Science Affirms Benefits of Chinese Herbs — But Not in the Way You’d Think

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The Lingzhi mushroom was the subject of a recent Nature Communications study. (Photo:Flickr/Wendell Smith)

For centuries, practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have relied on herbs and plants, in conjunction with mind-body practices, for health and well-being.

In TCM, medicinal plants and herbs are harvested, dried, and prepared according to traditional Chinese pharmacopeia methods, and either taken in small doses over time as preventive measures or consumed daily in the case of chronic illnesses. Many plants and herbs such as Ganoderma Lucidum, or lingzhi mushroom, are also incorporated into everyday cooking.

Lingzhi in particular has been the subject of great media attention lately, after a study published in the journal Nature Communications showed it could potentially be used to slow weight gain.

Earlier studies have shown that the mushroom could also hold some benefit for those with diabetes. And over the years, scientific studies on other Chinese staples have brought to light many valuable medical properties. These include the bitter melon (a vegetable that has been shown in recent research as a promising treatment for diabetes) and the Chinese star anise (the fruit of an evergreen plant that is rich in shikmic acid, an antiviral agent that is included in the drug Tamiflu).

Indeed, it may seem that modern science is increasingly unearthing the health benefits of herbs and plants that have long been used in Chinese medicine. But it’s important to note that the benefit revealed by research is rarely something the herb or food was actually used for in its original cultural context, notes Christopher Hafner, a licensed practitioner of TCM.

Lingzhi, for instance, was not used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat obesity or even improve digestion, says Hafner, who has been practicing TCM for 30 years and teaches a graduate-level course on TCM at the University of Minnesota. Instead, it was used primarily to “nourish and calm the spirit, drain dampness, treat cough, and tonify ‘qi,’ or vital energy.”

In fact, “there is very little correlation between the traditional Chinese and the conventional medical understanding of the function and use of these herbs,” Hafner tells Yahoo Health.

Unlike Western medicine, where “something is used for something,” TCM is based on the notion of a holistic system of health and well-being, explains Nan Lu, a practitioner of TCM and founder of the Traditional Chinese Medicine World Foundation in New York. Practitioners believe it restores harmony within the individual body, so that the body can live in harmony with the outside world.

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But even with commonly used Chinese plants and herbs, Hafner advocates proceeding with caution. “A lot of the good stuff in TCM that has worked has been used again and again, but they come rolled up with a bunch of other stuff that might not be so good,” he says. “Many of the healing practices that seemed to be effective or helpful — and therefore passed from one generation to the next — may not have actually been helpful, or at least may not have been helpful for the reasons suspected.”

In addition, there’s little evidence that proves that the herbs, plants, and foods used in TCM even do what Chinese medicine says they do, Hafner says. They might have effectiveness in some way, but the evidence is inconclusive at this point,” he says. “We need a lot more studies and a lot more evidence.”

In the field of health and healing, there’s the ongoing challenge and responsibility to be clear about what actually works, and why. “There may be many valuable therapies and potential remedies within alternative and cultural systems of medicine, including Chinese medicine,” Hafner says. “But we have to apply our best critical thinking skills and methods of investigation to determine what actually works and what doesn’t.”

Take a look at some of the herbs and plants commonly used in Chinese medicine that have also been a focus in modern research:

Huang Qi (Astragalus)

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Huang Qi (Photo:Flickr/jennyhsu47)

In TCM, the leaves of the perennial Huang Qi plant are used in TCM as a tonic that is meant to boost the immune system. It’s also believed to treat chronic sores and ulcerations that are supposedly the result of underlying deficiencies of “qi,” or vital energy, and blood.

Research shows evidence that astragalus has antiviral properties (potentially helping against colds). It may also help people with weakened immune systems from chemotherapy or radiation, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Dang Gui (Chinese Angelica Root)

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Dang Gui (Photo:Corbis/Phanie Sarl)

The dried Chinese Angelica Root is used in TCM to enrich the blood, improve circulation, and regularize menstruation.

Research conducted on Dang Gui has isolated numerous compounds that could have anti-inflammatory, anti-cancerous, and neuroprotective properties.

Ren Shen (Ginseng Root)

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Ren Shen (Photo:Flickr/Brian Negin)

One of the most well-known and widely used of the Chinese herbs, Ren Shen is believed to perform multiple functions in TCM, including increasing both “qi” and “pi” (usually translated as spleen, though TCM practitioners say it has a uniquely Chinese interpretation unlike anything in the conventional understanding of the spleen as an organ).  

Some studies have shown that Ren Shen could help with chronic fatigue syndrome, though results have been mixed.

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Gou Qi Zi (Lycium chinense)

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Gou Qi Zi (Photo:Corbis/Phanie Sarl)

Also known as the goji berry, Gou Qi Zi is believed in TCM to be able to strengthen important organs like the kidney and the liver.

Research shows that goji berries contain zeaxanthins, which are carotenoids that are important for eye health. However, more research is needed to determine the exact benefits of goji berries, as most studies have only been performed in animals.

Ju Hua (Chrysanthemum morifolium)

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Ju Hua (Photo:Flickr/beautifulcataya)

Consumed mostly in tea, the chrysanthemum flower is a TCM staple that is believed to cool the body down, clear the liver, and benefit the eyes, as well as treat hypertension and bring down fevers.

Chrysanthemum has shown some promise in lab studies against breast cancer, but clinical studies on its efficacy in humans have not shown any clear benefits.

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