Number 39
April/May/June 2003

Herbs in this issue:
Cangzhu atractylodes

Sterilization of living quarters using Chinese herbs


      About 3 years ago, I reported in this newsletter the successful use of raw cangzhu (Atractylodes chinensis or A. lancea rhizome) as a fumigant to sterilize hospital wards.  That report is reprinted below.  In that study, the author noted that, although the method was effective against microbes (a term to broadly include bacteria, fungi, and viruses), it had no effect on pests such as mosquitoes or lice.  Apparently, cangzhu has been traditionally used in the countryside by Chinese peasants to sterilize their houses during an epidemic that could be any disease, including influenza and other viral diseases.  Cangzhu can be used alone or combined with other herbs, most of which are relatively innocuous.    In a more recent report by a TCM physician and her colleagues from Henan Province, a formula containing cangzhu and 6 other herbs is described for use in fumigating domesticliving spaces.1  This formula is reported to be effective against microbes (bacteria and viruses) as well as pests


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.


(mosquitoes and lice, etc.) in the airand on exposed surfaces (walls, floors, ceilings and open cracks).  The formula and method of fumigation are translated as follows:

                Formula Aiye [Folium Artemisiae Argyi, Artemisia argyi Levl. & Vant. leaf] 150 g;  baibu [Radix Stemonae, Stemona sessilifolia (Miq.) Miq. root] 150 g;  huoxiang [Herba Agastaches, Agastache rugosa (Fisch. & C.A. Mey.) Kuntze aboveground parts] 100 g;  peilan [Herba Eupatorii, Eupatorium fortunei Turcz. aboveground parts] 100 g;  shichangpu [Rhizoma Acori Tatarinowii, Acorus tatarinowii Schott rhizome] 30 g;  cangzhu [Rhizoma Atractylodis, Atractylodes lancea (Thunb.) DC. or A. chinensis (DC.) Koidz. rhizome] 30 g;  and huajiao or Sichuan peppercorn [Pericarpium Zanthoxyli, Zanthoxylum bungeanum Maxim. or Z. schinifolium Sieb. & Zucc. pericarp (fruit cover)] 20 g.


                Method:  Cut up the herbs (except the Sichuan peppercorn – huajiao) into coarse pieces and make a loose pile.  Place the huajiao on top of the pile.  Light it at the bottom so that it smolders.  Close all doors and windows to let the smoke permeate the house for 1 hr. 10 min.


         The above was the extent of technical details in the report.  This kind of reporting in herb use is quite common in the Chinese literature.  The authors leave a lot to common sense for the readers to exercise.  In this case, it’s obvious that one must place the herbs on a plate or some other noncombustible surface away from combustible materials (clothing, chairs, curtains, etc.).  And of course, one must leave the room/house during the fumigation period.  Also, this report does not tell us the size of the house/room that the formula can effectively sterilize and how long to leave the house/room sealed.  It may well be that the usage is so common and obvious to the local population and the authors that they simply didn’t think about the fact that the general reader outside of the use area might not know the details.  However, based on the previous report using cangzhu alone, more than 1 hr 10 min (perhaps up to 4 hr) is most likely required. 

         As opposed to most modern fumigating agents (ethylene oxide, methyl bromide, etc.), none of the herbs in this formula is known to traditionally exhibit significant toxicity.  It may be worthwhile to take a look at Chinese herbal formulas like this for sterilizing living spaces that may have been contaminated by microbes such as the influenza virus or the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus.  Even the potential bioterrorist agents, the smallpox virus and the anthrax bacterium, may be readily susceptible to these formulas.  They would probably also be effective as repellent for mosquitoes and other pests.  The experiments for testing formulas like this can be easily designed and executed and will cost little.  It’s worth investigating.    

(1)  W.R. Zhang et al., “Sterilization of living space with Chinese herbs,” Henan Zhongyi, 21(1): 12 (2001).


Reprinted from Issue 22, page 3

Hospital sterilization with atractylodes (cangzhu).  There are 2 kinds of atractylodes, baizhu and cangzhuBaizhu is the dried rhizome of Atractylodes macrocephala Koidz. while cangzhu is the dried rhizome of Atractylodes chinensis Koidz. ex Kitam. (known as northern cangzhu) or A. lancea (Thunb.) DC. (southern cangzhu).  While baizhu and cangzhu have some common properties and uses (e.g., Spleen invigorating and diuretic; used in indigestion, diarrhea, and fluid retention), baizhu is a major qi tonic that is now used in counteracting the toxic side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy in cancer treatment, while cangzhu is considered a wetness-drying drug, used in treating arthritis and rheumatism as well as the common cold. 

