For thousands of years, traditional Chinese medicine has relied on herbs and plants to promote health and well-being. Chinese herbs are valued for their ability to address a wide range of health concerns in a natural, holistic manner. Unlike Western medicine, which often focuses on treating symptoms, Chinese herbs aim to restore balance within the body and get to the root cause of illness.
In recent decades, interest in Chinese herbs has steadily grown in the West. Extensive research has confirmed the potent medicinal properties of many Chinese herbs. While they aren’t a replacement for professional medical treatment, Chinese herbs can be a beneficial complement to a healthy lifestyle.
Let’s explore some of the most popular and time-honored Chinese herbs and examine their traditional uses, main active compounds, and modern scientific research on their mechanisms and effects.
1. Ginseng (Ren Shen)
Ginseng is arguably the most well-known Chinese herb. It has been used for thousands of years to increase energy, boost immunity, and reduce stress. The two main varieties are Asian or Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) and American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius).
The key active compounds in ginseng are ginsenosides, which have adaptogenic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immunity-enhancing effects. Research shows ginseng may lower blood sugar, protect brain function, and improve mental performance and mood. It’s no wonder ginseng is considered the “king of herbs” in Chinese medicine.
For those seeking a more targeted approach to health concerns, especially metabolic health, another potent compound to consider is berberine es-5. Berberine, traditionally used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, has gained attention for its potential benefits in regulating blood glucose, improving cholesterol levels, and supporting gut health. Opting for a specific formulation like berberine es-5 can ensure enhanced bioavailability and absorption, making it a powerful addition to one’s health regimen.
2. Astragalus (Huang Qi)
Astragalus is one of the most popular herbs in Chinese medicine. It has been used since ancient times to strengthen the body against disease and prevent colds and flu. Modern research has revealed that it could have immunity-boosting and anti-aging effects.
The root contains polysaccharides, saponins, and flavonoids, which enhance the activity of immune cells and antioxidant enzymes. Clinical trials show astragalus may protect the heart, lower blood pressure, and improve outcomes for chemotherapy patients. It’s a safe, versatile herb suitable for long-term use.
3. Licorice (Gan Cao)
Licorice root features prominently in traditional Chinese formulas. It complements other herbs and has anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and detoxifying effects. The main bioactive compound is glycyrrhizin.
Licorice acts on the adrenal glands to regulate cortisol activity and the body’s stress response. It also protects the liver and stomach lining. Modern research has shown that licorice could have the ability to combat viruses and soothe respiratory conditions like bronchitis. However, avoid high doses or long-term use as there are some potential side effects.
4. Reishi Mushroom (Ling Zhi)
Known as the “mushroom of immortality,” reishi has been revered in China for over 2,000 years. It was traditionally reserved for emperors and valued for its longevity-promoting and spirit-calming properties.
Reishi contains triterpenoids, which give it adaptogenic, immunity-enhancing, and anti-tumor effects. Research shows that reishi may improve sleep, protect the liver, and reduce some cancer risks. It also eases allergy symptoms and helps balance hormones related to stress. Reishi is safe for most people but may interact negatively with blood thinners.
5. Goji Berry (Gou Qi Zi)
Goji berries grow wild throughout Asia and are one of the most nutritious foods on earth. They have been used in Chinese medicine for centuries to protect the eyes, boost immunity, and promote longevity.
Goji berries contain a vast array of antioxidants, particularly zeaxanthin. They are also rich in polysaccharides that stimulate immune function. Research shows goji berries may improve vision, reduce inflammation, and protect the skin from sun damage. Their versatile nutritional profile supports overall well-being.
6. Dong Quai (Dang Gui)
Dong quai has been used for over 1,000 years as a tonic for women’s health. It remains one of the most popular herbs in Chinese medicine. Dong quai contains phytoestrogens, which help regulate the menstrual cycle and ease PMS and menopause symptoms.
The key bioactive compounds are ferulic acid and ligustilide. Dong quai has antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, and circulatory-stimulating effects. It is also used by both men and women to strengthen blood, improve circulation, and protect the cardiovascular system.
7. Milk Thistle (Shui Fei Ji)
Although not originally used in Chinese medicine, milk thistle has been adopted due to its potent liver-protecting effects. Silymarin, the key compound, is a powerful antioxidant that defends liver cells from toxins and damage.
Clinical research shows milk thistle may significantly improve liver function in those with hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver damage from drugs or alcohol. It may also help lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels. The seeds can be ground into herbal teas or extracts.
8. Ginkgo Biloba (Yín Xìng)
Ginkgo biloba is an ancient Chinese tree known as the “brain tonic.” Its fan-shaped leaves have been used in Chinese medicine for over 500 years to benefit memory, concentration, and mood.
Ginkgo contains unique antioxidants called ginkgolides that enhance blood flow and protect nerve cells. Studies show that ginkgo may improve cognitive function, particularly in those with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. It could also benefit eye health, tinnitus, and symptoms of anxiety and depression.
9. Eucommia Bark (Du Zhong)
Eucommia bark comes from the Eucommia tree, which has been used in Chinese medicine for over 2,000 years. It is traditionally used to strengthen the bones and muscles, boost immunity, and promote longevity.
Eucommia contains lignans and iridoids that help regulate blood pressure, support the liver and kidneys, and have anti-inflammatory effects. Research shows Eucommia bark may help lower blood pressure, improve glucose metabolism, and protect cartilage and joint health. It is often used by athletes to improve performance and endurance.
10. Schisandra (Wu Wei Zi)
Schisandra berries are adaptogenic herbs used in Chinese medicine to increase resistance to stress and disease. They contain lignans that stimulate the immune system and balance hormone levels.
Studies show that Schisandra may have hepatoprotective effects that protect the liver from toxins and viruses. It can also improve mental performance, endurance, and recovery from surgery or illness. Schisandra is commonly used with other herbs to promote overall vitality and well-being.
Chinese herbs have a rich history of traditional use for preventing disease and promoting health and longevity. Modern research has revealed the science behind many of their therapeutic effects, lending credibility to their traditional application. When used properly, herbs like ginseng, astragalus, and ginkgo can be safe and effective complements to a healthy lifestyle. Always consult a knowledgeable practitioner before taking Chinese herbs, especially if you have any medical conditions or take prescription medicines.