Number 14
May/June 1998

Herbs in this issue:

Jiaogulan – ginseng substitute?


Chrysanthemum flower

Sesame seed

Lycium fruit


A Note From Dr. Leung

      Since ancient times, people have been seeking ways to live longer and healthier. Legends abound in different cultures which describe persistent efforts through the centuries by sages, alchemists, herbalists and others in seeking the elixir of life. No one has found it yet. But some people have fared better than others in this endeavor. There are numerous factors that contribute to aging. These include heredity, diet, nutrition, environment, profession, and personal attitude, etc. There is no guarantee that we will live to a certain age. We try our best to stay healthy, and the rest is out of our hands. Nevertheless, besides heredity, I believe diet and nutrition are the most important factors in determining how long we live. Only recently have we started to learn the importance of phytonutrients (nutrients from plants) in health maintenance. These nutrients include certain ubiquitous phytochemicals (e.g., flavonoids, lignans, triterpenes, polysaccharides, etc.) that possess one or more of numerous beneficial pharmacological effects, such as anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory,  detoxicant,


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.


immunomodulating, hypolipemic, hypotensive,  anti-arthritic, anti-allergic, antihistaminic, anti-mutagenic, anti-tumor, antiviral, liver protectant, anti-atherosclerotic, hypoglycemic, healing, anti-fatigue, etc. Most traditional Chinese tonic herbs contain one or more groups of these phytochemicals, and have been used in China since antiquity. Have they helped those in the know to live longer?  Probably. Since herbalists and traditional Chinese physicians have over the centuries used and dispensed herbs and have obviously been in the know, how long have they lived? Is there a connection? The following is what I have found. There is no scientific “proof.” But you can draw your own conclusion.

        Detailed records of Chinese tonic herbs date back about 2,000 years and less detailed records many centuries before that. There are over 2,000 volumes of traditional books describing medicinal uses of Chinese herbs, over 200 of which also describe their food or diet uses. They were the work of some 300 herbalists or physicians. It was the long life spans of some 4 dozen of the most eminent of these authors that have attracted my attention. Even by today’s standards, their life spans were impressively long. For example, Li Shi-Zhen, author of the most famous herbal, Ben Cao Gang Mu, who was also probably the greatest herbalist of all time, lived 75 years (1518-1593 AD). The herbalist Meng Shen, who wrote China’s first diet herbal describing 227 herbs, lived to be 92 (621-713 AD). The ancient physician, Wu Pu, who wrote the Wu Pu Ben Cao, describing 441 herbs, lived over 100 years (136/149-circa 250 AD). Sun Si-Miao, a famous physician who wrote the Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang and Qian Jin Yi Fang, formularies together describing over 7,300 prescriptions, lived 101 years (581-682 AD). And Lan Mao, who wrote the famous Dian Nan Ben Cao, describing 448 herbs, many indigenous to Yunnan, lived to be 79 years old (1397-1476 AD). I have made a quick survey of 30 of the more well-known authors based on information readily available to me and here is what I have found. These authors were either physicians or herbalists. Among the 30 authors, 23 (76.7%) lived over 70 years, 13 of whom (43.3%) over 80, and 3 of whom (10%) over 90. The 7 (23.3%) who had life spans under 70 lived 37, 53, 57, 58, 59, 63, and 67 years, during the 11th, 18th, 11th, 18-19th, 19th, 18-19th, and 16-17th century, respectively. Considering that the average life expectancy in the West a century ago was only 40 years, these individuals had remarkably long lives, in a time and environment when the knowledge of nutrition and health as well as hygiene, as we now know it, was supposed to be nonexistent. I believe their long life is no accident. I’ll bet they knew a few things about living from which we can learn. The practice of traditional Chinese medicine has always stressed prevention rather than treatment of illnesses. Exercise and diet are of prime importance in everyday living. These authors wrote extensively on the topic of health and long life, which invariably deals with tonics, certain foods, and special exercises.