         In addition to above uses, a traditional practice in China during an epidemic was to burn cangzhu to drive off the “evil” (translated: pathogens) that was believed to cause the epidemic.  In recent years, this practice has been adapted for the routine sterilization of operating rooms in some Chinese hospitals.  The method is to burn cangzhu (after being soaked in alcohol) with the room closed for several hours.  Normally, 1 g/m3 of the herb is used.  The fumes are effective in killing bacteria and other microbes, but, unfortunately, have no effect on pests (mosquitoes, etc.).  The effectiveness of this practice was recently tested at the Dongyang Municipal People’s Hospital in Zhejiang Province and results reported earlier this year in a major journal of Chinese materia medica. [Z. Du, “Air Quality of Hospital Rooms after Fumigation with Atractylodes,” Zhongguo Zhongyao Zazhi, 24(9): 569-570(1999)]

         The effect of the fumigation was tested, during the months of May and October (randomly selected), in 3 types of hospital rooms – operating room, treatment room, and general ward.  Cangzhu (1 g/m3) was first soaked in 95% alcohol (2 parts to 1 part herb) for 24 hr.  It was then burned until only ashes remained.  The rooms were sealed for 4 hr.  Before and after fumigation, the rooms were plated with common nutrient agar for total plate count.  Each agar plate was exposed in the room for 15 min.  After incubating for 24 hr, results showed that there was an average kill rate of 65.8% with northern cangzhu and 73.7% with southern cangzhu.  There was no seasonal difference in the results obtained.  After fumigation, all the 3 types of hospital rooms met Chinese national standards:  operating room (<200 cfu m-3), treatment room (<500 cfu m-3), and general ward (<500 cfu m-3).

         It is believed that the volatile oil is responsible for the germicidal effects, as evidenced by the higher kill rate of southern cangzhu that contains 5%-9% volatile oil as compared to 3%-5% in northern cangzhu.  The specific active chemical(s) are not yet known. 

Leung, A.Y. and S. Foster, Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs and Cosmetics, 2nd Ed., Wiley-Interscience, New York, 1995, pp. 529-531;  Leung, A.Y., Better Health with (Mostly) Chinese Herbs & Foods, AYSL Corp., Glen Rock, N.J., 1995, pp. 7-8, 10-11.


Home fumigation with nontoxic herbs

        Apart from current precautionary measures such as quarantine of suspected individuals and avoiding close contact with people exposed to the SARS virus without proper protection gear, people in Asian countries could certainly increase their protection at home by sterilizing their homes with smoldering raw cangzhu.  Based on its use history and innocuous nature, cangzhu is certainly much safer and has a much better chance of killing the SARS virus than any modern inventions currently promoted by marketers of dietary supplements and disinfectants or fumigants.  Also, it is definitely many times cheaper!  I think the appropriate Chinese authorities should look into this.  After all, it’s right there in their backyard!  If one is going to use unproven remedies anyway, why not at least use ones with a long history of safe use in related epidemics.  Besides, most Chinese families can afford it. 


Herbs useful in viral infections

        The properties and uses of Chinese herbs have been documented for at least 3,000 years (Issue 30, pp. 1-3).  This process still continues.  Although there are no specific terms for “antiviral herbs” in the traditional literature, there are plenty of traditional Chinese medical terms that can be correlated to and identified with such herbs.  For example, herbs with a combination of the following traditional properties can be correlated or identified with properties that either kill the virus or mitigate symptoms caused by it:  ‘qu feng xie’ or ‘remove wind evil’ (remove the pathogen, including viruses), ‘qing re’ or ‘dissipate heat’ (alleviates fever or inflammations), ‘jie du’ or ‘detoxify’ (remove toxins), etc.  There are many such ‘antiviral’ herbs and formulas, including those that actually kill the viruses and others that mitigate the symptoms caused by them (e.g., fever, inflammation, and other cold and flu symptoms).  In addition, there are formulas that strengthen one’s qi (vital energy) and biao (‘exterior complex’ - like a body ‘shield’) to ward off or prevent infections.   They are called fuzheng guben (strengthening body defense), buqi gubiao (tonifying energy and strengthening the exterior) or yiqi gubiao (replenishing energy and strengthening the exterior) formulas which prevent the attack by feng xie (‘wind evil’ or pathogens, especially viruses) which causes infections.  A number of these formulas (e.g., yu ping feng formula or “Jade Screen Formula”) have been scientifically shown to strengthen one’s immune system and found useful in preventing and treating the common cold and flu (Issue 17, p. 3).  Some of these herbs and formulas should be useful in flu pandemics and in other viral infections such as SARS.  A few of these herbs include:  astragalus root, licorice root, forsythia fruit, chrysanthemum flower, honeysuckle flower, dandelion root, cangzhu atractylodes, magnolia flower bud, andrographis herb, and Japanese knotweed (huzhang).

