Can Chinese herbs cure what ails you? Western medicine, which has been slow to embrace the 5,000-year-old practice of traditional Chinese medicine, is no longer dismissive. The Federal Drug Administration supports clinical trials of Chinese herbs, and more than 37 percent of US hospitals offer complementary and alternative medicine treatments, according to the American Hospital Association.
We asked Judy Ho-Lam, manager of the Great China Herb Co. in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown, for a list of the ten most useful herbs in traditional Chinese medicine and suggestions for how to brew something soothing. Here are her picks:
Photographs by Michelle Slatalla.
Ho-Lam said no one should use Chinese herbs for medicinal purposes before consulting a doctor; many people are allergic to herbs, for one thing. For another, some herbs contain concentrated ingredients that may be harmful to pregnant women, or patients with autoimmune diseases or suppressed immune systems. For more information about traditional Chinese medicinal herbs, see NIH and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; both institutions offer comprehensive sites summarizing the most up-to-date research on a particular herb.
- Chrysanthemum in Chinese medicine is used to treat chest pain, colds, fever, and hypertension (clinical studies have not been conducted on its efficacy). Chrysanthemum Tea Recipe: Boil 4 cups water. Meanwhile, put 1/4 cup of dried chrysanthemum flowers into a teapot. Pour enough boiling water on the flowers to cover, let sit for three minutes, stir and drain off the water. Add the rest of the boiling water to the flowers, cover, and steep for five minutes before serving.
- Goji Berries. Traditional Chinese medicinal uses: to improve eyesight, anti-aging benefits, and to lower blood sugar levels. An observational study of 79 patients in China with advanced cancers who combined the berries with other treatments showed positive results; the study was published in 1994 and it is unknown if the results could be replicated in patients undergoing current courses of treatment. Goji Berries can be eaten raw.
- Wild Yam, not to be confused with tubers that grow underground, is a vine and used in Chinese medicine to alleviate gastrointestinal disorders as well as menstrual discomfort and symptoms of menopause. Studies have shown wild yam to have a mild estrogenic effect on mice but there’s no evidence of the same effect on humans. Wild Yam Salve Recipe: Simmer 3 cups of chopped wild yam root in 1 gallon of water until the root softens. While simmering, mash the softened root; a foam will form on the surface of the water. Skim the foam in a bowl. Reserve 1/2 cup of cooking liquid. While the foam is still hot, stir into it 1/2 cup of beeswax beads and 3 tablespoons of stearic acid. Add reserved yam water to achieve a smooth consistency.
- Apricot Seeds are used in Chinese medicine to control coughs and wheezing (as well as to treat gastrointestinal symptoms). No clinical studies support these uses. The most common preparation is to boil seeds in conjunction with other herbs to create a concentrated brew. Seeds have a bitter taste.
- Panax Ginseng, used in Chinese medicine to relieve anxiety and stimulate the immune system, may also be beneficial as a supplementary therapy for breast cancer. In a study of 1,455 breast cancer patients in Shanghai, published in 2006 in the Journal of American Epidemiology, researchers concluded that regular ginseng users had a significantly reduced rate of death and a higher quality of life. However, as study participants also were more likely to be taking tamoxifen, it is unclear whether the benefits can be ascribed to the herb or the prescription cancer drug. Avoid panax ginseng if you are pregnant, hypertensive, or taking anti-coagulants. Do not take it in conjunction with other herbs or supplements; for more information, see NIH Medline Plus.
- American Ginseng, grown in the northwestern regions of the US and in Canada, is used by Chinese herbalists to reinvigorate yin, one of the two halves of the universe believed to create everything. Results of a study of 364 cancer patients reported last year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that taking American Ginseng improves cancer-related fatigue.
Ginseng Tea Recipe: Bring 4 cups of water to boil. Meanwhile, place 4-6 teaspoons of shaved ginseng root in a teapot. Pour the boiling water into the teapot and allow the tea to steep, covered, for ten minutes. Strain and serve.
- Black Jujube Dates are used by practitioners of Chinese medicine to treat digestive problems, skin conditions, and as a sedative. Fruits of a small shrub-like tree, the dates may be candied and eaten as a snack. Black Jujube and Chicken Soup Recipe: Pour 4 cups chicken broth into a saucepan on the stove. Add two peeled garlic cloves, 2 teaspoons chopped ginger, and 1/2 cup black jujube dates; bring mixture to a simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup cooked shredded chicken; season with salt and pepper to taste and serve soup while hot.
- Fox Nuts, which can be roasted until they pop like popcorn and then seasoned with salt or spices, are used in traditional Chinese medicine to relieve gastrointestinal ailments and to promote the health of the kidneys and spleen.
- Honeysuckle, used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat sore throats and fever, can be brewed into a tea (see Chrysanthemum Tea recipe Above).
- Red Jujubes, cultivated for more than 4,000 years in China, can be eaten fresh or candied (for dessert). They are used in traditional Chinese medicine to improve appetite, relieve fatigue, and calm anxieties.
For more about traditional Chinese medicine and herbs, see Shopper’s Diary: Great China Herb Company in San Francisco.