        When one examines Chinese herbal medicine, one will find many formulations that have been used for centuries by the elite and the knowledgeable to keep their body in balance and to prolong their lives. These formulas contain the famous traditional tonics that only recently have been studied by modern science. Examples of these tonics include ginseng root, astragalus root, schisandra fruit, lingzhi or reishi, fo-ti (cured heshouwu), lycium fruit, dangshen (codonopsis), danggui, eleuthero, epimedium, shanyao or Chinese yam (Dioscorea opposita), nuzhenzi (Ligustrum lucidum), jujube fruit, licorice root, Chinese black mushroom, baizhu (Atractylodes macrocephala), etc. What modern science has discovered is that many of these tonics share one or more common biological activities that include: immunopotentiating, immunomodulating, antioxidant, hypolipemic, anti-atherosclerotic, anti-tumor, hypotensive, hypoglycemic, anti-inflammatory, anti-arthritic, anti-hepatotoxic, etc. All these activities contribute to the maintenance of good health and the retardation of the aging process. These tonics have probably helped those famous herbalists and physicians attain their long lives.

        We may consider ourselves very advanced in scientific and medical achievements, yet our modern technology can’t even take care of the common cold; nor can it cure immunologic diseases, all of which depend on our body being in good shape, that is, in yin-yang (immunologic) balance. Modern medicine has not found a way to treat the body as a whole to rid itself of immunologically imbalanced conditions. Instead, many of the results of modern scientific endeavors (drugs, food additives, environmental stress, etc.) may have actually precipitated some of these immunologic illnesses. Furthermore, we have developed such a reliance on synthetic drugs that many of us turn to drugs as a solution to health problems that could easily be prevented or corrected by dietary or other non-drug means. Nothing is worse than drinking and drugging (smoking, indiscriminate use of modern drugs, etc.) oneself sick and then trying to correct specific symptoms with more drugs, which starts the vicious cycle all over. In our modern world where environmental pollutants and untested food additives are ubiquitous, the least we can do to stay healthy is to be careful of what we ingest consciously or knowingly. After keeping track of herbal drug research for so many years, I am convinced that many Chinese tonic herbs do have merit in keeping our body in balance and healthy. Considering how long those famous Chinese herbalists/physicians lived in their “primitive” times, it is not unreasonable to conclude that they knew how to stay healthy and achieve longevity. In fact, they left many clues in their writings that describe various types of life-prolonging tonics. Whether these are called herbal nutrients or herbal therapeutics, they are available to those who seek them. They can serve as an excellent source of safe and effective phytonutrients, provided that they are handled properly.



