisandra sinensis) and Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), we had to fly to Harbin in northeastern China near the Russian border, drive for 5 hours, and then hike for 2 more hours to reach their remote growing site.  It was the second week of September and a little late to find schisandra berries in abundance.  Nevertheless, I was able to find enough berries still on the vines to get a feel for schisandra’s habitat.  It was interesting to observe that schisandra and Siberian ginseng often grow together, with the schisandra vine spiraling around the eleuthero plant.  They both grow wild in much of  northeastern and northern China, and you would think that they are abundant.  Indeed they are, right now.  It will be fine with schisandra, since the berries are a renewable resource.  But not so with Siberian ginseng!  Since the root and rhizome are used, once dug up, the plant loses much of its availability.  Some of the root/rhizome being harvested are over 30 years old.  Continued removal of such plant materials will deplete Siberian ginseng’s source. 

        During lunch in the village near the growing areas, I again learned something new.  One of the dishes served was fresh jiegeng (Platycodon grandiflorum root).  It tastes like a crunchy and firm root vegetable and not unpleasant.  I always knew jiegeng to be an excellent expectorant and antitussive, but I never knew it is commonly eaten as a vegetable in northeastern China.  Read on.



Herb Notes


          Jiegeng (root of Platycodon grandiflorum).  It is also called balloon flower and Chinese bell flower, of the bell flower family.  It has a documented use history of close to 2,000 years, being first recorded in the Shennong Ben Cao Jing or Shennong Herbal (circa 200 BC–100 AD).  It is most well known for its expectorant and antitussive  properties.  The herb is commonly used in colds and flus, sore throat, bronchitis, cough with much phlegm, hoarseness of voice, and suppuration.  It is a major ingredient in many anti-cough medicines.  When ingested orally, at normal doses (3-10 g), it seldom causes any toxic side effects.  At elevated doses, however, one may occasionally experience nausea and vomiting, and low blood pressure.  Jiegeng contains saponins (platycodin A, C, D, D2 and polygalacin D, D2, etc.), polysaccharides (inulin, platycodonin, etc.), triterpenes (platycogenic acid A, B, C), sterols, sterol glycosides, and others.  The saponins have been the most studied, which exhibit various pharmacological activities, including antitussive, expectorant, hypoglycemic, diuretic, anti-ulcer, hemolytic, local irritant, sedative, analgesic, antifebrile, anti-allergic, corticosterone secretion, and vasodilation.1

1. T. Kimura et al., International Collation of Traditional and Folk Medicine.  Vol. 1.  Northeastern Asia.  Part 1, World Scientific, Singapore, 1996, pp. 162-163



Healing Foods


          Diet Therapy for Diabetes (also see Issue 6 of this newsletter for hypoglycemic herbs).  In a recent issue of the Shizhen Journal of TCM Research [Shizhen Guoyao Yanjiu,8(6): 553 (1997)], numerous simple treatments of diabetes using common Chinese foods or herbs are summarized by three doctors from the Caiyuan Municipal People’s Hospital of Shandong Province.  The following recipes are based on herbs/foods that should be available in Chinese or other ethnic stores in North America.

        India wheat or Siberian buckwheat (Fagopyrum tataricum Gaertn.).  The seed contains 1% flavonoids, including rutin and cyanidin, as well as other nutrients.  For treating diabetes, a mixture of the following flours is made into different types of foods (such as bread and congee) and eaten regularly as part of one’s diet: 30% India wheat, 10% soybean, 20% millet, and 40% wheat.  No other details are given except that a 93% response was claimed after trials at the Beijing Tong Ren Hospital, Tianjin Medical School Affiliated Hospital, and other hospitals.

        Nan gua or cushaw (Cucurbita moschata Duch.).  Use the young fruits when in season.  Eat 500 g (a little over a pound) each day, stir fried.  One can also cut the young fruit into slices and sun dry them for use in winter or other times.  Using this recipe for diabetes, a response rate of up to 75% has been reported.  There seems to be many varieties of cushaw.  Consequently, in order to get the right type used by the Chinese, it is best to buy it in Chinatown.  If you use the Chinese name, nan gua (‘southern melon’), there will be little confusion, as most Chinese know it.

        Green tea.  The original study was made by a Japanese professor, who showed that drinking green tea can reduce excess sugar in the blood.  However, the tea must be made with cooled boiled water and not with hot water.  It is claimed that hot water will destroy the hypoglycemic components.  For sanitary reasons, I suggest you select your green tea with care, since any harmful bacteria in the tea would not be killed when steeped in cold water.  Japanese green teas are usually good.  If you don’t mind drinking cold tea, this remedy is certainly simple and convenient.  It won’t hurt to try it for a couple of months.  You never know.

        Asian ginseng and egg white soup.  Mix 3 g of ginseng powder with one egg white and add boiling water to make a tea/soup.  Take this no more than once a day, or better, every other day. 

