LEUNG'S
(CHINESE) HERB NEWS
Number 36
January/February 2002

Herbs in this issue:
Lycium Fruit

     I have been in the natural products business for many years now, especially in research and development and the manufacture of commercial botanical products (now called dietary supplements). In addition, prior to that, I was involved in basic natural products research for several years, first as a graduate student in fungal hallucinogens, then as a postdoctoral research fellow in opium alkaloids. During my years in this field and business, I have, you may say, seen it all. On opposite ends of the spectrum were those who came in for the quick buck and others who genuinely loved the business of providing quality products to help improve the health of the general public. Many of the first type came and went, results of their own doing and undoing, due to 2 main reasons: (1) The easiest way to make lots of money is to sell dietary supplements at bargain prices with little or no claimed ingredients in them or to sell products that are strictly marketing gimmicks with much hype but little else, including some supposedly fantastic herbal ingredients. Then, when the public became more aware of the quality problems in herbal supplements
 

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.


and/or found out about the true nature of these dubious products and their purveyors, these marketers no longer could make easy money. Hence, many of them simply could no longer exist because they did not have the technical resources to switch to the manufacture and marketing of genuine products that contain non-adulterated quality ingredients. (2) Since its passage in October 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) opened a floodgate for marketers who saw this as a golden opportunity to sell anything derived from herbs, be it a chemical drug (e.g., over-the-counter drug) or a powerful herbal formula not meant for self medication. Although this is still ongoing, making copious amounts of money for marketers of these questionable products, the adverse publicity of these products and the expected changing of the US regulatory climate will put an end to this bonanza in the not-too-distant future, despite efforts by some segment of the industry to ‘educate’ the consumers about only the good aspect of these herbs. After all, how much longer can ephedrine/ephedra be sold as a ‘safe’ daily supplement to our diet (‘dietary supplement’) without the government’s taking a serious look at DSHEA’s adequacy for regulating drugs like this?
          Against this backdrop is the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), a trade organization dedicated to the service of its membership, with its mission “to promote the responsible commerce of herbal products.” This is good, of course. But it doesn’t mean all its members are responsible and honest people. To some members, it’s strictly a matter of legal compliance and/or maneuvering. As long as they can find ways to stay within legal bounds (which sometimes can stretch one’s imagination), they will sell anything that can bring in fast profits. But there is often a fine line between what’s legal and illegal. And sometimes something is legal doesn’t mean it’s ethical, yet this is sold or practiced everyday by the rich and powerful in all walks of life, not just in the herbal supplements industry.
           Up until as recently as 6 or 7 years go, there was no lack of unscrupulous marketers among AHPA members, many of whom were also smooth politicians. At the time, much of the sales in herbal products (a good volume generated by AHPA members) could be attributed to adulterated products whose prices were often lower than those of the raw materials from which they were supposedly produced. A typical example is powdered aloe vera gel products which often were labeled as 98% or 100% pure (200X concentrate – meaning 1lb obtained from 200lbs of fresh gel) and yet being sold for less than the raw material cost. [I have chosen the powdered product as an example because it is easily analyzed and proven ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty’ as opposed to the liquids that are definitely more numerous, whose adulteration is much more widespread. And any serious, honest manufacturers or marketers could have them analyzed and switch to the real, but much more expensive, ones; though that remains a real challenge to this day. I know from personal experience that this is a fact because after having developed a pure aloe vera gel powder, we couldn’t sell a single pound of it for several years until a couple of quality-conscious manufacturers/marketers started incorporating it in their products. After all, why would ‘any’ marketer make much less profit by voluntarily paying several times more for its ingredient, especially considering its chance of being caught is close to nil?]. These types of products are still being sold by member companies despite the fact that these companies are not charitable organizations with a mission of donating dietary supplements to the general public, nor is there a benevolent supplier from whom they obtain herbal ingredients for free. This same group and others also continue to sell products on the borderline of safety and legality. Despite all these, I can still say that AHPA has matured considerably during the past few years. It is now run by professionals, at least at the top level of management. And, unlike prior years, its members now consist of some companies and individuals with considerable expertise in the tradition and/or science of herbs. In a diversified organization (especially a trade organization) like this, there is always the constant juggling act of balancing the desire for profits with the desire for the public good within its membership. The latter can be seen in AHPA’s efforts in educating the public by expertly addressing and responding to bad scientific/clinical studies published in reputable medical and scientific journals, or to misinformation on herbs promulgated by various media, some of which I have also written about in this Newsletter. These efforts, I believe, had been slowly but surely gaining credibility for AHPA as a fair (and not too obviously self-serving) organization among the general public and an increasing number of non-herbal professionals. I hope it continues this good work and refrains from listening to a minority of members and others who have been trying to steer it back to a truly self-serving trade group. Again, the mission of AHPA is “to promote the responsible commerce of herbal products,” which is being carried out by the majority of its members who, I believe, are sincere in their efforts to provide safe and effective herbal products as legitimate alternatives to current harsh conventional pharmaceuticals. I only wish AHPA’s upper management had the authority to crack down and expel offending members who sell adulterated ingredients/products starting with ones that can be easily analyzed!