Herb Notes


         Jiaogulan (aboveground parts of Gynostemma pentaphyllum). I have been keeping track of this herb since I first learned about its chemical composition more than 10 years ago. It is the first plant outside of the ginseng family (Araliaceae) in which ginsenosides are found in any appreciable quantity.1-5 This plant is a perennial vine that belongs to the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae). It grows in southern China. Although it has apparently been used in Chinese folk medicine for centuries as an antipyretic, detoxicant, antitussive, and expectorant, its first written description did not appear until the early 15th century (in Jiu Huang Ben Cao, circa 1406 AD). Hence, by Chinese standards, it was by no means a major herb, that is, not until Japanese researchers first discovered ginsenoside analogs in it about 20 years ago. Since then, at least 84 saponin glycosides related to ginsenosides have been isolated, among which 6 are identical to the major ginsenosides found in Asian ginseng, including ginsenosides Rb1, Rb3, Rd, and F2. Also, the total saponin glycosides in jiaogulan (called gypenosides) can reach 13.6%, which are much higher than those in ginseng. Due to this reason, the Chinese interest in this herb suddenly soared. Over the past 10 years, many research papers on this herb and other Gynostemma species have been published in Chinese journals and it has now been well documented that the total saponins of jiaogulan (gypenosides) possess many of the pharmacological effects of Asian ginseng. These effects include anti-fatigue, anti-stress, anti-aging, hypolipemic, hypoglycemic, anti-ulcer, anti-tumor, immunostimulant, sedative, analgesic, anti-mutagenic, antioxidant, etc.1-3,6 Because of its similarity in chemical composition and pharmacological effects to ginseng, jiaogulan is now also occasionally referred to as “southern ginseng.” And the last 10 years have seen the introduction of numerous jiaogulan products on the Chinese and Japanese markets, including jiaogulan drinks, wines, capsules and tea bags (this Newsletter, Issue 11, p. 3).3 Because of the anticipation of its imminent popularity as an herbal supplement in the United States, marketing spin has already started. One Internet site trying to sell a gel-capsule jiaogulan product has declared it a “…. powerful adaptogenic herb that has been used in China for thousands of years. The herb has traditionally been grown in a remote mountainous area in South Central China, an area known for the longevity of its inhabitants, as well as reportedly low rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease…” etc. etc. The underlines are mine. Certainly, the marketers of this product have covered all the bases. Unfortunately, none of these is true. Fact: jiaogulan has never been a major herb in China and has a written record of no more than 600 years. It is widely distributed throughout the southern provinces at an altitude between 300 and 3200 m, and there is no evidence that southern Chinese live longer than Chinese living in other parts of China. Nor is there evidence that South China has a lower rate of cancer and cardiovascular disease than the rest of China. I have no idea why some marketers tend to exaggerate or downright lie. But I think you will agree that, if you don’t have other information, all above underlined statements sound good. Thus, “thousands of years” implies long-term use and safety, and that if you don’t use jiaogulan, you will be missing something. Also, in the marketers’ conception, you don’t want something that is too common. So, “remote mountainous area” means rare and exotic. Since this product is promoted on the Internet as something that will cure your cardiovascular problems and to prolong your life, it is imperative to associate the herb with long life and low incidence of two of the most deadly diseases. With this, the marketing pitch is complete. Very clever! But frankly, one does not need to lie about all this. Although jiaogulan has never been used as a ginseng substitute until recently, it does have several centuries of documented use with no serious toxicity recorded. It is certainly at least as safe as the ginkgo leaf extracts currently being used. The only adverse effects, I have found, were mild, which included nausea, vomiting, abdominal distension, diarrhea, constipation, dizziness, blurred vision, and tinnitus. They occurred in a small number of the more than 500 patients treated for chronic bronchitis [Jiangsu Institute of Modern Medicine, Zhongyao Da Cidian, Shanghai Scientific and Technical Publications, Shanghai, 1977, p. 16]. The dosage was 2.5 to 3.0 g of powdered herb 3 times daily with a treatment course of 10 days. That study was performed before 1972, when jiaogulan’s ginseng properties were not yet known. It seems to me that it was a case of overdosing. Assuming the gypenosides content of the herb used was only 5% (way below the reported high of 13.6%), taking 9 g daily would be equivalent to ingesting 450 mg of ginsenosides, which is the upper limit of ginseng’s usual therapeutic dose. The usual amounts of ginsenosides intake in herbal supplements are below 50 mg per day.

        I can see this herb gaining rapid popularity here in North America soon, for 2 reasons: (1) It is a cheap source of ginsenosides, especially the key ones, such as Rb1. Now that many “ginseng extracts” are sold as containing high concentrations of ginsenosides, nothing can prevent unscrupulous suppliers from adding jiaogulan ginsenosides to “ginseng extracts.” It is simply the name of the game. When you ask for standardized extracts against a certain type of chemical, without requiring suppliers to show the presence of the other active components as well, you get what you ask for. I don’t see anything wrong with asking for ginsenosides and getting ginsenosides. But don’t expect genuine ginseng extracts or total ginseng extracts if your product specifications require ginsenosides alone! I have no problem if one wants to use only the ginsenosides from ginseng or jiaogulan as “nutraceuticals,” “phytonutrients,” “phytochemicals,” or whatever fancy names one coins, but I do have a problem with mixing specific chemicals from an herb with the herb itself or its extract. Ginsenosides are a group of chemicals; they are not ginseng extracts because the latter also contain many other beneficial components that are absent in a mixture of ginsenosides! (2) Compared to ginseng, in addition to ginsenoside-type saponins, jiaogulan contains generally larger amounts of the conventional nutrients, including proteins, amino acids (especially the 8 essential ones), vitamins, and minerals, as well as comparable amounts of polysaccharides (>8%).7,8