         Despite the current scare, SARS is probably not worse than some of the flu pandemics in past years.  While the media keeps SARS on the forefront, influenza experts are more worried about the next flu pandemic than SARS.   Compared with the devastation of a flu pandemic (in which millions perish) or even the regular flu (from which more than 20,000 Americans die yearly), the damage from SARS is minor.   That is the opinion expressed by Dr. Klaus Stohr, the scientist who heads the World Health Organization’s influenza program and who is also in charge of WHO’s fight against SARS. [Wall Street Journal May 29, 2003, Thursday, p. B1].   And I agree. The reason for the current SARS panic is that it is caused by a still-undefined and hence unknown coronavirus.  And we don’t like dealing with unknowns.  And the press has had a field day!  If we knew it were just a flu pandemic, caused by a coronavirus, we would accept the fact that many people would die and that would probably be the end of it.  After all, it may be too blazé for the press to cover a mere flu outbreak.   But media hyping aside, I wonder what would have happened if the Hong Kong flu pandemic had been moved from 1957 to the present time.  That would truly be scary.  With the current transportation and communication advances, that 1957 Hong Kong flu would be spread many times faster than it would have been then and many more people than the million or so would have died, compared to about 800 who have so far died from SARS.  

         I still distinctly remember the Hong Kong flu because I was a victim who survived to be wiser.  At the time, I was in college in Taiwan.  I was young and feeling invincible.  Even while the flu pandemic was on, I was stupid enough to stay out in the fine drizzle without even an umbrella to watch a track meet at the university sport fields.  It turned out I was later confined to bed with the Hong Kong flu for 3 weeks and lost more than 20 pounds that I never gained back until years later, after I was married.  Being in bed was no fun, especially for someone who couldn’t sit still.  I recall for days I felt fine as long as I was lying on my back.  I could joke with my roommates and knew what was happening around me.  But as soon as I tried to get up, the whole world spun around me and I couldn’t get up without help.  That certainly was not a good feeling and extremely frustrating for a 19-year-old.  But I survived and learned a lesson there.  I have since been very conscientious in trying to not let anything like that happen to me again.  Two of the things I have been doing since seem to work well for me: (1) I listen to my body and never let it be too run down.  The only other time I was run down, but fortunately didn’t become ill, was after spending months with only a few hours of sleep each day finishing writing the first edition of my Encyclopedia, when I had swollen glands for more than half-a-year.  But I slowly nurtured myself back to health without resorting to drugs, because I knew the reason for my swollen glands was stress and lack of sleep over an extended period of time and nothing else; rest and relaxation were all I needed; and (2) I faithfully take my tonics – what I consider true herbal supplements.  Formulas containing lycium fruit, schisandra fruit, astragalus root, reishi, cured fo-ti, licorice root, and American ginseng root are my favorites.  Some I purchase from Chinatown herb shops or groceries while others are my own formulas.  Being a yang and hyperactive person, I don’t take Asian ginseng (a yang tonic) because it would be too much yang for me and might just push me over the edge.  I suspect some healthy and vigorous people (especially athletes) have gone over the edge in recent years by taking tonics like ginseng, especially along with herbal ‘supplements’ like ephedra (or ephedrine) to enhance ‘energy’ [Issue 28, p. 3].

