Once again the West can look to the East for the next herbal superstar. Jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum) is a popular herb in both China and Japan because of its effectiveness as an adaptogen and cardiovascular and liver tonic.
Jiaogulan, which grows wild throughout Asia, has been brewed for a beverage and used as medicine in the southeastern provinces of China for centuries. Literary reference to the herb dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368 A.D. to 1644 A.D).
According to Michael Blumert, author of Jiaogulan (Torchlight, 1999), the herb was never widely used in Traditional Chinese Medicine because it grows in the mountains far from Central China where TCM developed. "It has emerged from its provincial use as a result of being discovered by the modern scientific community," Blumert says.
Jiaogulan is an adaptogenic herb—it helps the body adjust to or resist stress—like Asian ginseng, Siberian ginseng, schisandra and astragalus. In China, the saying goes that jiaogulan is "ginseng at tea price," because it is similar to ginseng in chemical composition and action, and even superior in some ways.
Jiaogulan contains a variety of saponins known as gypenosides—plant chemicals with a structure similar to human steroid hormones. The chemical structure of these gypenosides resembles ginsenosides, the active constituents of ginseng. Jiaogulan contains 82 distinct gypenosides, four times the number of different saponins in ginseng. Researchers continue to study these phytochemicals to see how they might benefit human health and performance.
Although Chinese herbalists prescribe jiaogulan to increase physical endurance, scientific studies in English supporting this application are difficult to find. "From my research and experience, I would describe jiaogulan as having the adaptogenic effects of Siberian ginseng with the power and endurance of Chinese ginseng, without the over-stimulating effects ginseng sometimes causes," Blumert says.
Research has found Jiaogulan to be effective as a general cardiovascular enhancer and cholesterol regulator. In a recent test tube study from Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., researchers confirmed that the gypenosides from jiaogulan promoted the release of nitric acid from vascular tissue, which causes blood vessels to relax. The scientists concluded that this might be one of the ways that jiaogulan benefits the cardiovascular system.
Blumert has reviewed many studies from China that demonstrate the herb's cholesterol-lowering effects. In an animal study, researchers showed that jiaogulan saponins could lower blood levels of triglyceride, lipid peroxide, total cholesterol and phospholipids (Shoyakugaku Zasshi, 1983). In another animal study, researchers indicated that gypenosides considerably reduced the damage from heart attack (Zhongguo Yao Li Xue Bao, 1990). Finally, jiaogulan was found to reduce blood clots in human blood (Chung Kuo Chung Hsi I Chieh Ho Tsa Chih, 1993).
In Taiwan, jiaogulan is also used to treat liver disease and to protect liver tissue from damage. Researchers at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, Calif., demonstrated that jiaogulan gypenosides have strong antioxidant qualities and exert a protective effect on liver cells. Researchers who recently studied jiaogulan for liver disease reported that the herbal medicine significantly improved recovery from liver injury (American Journal of Chinese Medicine, 2000).
Jiaogulan has become a popular herb in Japan. In 1972, Japanese researchers visited China to investigate folk uses of jiaogulan and took note of the herb's wide-ranging applications. A substantial market soon developed in Japan, which led to jiaogulan farming in China. In recent years, countless jiaogulan products have been developed in Japan and China.
The wild supply of jiaogulan has recently decreased significantly as a result of overharvesting. China is actively cultivating the herb in forestlands; although wild jiaogulan is considered to be of higher quality. Grown in the pristine mountain areas of southeastern China, wild jiaogulan is quite bitter, so it is rarely used in beverages. However, it is the usual source for extracted gypenosides. Cultivated jiaogulan is much sweeter than the wild variety and has a light, pleasant flavor with a slight bitter overtone. Most of the world's supply is sold domestically in China or to Japan. As with other herbs, retailers should investigate the source for quality assurance.
Jiaogulan has no known side effects. Unlike ginseng, children can take it. A typical dose is 1,000 mg per day in the form of tea or in capsules, but much higher doses appear to be safe and effective. Bulk jiaogulan is not commonly available in America, but it can be found pre-packaged. Because of its natural sweetness, it is delicious as a tea.
Standardized extracts should provide a dose containing 25-200 mg of gypenosides per day.
"Retailers should be interested in jiaogulan because there's an increasing demand for it," according to Blumert. "Already, the herb is getting a lot of publicity, both in the consumer and scientific circles. There have been recent articles in a number of high-profile magazines and various natural health publications. These articles have boosted sales for the few companies that directly market jiaogulan."
K.P. Khalsa is a clinical herbalist based in Seattle.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 9/p. 32, 41