        Fresh jiaogulan for treating recurring canker sores [Gansu Zhongyi, 10(1): 42(1997)]. Among 32 patients (26 male, 6 female; age 16 –45 yrs) with recurring cankers treated with fresh jiaogulan, 22 (68.7%) experienced reduced pain, with lesions greatly reduced or disappeared, and 8 (25%) responded with reduced pain and reduced lesions, while 2 (6.3%) did not respond. Method: Place 9 g of fresh jiaogulan in a cup. Pour in 150-200 ml boiling water and let steep for 20 min. Drink the tea while warm. Do this 2 to 3 times daily. Course of treatment was 1 week. No adverse side effects were observed. This probably has to do with the dosage. A high daily dose of 27 g of fresh herb is equivalent to only 3 to 4 g of dried herb. This is only about 1/3 the dose used in the 1972 study in which side effects were observed.

(1) G. Qi and L. Zhang, “New Progress in Jiaogulan Research,” Zhongcaoyao, 26(7): 377-380(1995);  (2) X.S. Liu et al., “Pharmacological Studies on Total Saponin Glycosides from Guangxi Jiaogulan,” Zhongchengyao, 11(8): 27-29(1989);  (3) H.P. Zhou, “The Saponin Glycoside Composition and Pharmacology of Jiaogulan,” Yaoxue Tongbao, 23(12): 720-724(1988);  (4) Z.S. Zhao et al., “Improvement in the Extraction of Total Saponin Glycosides from Jiaogulan,” Zhongcaoyao, 26(11): 580-581(1995);  (5) W.X. Wang et al., “Studies on the Effect of Ecological Factors on the Total Saponin Content of Jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum),” Zhongcaoyao, 27(9): 559-561(1996);  (6) X.Y. Cheng et al., “Experimental Studies on the Antimutagenic Effect of the Total Saponin Glycosides of Jiaogulan,” Hunan Zhongyi Zazhi, 11(6):45-46(1995);  (7) S.L. Deng et al., “Analysis of Amino Acids, Vitamins, and Chemical Elements in Jiaogulan,” Hunan Yike Daxue Xuebao, 19(6): 487-490(1994);  (8) X.L. Tang et al., “Isolation and Preliminary Analysis of Crude Polysaccharides from Jiaogulan,” Zhongchengyao, 17(7): 7-8(1995).





        Tea (Camellia sinensis) has been consumed in China for several thousand years. Besides being a beverage, it is often used as a medicine. Its general health benefits (especially antioxidant effect) have recently been attributed to its flavanoids (catechin, epicatechin, etc.). These compounds are also present in abundance in black catechu (2-20%) and pale catechu (30-35%), the former from the heartwood of Acacia catechu while the latter from the leaves and twigs of Uncaria gambir. They are also present in the wood, root, leaf, and bark of many other plants. Consequently, “standardized” tea extracts artificially high in these polyphenols may not be tea extracts at all. Hence, such extracts should not be called tea extracts but should more accurately be called “tea flavanoids” or “catechin concentrates.” The reason is that the benefits of tea are not due to these polyphenols alone. Billions of people over the centuries have benefited from tea drinking, and not from ingesting these chemical units of condensed tannins! In any case, let’s get back to the wholesome tea. The following are a few folk remedies for some common conditions from a compilation of mostly folk medicinal uses of tea, with some from classic herbals [Luo, Q. F. and G.Y. Yang, Zhongguo Yao Cha Da Quan (Compendium of Chinese Medicinal Teas), Lin Yu Cultural Enterprise Co., Ltd., Taipei, 1995]:

