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
4. 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.
8. 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.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
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