        Jiao gu lan tea (Gynostemma pentaphyllum herb).  Once daily, steep 30 g of the herb in boiling water in a teapot.  Drink the tea throughout the day.  Guaranteed effective!  That’s according to the authors.  Jiao gu lan is currently a hot item, because it contains saponin glycosides that are very similar in chemical structure to ginsenosides (and a few are actually identical to certain ginsenosides).  For this reason, intensified studies during recent years have shown it to have many similar pharmacological effects as ginseng.  One of these effects is the lowering of blood sugar.  You can buy this herb in Chinatown herb shops.  I have seen packaged jiao gu lan tea bags for sale in some New York Chinatown supermarkets.  But if you use the tea bags, you will probably need 10 to 15 a day, depending on the weight of each tea bag.

        Digupi or lycium root bark tea.  Digupi is the root bark of Lycium barbarum or L. chinense.  Its properties and uses were first recorded in the Shennong Herbal about 2,000 years ago.  Even at that time, it was described as being able to relieve thirst, sweet urine, and excessive urination (polyuria) that are major symptoms of diabetes.  It is considered cold-natured and is also traditionally used to treat “hot” conditions, including dyspnea cough, hectic fever, sweating, and hemorrhages.  More recent uses include the treatment of hypertension, malaria, carbuncle, and sores.  It is available from Chinatown herb shops. 

        Lycium fruit.  This is the fruit of the above Lycium species.  For diabetes, simply eat 10 to 20 g a day.  It can be eaten as one would raisins.  It has a similar texture as raisin but a little bit less sweet.  Lycium fruit is a well-known Chinese yin tonic widely used in traditional Chinese medicine and as a disease-preventive food.  It is rich in amino acids and its polysaccharides have been shown to have broad biological activities (antioxidant, antimutagenic, immunomodulating, antistress, antitumor, etc.).  I have written about it in previous issues of this newsletter (see Issues 1,2,3,4,6,7).  It has become one of my favorite Chinese herbs for very personal reasons.  I am one of those people with excessive yang.  These people are full of energy, usually hyperactive, and prone to constipation, especially if they do not watch their diet.  After using a lycium fruit product daily for the past 16 months, everything else as usual, I have not had a single incidence of constipation, despite my hectic traveling schedule!  The reason I hadn’t started correcting my problem earlier is for two reasons.  First, I was torn between my scientific training and my traditional Chinese medical belief.  On the one hand, despite my open-mindedness regarding nonconventional health practices, my scientific mind kept admonishing me not to accept anything that has not been “proven” by science.  Besides, occasional constipation is only an inconvenience, not a major problem, which can easily be corrected by a laxative.  For this reason, I never pushed for the alternative solution.  Second, in order to solve my problem, it is not just a matter of watching my diet.  It used to occur once in a while, whether or not I ate lots of fruits and vegetables during that time.  I knew it was not the foods that I was eating, nor stress, but rather, my basic yang constitution.  If it were a more serious problem, I could have started cooking up Chinese yin tonics to correct it.  To do so would involve preparing the concoctions daily for months, which I was too lazy to do, especially for such a minor and common condition.  But then I had the opportunity to prepare such a product in a convenient modern dosage form for one of my clients.  That was 16 months ago.  I can tell you, I have been a happy camper since.  And  I have not lost my other yang qualities either!  Modern nutritionists think that if you eat a “nutritionally” balanced diet, you should never have a constipation problem.  But it is not true, because we are not all equal “living machines.”  Every one of us is different.  A yin person can eat the same foods as a yang person and have diarrhea while the yang person have constipation.  Why can’t we accept that?  A basic flaw in modern conventional medical practice, in my opinion, is that it assumes everyone is the same and does not take common sense and empirical wisdom seriously.  Where are the doctors’ grandmas?!

        Machixian or purslane herb (Portulaca oleracea).  This grows in many parts of the United States and southern Canada.  Here in New Jersey, it grows as a weed on many lawns and waste places.  The aboveground part is used as a vegetable and salad green in many parts of the world.  It is rich in nutrients (vitamins A, B1, B2, C, niacinamide, nicotinic acid, a-tocopherol, b-carotene, omega-3 acids, glutathione, flavonoids) and also contains high concentrations of noradrenaline (0.25% in fresh herb reported).  It is considered cold-natured and has detoxicant and heat-dispersing properties.  Traditionally, it is used internally to treat headache, stomachache, painful urination, dysentery, enteritis, mastitis, bleeding, etc., as well as externally to treat burns, insect stings, inflammations, eczema, pruritus, and skin sores.  Modern uses include the treatment of colitis, diabetes, shingles, and dermatitis.  For diabetes, simply eat it regularly as a vegetable when in season or dry it for use in winter.  It is a little tart and does not taste bad.  Bon apetit! 

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