         Flu and associated symptoms (fever, dry mouth, runny nose, etc.): (1) Heat 3 g of green tea with 6 g of gypsum in an oven or pot until crispy dry. Grind together to a fine powder. Disperse the fine powder mixture in warm boiled water, add a little honey and drink the mixture. (2) Boil 6 g of black tea with 20 g of honeysuckle flower buds (available in Chinese herb shops or food markets) for 20-30 min. Strain and add an adequate amount of sugar. Drink the tea once daily. Do this for 2 to 3 days. (3) Break up 30 g of mung bean into small pieces. Add 1 big bowl of water. Cook down to half a bowl along with 9 g of black tea wrapped in muslin or cheesecloth. Remove the tea bag. Add adequate amounts of red sugar (in thin brick-like form, available from Chinese grocers) and eat the mung bean soup. (4) Briefly boil 7 g of black tea with 10 slices of fresh ginger. Drink the tea after meals. This is also reportedly good for coughs that accompany cold and flu.

         Dry cough: Steep 2 g each of black tea and dried chrysanthemum flower in boiling water for 6 min. Drink the tea after meals.

         Herbal tea pillow for hypertension, dizziness, and neurasthenia: This pillow is made with used tea leaves that have been oven or sun dried. Add a small amount of jasmine tea, mix together thoroughly and stuff into a pillow case. Simply use this pillow on a regular basis. It is said to prevent or relieve hypertension. It appears that the jasmine tea is added here only as a fragrance because in another remedy for the same purposes, only spent tea is used.

         Diarrhea: Soak 30 g of lotus seeds (available from Chinese grocers or food stores) in warm water for a few hrs. Add an adequate amount of rock candy and simmer until the lotus seeds are well done. To this thick soup add a cup of tea made by steeping 5 g of black tea in boiling water. Eat the soup/tea.

         Insomnia: Make tea with 15 g of green tea and drink it all before 8 A.M. Grind 10 g of sour jujube kernel (available in Chinese herb shops) to a fine powder and take it with water at bedtime. Be sure not to drink any water or tea (e.g. black tea) after 8 P.M.

        Hyperthyroidism: Boil 12 g of dried chrysanthemum flower in 600 ml of water for 5 min. Add 1 g of green tea and 25 g honey. Let steep for a few min. and drink the resulting tea over a period of several hrs. More boiling water can be added and the resulting tea again drunk during the rest of the day. Do this on a daily basis.

        Sprained back muscles: (1) Mix 200 ml of a strong black tea (e.g., from 3-5 American/English brand tea bags) with 100 ml rice vinegar. Heat it up and drink it all at one time while warm. (2) Mix 5 g of cooked black sesame seed powder (can be prepared by baking the seeds in an oven at medium heat until dried and then ground to a powder) and 25 g red sugar in 400-500 ml hot tea prepared from 1 g green tea. Stir well and drink the thin soup while still warm in 3 portions. Do this once daily. (3) Bring to a boil 300 ml of tea made from 1 g green tea. Add 2 eggs and 2.5 g honey. Continue to simmer until the eggs are cooked (a few min). Drink the tea and eat the eggs once daily in the morning.

        Shingles (herpes zoster): Simply use a very strong tea (e.g., several times stronger than the usual American tea) to wash the afflicted areas. This is also recommended for contact dermatitis, eczema, and painful inflammations.

        Contact dermatitis, erythema, blisters, itching, etc.: Soak 60 g each of black tea and alum in 500 ml of water for 30 min and then boil the mixture for another 30 min. Use the resulting tea to wash afflicted areas.

        Reduced vision, dizziness, and night blindness: Stir fry equal amounts of salt and lycium fruit (heating the salt first), until the fruit swells up. Remove the fruit and discard the salt. Save the fruit for later use. When ready to take this recipe, place 1 g of black tea and 10 g of chrysanthemum flower in a teapot. Add boiling water and let steep for 5 min. Pour the tea into a cup with 10 g of the stir-fried lycium fruit. Drink the tea and eat the fruit.

        Garlic breath: This folk remedy calls for simply chewing black tea leaves or gargling with a strong black tea.

Leung, A.Y., Chinese Healing Foods and Herbs, AYSL Corp., Glen Rock, NJ, 1984, pp. 156-159.