My Favorite Tonic – Lycium Fruit
         The concept of tonics appears to have been lost among the younger generation. Back in the days before vitamins, minerals, and other nutritional supplements (and way before the current popular pursuit of ‘uppers’ and ‘downers’), people took general tonics (usually in the form of a liquid) to help invigorate (or strengthen), restore, and maintain their health. There were also other tonics for different functions of the body, such as stomach tonic, digestive tonic, blood tonic, nerve tonic, vascular tonic, etc. Many people still take tonics, though they take them under other names. And in recent years, dietary supplements known as ‘energy boosters’ are the craze. These are not true tonics, and they don’t provide energy nor do they restore health. Rather, they are simply central-nervous-system stimulants, giving the consumer an instant high or mental jolt, then let him/her down again. With consumption of these ‘energy boosters’ in such large quantities in the United States, you would think we are a nation of weaklings or sleepyheads who can’t function without resorting to taking central stimulants to keep alert, or a nation of druggies persistently pursuing the ultimate high. Either scenario would not be flattering to our national image. I believe this phenomenon is the direct result of the advent of the synthetic drug era along with its ubiquitous advertisements in recent years, giving the general public the impression that there is a drug for everything (aches and pains, moods, aging, obesity, sexual inadequacies, lassitude, weak muscles, slowness, hyperactivity, you name it). Now there is ample evidence that Americans have taken these pharmaceutical baits with gusto. Just look at what we have been taking recently – dietary supplements for every ill. As mentioned earlier, these are not true supplements or tonics. They are simply drugs, except from natural sources, which don’t invigorate or restore your health. At best, they may relieve whatever you have, though temporarily. On the other hand, traditional tonics, like true dietary supplements (e.g., vitamins and minerals) strengthen, restore, and maintain health. They are not normally used to treat a specific disease (unless it’s a deficiency disease) but to supply the body with missing nutrients (conventional or otherwise) and to restore body balance and hence health. Chinese tonics have been safely used for thousands of years to do just that. They can be considered true dietary supplements because, unlike typical Chinese medicines, they are traditionally used on a relatively long-term basis to supplement one’s diet (Issue 14, pp. 1-2).
Among the many Chinese tonic herbs used by the Chinese over the past several millennia, you may not have heard of schisandra, astragalus, danggui (Chinese angelica), but I am sure you have heard of ginseng. ‘Ginseng’ has now become almost a household word in America, despite the fact that most people don’t know what ‘ginseng’ is. Among the 2 major types of ginseng, American (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian (Panax ginseng), I favor American ginseng. Even though both ginsengs are tonics, being a yang person, I don’t need a yang tonic like Asian ginseng to make me more yang. I need a yin tonic to balance my yang. Although I do take American ginseng occasionally, it is not my favorite yin tonic. My favorite yin tonic is lycium fruit (gou qi zi) which I consume on a regular basis.
