Common name: He shou wu
Other names: Fo-ti, seikasku, fleeceflower, hasuo, ha thu o
Latin name: Polygonum multiflorum
Affinities: Nervous system, digestive system, musculoskeletal system, immune system, reproductive system
Actions: Adaptogen, astringent, cholagogue, hepatoprotective, laxative, reproductive tonic, blood tonic, jing tonic
Specific indications: Constipation, sexual debility, joint pains, cognitive problems, fatigue, hot inflamed tissues, anxiety
Diseases: Chronic enteritis(2), impotence(3), Alzheimer’s disease(3), anxiety(3), insomnia(3), Parkinson’s(2), colitis(2)
Parts used: Root
Energetics: Warming, moistening
Characteristics: He shou wu is a perennial vine that is native to China, Japan, Northern Vietnam, and Taiwan (Winston, 2007). It grows well in rich, well-drained soil and is harvested in the autumn of its third or fourth year.
History: The name ‘he shou wu’ translates as meaning ‘black haired He’ and is called this after the man who discovered the herb (Winston, 2007). Mr. He was an old ill man who could not yield children. The story goes Mr. He consumed the roots of this herb for several years and found his hair turned black again, his health was improved, and he was now able to have children. In the Chinese medical text, Ben Cao Gang Mu, published in 1593, this herb has an interesting mythical description. It states, when the root of the plant is 50 years old, it is the size of a fist, and consuming it for one year will keep the hair black. Then, when the root of the plant is 100 years old, it is the size of a bowl. If the root is taken for a year it will then it says it will result in happiness. A root that is 150 years old is as large as a basin, then the root is called ‘hill uncle’ and if taken for one year a new set of teeth will grow. At 200 years old, the root is called ‘hill father’ and supposedly restores youthful vitality and vigour. Lastly, a 300-year-old root is called ‘mountain spirit’ and if taken for long enough it makes one immortal. Although this seems farfetched, this text demonstrates how highly held he shou wu is in traditional herbal medicine.
In Japanese kampo medicine, he shou wu is used to treat boils, constipation, and chronic enteritis (Winston, 2007). In Korea, it is used for weakness of the body and to give strength to the liver. In Vietnam, it is used to improve the health of the liver and kidneys and is recommended for weakness and fatigue, erectile dysfunction, back pain, poor vision, night sweats, and insomnia.
Current applications: In TCM, he shou wu is used to nourish the liver, kidneys, blood, and jing (Winston, 2007). It is also used to treat individuals with blood deficiency with symptoms such as dizziness, ringing in ears, anemia, low quality vision, lower back pain, and hair graying. It is applied to treat impotence, vaginal discharge in excess, uterine bleeding, and weak ankles and knees. It may have applications in treating Alzheimer’s and other cognitive problems.
He shou wu is used to stimulate liver and gall bladder function through increasing bile flow, enhancing intestinal function, and lowering cholesterol. Clinical herbalists have found this herb useful for male sexual function disorders, sometimes applying it with other similar herbs such as ashwagandha, suo yang, and morinda root in men with low libido, sperm count, and poor sperm motility.
Science: He shou wu appears to have a diverse array of biological activities, in line with it’s important status in Chinese medicine. These include; anti-oxidant (Ryu et al., 2002), anti-inflammatory (Wang et al., 2008), anti-tumour (Chen et al., 2011), neuroprotective (Li et al., 2005), and myocardial protective (Yim et al., 1998) activities. Currently this herb has not been studied in human clinical trials of high quality.
Safety: High, but he shou wu must be properly prepared in order to be safe. This traditional process involves stewing in black beans. Raw unprepared he shou wu is not a tonic herb and must not be consumed. Avoid consumption when pregnant and breast-feeding due to lack of data.
Dosage: Tincture; 30-60 drops 2-3 times daily can be used. Capsules; follow directions on the label.
Form: See safety section above; look for properly processed he shou wu. Many companies are not following the traditional herb preparation.
Research on models
Anti-oxidant activity: Root extracts of he shou wu have been shown to demonstrate anti-oxidant activity and this could be attributed to the presence of a stilbene glucoside compound (Ryu et al., 2002).
Anti-tumour activity: One study demonstrated that an extract of he shou wu inhibited breast cancer cell proliferation by inducing cell cycle arrest and promoting cell apoptosis (Chen et al., 2011).
Myocardial protective activity: One study found a he shou wu extract has myocardial protective properties in a rat model, they also found anti-oxidant effects of the extract and suggested the two may be linked (Yim et al., 1998).
Neuroprotective activity: In a study the authors found he shou wu extract could protect against Parkinson’s disease in mice and the substance attributable to this was in the ethanol extract (Li et al., 2005).
Anti-inflammatory activity: In one study examining mice models of colitis a compound extracted from he shou wu exerted protective effects through reducing oxygen and nitrogen free radicals and down-regulating nitric oxide synthase (Wang et al., 2008).
Chen, Hong-Sheng, et al. “Anti-proliferative effect of an extract of the root of Polygonum multiflorum Thunb. on MCF-7 human breast cancer cells and the possible mechanisms.” Molecular medicine reports 4.6 (2011): 1313-1319.
Li, Xia, et al. “Neuroprotective effects of Polygonum multiflorum on nigrostriatal dopaminergic degeneration induced by paraquat and maneb in mice.” Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior 82.2 (2005): 345-352.
Ryu, Geonseek, et al. “The radical scavenging effects of stilbene glucosides from Polygonum multiflorum.” Archives of pharmacal research 25.5 (2002): 636-639.
Wang, Xiaomin, et al. “Protective effects of 2, 3, 5, 4′-tetrahydroxystilbene-2-O-beta-d-glucoside, an active component of Polygonum multiflorum Thunb, on experimental colitis in mice.” European journal of pharmacology 578.2 (2008): 339-348.
Winston, David, and Steven Maimes. Adaptogens: herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co, 2007.
Yim, Tze Kin, et al. “Myocardial protective effect of an anthraquinone-containing extract of Polygonum multiflorum ex vivo.” Planta medica 64.07 (1998): 607-611.