         Now, despite the fact that different countries are working towards finding a ‘cure’ for the SARS virus, can there be such a thing?  I doubt it.  We may find one for just this virus but the next time around it will come in some other mutated form and we will be chasing after new ‘cures’ all over again.  Single-minded target shooting hasn’t worked and won’t work.  Our approach has to be multi-pronged and it’s a good time to start looking beyond just microbiology.   We are all different people with different degrees of resistance (immunity) against infections like the common cold, flu, and hence SARS.  For example, why do a husband and wife living together and sleeping in the same bed have different susceptibility to the common cold or flu?  The husband can be miserable with it while the wife is totally fine, and vice versa.  Why can’t modern pharmaceutical scientists take that into consideration?  Or are they simply too frustrated about this fact so they choose to ignore it, because it doesn’t fit their model of scientific research?   So, has modern science found a cure for the common cold yet?  The answer is no.  Then, how do we expect to find one for SARS?   Drug companies and pharmaceutical researchers like to talk ‘cures’ and keep telling the public that ‘cures’ of this and that disease are just around the corner.  They also can show you all the sophisticated scientific research tools they have on hand, which are extremely impressive and getting more and more sophisticated every year.  But do they work?  To answer this question, ask the following:  Which common disease has been licked?  And is the quality of life of the ill people under modern drug treatment any better than those who choose alternative health care or none at all?  Do you remember Richard Nixon’s declaration of war on cancer?  That was over 30 years ago.  After multibillions of our tax dollars having been spent, have we developed a ‘cancer’ cure?  The answer is again a “no!”  As before, we continue to have ‘promising preliminary results’ of ‘impending cures.’  However, during all these years, who have been the sure winners?  They are the companies who conduct research on and manufacture these purported ‘cures’ along with their promoters and advertisers as well as people connected to this club!  The major problem with using modern scientific methodologies and conventional medical paradigms for drug development is that they ignore one of the most important aspects of human and diseases.  Which is the fact that even though we all belong to the animal species, Homo sapiens, each of us is distinctly different from the next.  We can NOT be treated as if we were a single-cell organism.  Even the latter has its complexities; and ours are just million or billion times more complex.  Developing cures for diseases without taking these differences among human subjects into consideration is bound to fail, as it has been so far.  I believe there is no one single ‘cure’ as the pharmaceutical community likes to lead you to believe.  The real cure has to be multifaceted and may include a modern drug to kill the virus, complementary medicines or special diets to repair the damage done by both the pathogen and drug as well as to reinforce one’s immune system.  In addition, true prevention geared at change of lifestyles (e.g., diet and self-destructive habits such as smoking and indiscriminate use of drugs, legal or illegal), cleaning up the environment, and other factors that cause many of our illnesses must simultaneously be instituted.  Without such concerted efforts, blindly delving into the discovery and development of ‘cures’ is bound to continue to fail to achieve true health benefits for Americans.  We certainly know about statements like, “The treatment was successful but the patient died...”  I think it’s time for us to abandon the single ‘cure’ company line to drug development and treatment.  Rather than based on miraculous scientific discoveries, the impetus behind abandoning the single ‘cure’ approach will probably have to come from economic incentives provided by the manufacture and sale of effective herbal therapeutics by the drug companies themselves.  Although right now research on herbal remedies is still being conducted with confusion, where many investigators still treat them as if they (the whole plant, the plant species, the root, etc.) were pure single-chemical drugs, this will change in the next 3-5 years when many more researchers will be aware of the major problems with herb research.  When that happens, herbal medicines/supplements will be produced with standardized consistency and reproducible efficacy, and ‘standardization’ gimmicks will disappear.  These medicines or supplements will most likely be regulated accordingly and appropriately.  But in the meantime, it won’t hurt to exercise discretion and make use of available Chinese tonics/supplements to help strengthen one’s resistance to illnesses.  However, it’s not that easy for one to know which product is of decent quality to buy.  Until there are uniform standards for herbal medicines and/or supplements, consumers just have to be careful about what they read and buy.  Often what you read on a product label or in a publication is not what it seems, thanks to the complexity of botanicals as opposed to modern drugs.  And 2 products with the exact same herbal composition/formula (on paper) manufactured by 2 different companies can be very different products (Issue 16, p. 1; Issue 22, p. 1)! 


In fine print:  My friends, have you noticed I have changed this newsletter to a quarterly and skipped the period between July 2002 and March 2003?  But don’t worry!  You will still receive the 6 copies you have originally ordered.  Thanks for being interested in the truth about herbs.