          What is a yin or yang person? In Chinese medicine, a person is healthy when his/her yin and yang are in balance. Yin is shade, night, cold, the weak, and the inactive, etc., while yang is sunlight, day, heat, the strong, and the active. The 2 are interconnected and both are needed to form the whole. We tend to be either a yin or a yang person. A yin person often is prone to cold hands and feet, a pale complexion, lack of energy, and loose stool, etc. In contrast, a yang person tends to be hot, with a ruddy complexion, full of energy, and often constipated. When one’s yin and yang are out of balance, one will become ill. Often, certain foods and tonics with yin or yang properties are consumed to restore this balance.
          I am a typical yang person, having most of the above yang attributes and then some. I am full of energy, requiring no stimulants, natural or synthetic. I drink tea and coffee, not because they give me ‘energy,’ but because they are part of my acquired daily habit. At times, when I don’t have access to decent coffee or tea while traveling, , I simply go without them, which hasn’t affected my work. Since childhood, I have never been able to sit still nor to move slowly or with grace, though I have improved with age. I got expelled from elementary school and then, again, high school; from the former because I disturbed other children by not sitting still and from the latter because I flunked more than 3 subjects that I found boring at the time (including recitation, Chinese history, and singing). My wife calls me a jackrabbit.
          Lycium fruit (gouqizi ) is the ripe red berry of Lycium barbarum L. or Lycium chinense Mill, plants that belong to the tomato family (Solanaceae). The plants are also known as wolfberry, Chinese matrimony vine, and gou qi. They are both deciduous shrubs, naturalized in the United States, with L. barbarum up to 1 m and L. chinense reaching 2-3 m high. Both plants serve as source of lycium fruit which, after drying, is wrinkly and still soft to the touch, with a texture similar to that of a well-dried raisin. It also tastes sweet as raisin, but less so. The fruit from L. barbarum is also called ningxia gouqi as it is produced mainly in northern China, especially Ningxia Province. The fruit from L. chinense is called gouqi and is produced throughout China. Gouqi from L. barbarum is larger and is generally considered of better quality. Most of the lycium fruit imported into the United States is this type. During the drying process, lycium fruit is sometimes treated with burning sulfur to preserve its color and to retard microbial growth. Hence, if you are allergic to sulfites present in dried fruits and usually refrain from eating those, you should be careful to ensure that the lycium you ingest has not been subjected to sulfite treatment.
          In addition to being a yin and blood tonic, lycium fruit is loaded with nutrients, both conventional (vitamins especially ß-carotene; minerals, amino acids, proteins, etc.) and not-so-conventional (immunopotentiating and antioxidative polysaccharides; betaine, taurine, etc.).
Lycium fruit was first described around A.D. 200. Traditionally regarded as sweet tasting and neutral, liver- and kidney-nourishing, replenishing vital essence (yi jing), and vision improving, it is one of the most commonly used Chinese yin tonics. Besides being used as a general yin tonic, it is traditionally also used in treating general weakness and deficient energy (xu lao jing kui), aching back and knee, tinnitus (ringing in the ear), dizziness, diabetes, blurred vision, cough, and nocturnal emission (wet dreams). In recent years, due to its immunomodulating, antioxidant, and other effects (especially of its polysaccharides), lycium fruit extracts are also used in China to alleviate the damaging effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy in cancer treatment. The scientific rationale of many of its traditional uses has been substantiated by modern human and animal studies, especially its anti-aging (antioxidant, hypolipemic, memory-improving, etc.), immunopotentiating, and liver-protectant effects.1-3
