The name of this herb literally means "Black-haired Mr. He," in reference to an ancient story of a Mr. He who restored his vitality, sexual potency, and youthful appearance by taking the herb now named after him. He shou wu is widely used in China for the traditional purpose of restoring black hair and other signs of youth.
Traditional Chinese herbal medicine ordinarily recommends the use of herbs in complex formulas, but He shou wu is also often taken as a single herb. He shou wu is often called fo ti; pure unprocessed root is named white fo ti, while herb boiled in black-bean liquid according to a traditional process is called red fo ti. The two forms are said to have somewhat different properties.
He shou wu is widely marketed today as a general anti-aging herb, said to reduce cholesterol, prevent heart disease, prevent age-related loss of mental function, improve sleep, and extend life span. However, the evidence supporting these uses is far too preliminary to meaningfully indicate effectiveness for any of these proposed uses.1-6
Finally, He shou wu has a traditional reputation as a mild laxative. In support of this, it has been pointed out that emodin belongs to a family of chemicals called anthraquinones; other members of this family act as laxatives. However, animal research has failed to find any evidence that emodin itself has a laxative effect.8
A typical dose of He shou wu is 3 g of the raw herb 3 times daily, or according to the label for processed extracts. For most purposes, the processed or "red" fo ti is said to be superior. However, the raw herb is said to be more effective for constipation.
Detailed modern safety studies have not been performed on this herb. Immediate side effects are infrequent, primarily limited to mild diarrhea and the rare allergic reaction. Safety for young children, pregnant or nursing women, or those with severe kidney or liver disease has not been established.
Case reports relate use of a popular He shou wu product to liver inflammation.9,10 However, it is not clear whether He shou wu herb itself was responsible; Asian herbal preparations of this type have frequently been found to contain unlisted toxic ingredients, either due to poor quality control, or deliberate adulteration.11-14
Chang HM, But PP, eds. Pharmacology and Applications of Chinese Materia Medica. Vol 1. Singapore: World Scientific; 1986: 620-624.
Chen J. An experimental study on the anti-senility effects of shou xing bu zhi. Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi. 1989;9:226-227.
Hsieh MT, Peng WH, Wu CR, et a. The ameliorating effects of the cognitive-enhancing Chinese herbs on scopolamine-induced amnesia in rats. Phytother Res. 2000;14:375-377.
Yim TK, Wu WK, Pak WF, et al. Myocardial protection against ischaemia-reperfusion injury by a Polygonum multiflorum extract supplemented 'Dang-Gui decoction for enriching blood', a compound formulation, ex vivo. Phytother Res. 2000;14:195-199.
Yim TK, Wu WK, Mak DH, et al. Myocardial protective effect of an anthraquinone-containing extract of Polygonum multiflorum ex vivo. Planta Med. 1998;64:607-611.
Wang W, Wang JH, Shi TR. Effect of Polygonum multiflorum on the life-span and lipid metabolism in senile Japanese quails. Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi. 1988 :223-224.
Huang HC, Chu SH, Chao PD. Vasorelaxants from Chinese herbs, emodin and scoparone, possess immunosuppressive properties. Eur J Pharmacol. 1991;198:211-213.
National Toxicology Program. NTP technical report on the toxicology and carcinogenesis studies of emodin. Research Triangle Park, NC: National Institutes of Health, US Department of Health and Human Services; June 2001. NIH publication 01-3952.
Park GJ, Mann SP, Ngu MC. Acute hepatitis induced by Shou-Wu-Pian, an herbal product derived from Polygonum multiflorum. J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2001;16:115-117.
But PP, Tomlinson B, Lee KL. Hepatitis related to the Chinese medicine Shou-wu-pian manufactured from Polygonum multiflorum.Vet Hum Toxicol. 1996;38:280-282.
But PP. Herbal poisoning caused by adulterants or erroneous substitutes. J Trop Med Hyg. 1994;97:371-374.
McRae CA, Agarwal K, Mutimer D, et al. Hepatitis associated with Chinese herbs. Eur J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2002;14:559-562.
Ernst E. Toxic heavy metals and undeclared drugs in Asian herbal medicines. Trends Pharmacol Sci. 2002;23:136-139.
Koh HL, Woo SO. Chinese proprietary medicine in Singapore: regulatory control of toxic heavy metals and undeclared drugs. Drug Saf. 2000;23:351-362.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
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