          Lycium fruit has been used for millennia by the Chinese people for improving and maintaining general health. We use it frequently in cooking along with Chinese yam (shanyao). The leaves are eaten as a vegetable. My grandmother used to make a soup with them along with pig’s liver. The adults ate it to improve their vision while we children ate the lycium leaves and liver because they tasted good. Now I use lycium fruit or products made with it for different reasons. It is nutritious in the conventional sense and it is also just what I need for toning down my excessive yang constitution. Before I started using it in the form of a commercial product, I used to have constipation periodically, perhaps 3 or 4 times a year, whether or not I ate lots of fruits and vegetables at the time, which is totally contrary to modern nutritional principles. When that happened, I often used a natural laxative like senna, cascara or aloe to relieve it. It did go away but then always recurred a few months later. After ‘listening’ to my body for many years with this problem, I was finally convinced that my problem was not due to a lack of fruits, vegetables, or natural fibers in my diet, but rather to my basic excessive yang constitution. And I also suspected that that could be rectified with yin foods and/or tonics such as lycium fruit, American ginseng root, Asian ginseng leaf (not root, which is a yang tonic), ligustrum fruit, cured fo-ti, and rehmannia root/rhizome, among others. However, I didn’t have the time or the patience to include any of these routinely in my diet because a certain amount of special daily cooking or preparation is required, not just when this happens, but on a continuous basis. Also, I didn’t trust any of the commercial products on the market. So when a lycium product I formulated for a client began to be available, I was more than happy to take it on a regular basis. It has been almost 6 years now that I have been taking this supplement, and I have not had a single episode of constipation during all this time (Issue 11, p. 3). You may call this coincidence. But it certainly would be some coincidence! A problem that one has all one’s life suddenly disappears when one happens to take a lycium fruit product known for toning down one’s excessive yang and yet not attributable to this? Possible, but highly unlikely. As a scientist, I have been very skeptical about things like this and I am always keeping my eyes open to potential exaggeration in these matters as well as an open mind. After many years of observation with an eye towards traditional health practices and another towards modern scientific evidence, I firmly believe that the cause of constipation is not simply due to lack of bulk or fibers in our diet. A major factor lies in our individual constitution which requires a diet that is not one-size-fits-all. Some people have no problem with constipation whether or not they eat “five servings of fruits and vegetables” daily, while others have this problem no matter how faithfully they adhere to the modern diet recommended by experts in the conventional nutrition field. In order to rectify it, they have to do something extra, usually resorting to laxatives, which can become a habit. If you have this problem, here is what I recommend. It certainly would be better than acquiring a laxative habit. If it doesn’t work for you, you haven’t lost anything.
If you suspect you may have a yang constitution, with a tendency to constipation as one of its characteristics and you don’t want to continue to take laxatives anymore, why not start incorporating yin tonics or yin foods in your regular or daily diet? Besides lycium fruit and the common ones mentioned above (American ginseng root, Asian ginseng leaf, etc.), other yin tonics/foods include Chinese asparagus root tuber (tian men dong), mung bean, bean sprouts, and tofu (bean curd), all readily available nowadays in Chinese food stores or major supermarkets with ethnic food sections. Although all these are also used as medicines, they are all true tonic foods with a long safe history of use. For convenience, you may want to take lycium fruit and the ginseng products (not Asian ginseng root) that are available already packaged as dietary supplements. If you want to use fo-ti products, be sure they are made from cured fo-ti. Unless you know your non-Chinese source is reputable and knowledgeable, you may have a better chance of getting a genuine cured fo-ti product in a Chinese herb shop than anywhere else. The reason you don’t want a product made from raw fo-ti (e.g., by American manufacturers who don’t know the difference between cured and raw fo-ti)(Issue 3, p.3; Issue 7, p.2) is that raw fo-ti is a laxative; and it is also rather toxic. If you use raw fo-ti, you may as well stick with your usual laxatives, which then defeats the purpose of restoring your yin/yang balance with non-laxative yin tonics to relieve constipation.
(1) M. Zhang et al., “A Review of the Anti-aging and Liver-protectant Effects of Lycium Fruit,” Shizhen Guoyi Guoyao, 11(4): 373-375(2000); (2) F. Wang and Y.Q. Zhang, “Recent Status of Pharmacologic Research in Anti-aging Chinese Medicines,” Shizhen Guoyi Guoyao, 13(4): 236-237(2002); (3) S.C. Qiu et al., “The Effect of Lycium Fruit on the Immune Function of White Mice,” Shizhen Guoyi Guoyao, 10(8): 568-569(1999); Leung, A.Y., and S. Foster, Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs and Cosmetics, Wiley-Interscience, New York, 1995, pp. 358-361