If you’ve been reading my Nutrition & Healing and Health eTips for a while now, you know that a big part of my integrative practice is as a medical acupuncturist. In fact, I was one of the first practitioners in the US to get such an advanced degree in the ancient practice of acupuncture.
Of course, that was years ago.
Back then, as a natural continuation of my acupuncture training, I also trained in Chinese herbal medicine – and since then, I’ve continued to be intrigued by the powerful effects of Chinese herbal medicine on various conditions of the body.
And while most pharmaceutical drugs get fast-tracked and rubber-stamped at the speed of light to get them onto the market without adequate research, it’s refreshing to know that Chinese herbs have been studied and used, in some cases, for thousands of years.
Chinese medicine is based on a system called yin and yang. That is, every process in the body, every symptom, and every disease has a strategy and a specific herbal medication that complements it – in every situation.
That’s not to say that Chinese medicine heals everyone. But there are ways of constructing herbal medicines that at least have a good chance of addressing everything that bothers us: every ache, pain, rash, sneeze, and twitch.
Chinese herbs are still frequently enshrouded in mystery and exoticism, but the principles behind their use are actually quite simple.
If you’re confused as to which supplements to take… how much of them… and how often… here are a few of the things I’ve learned along the way, and I have put into practice with my own patients.
With the wisdom and experience that develops over hundreds of years of use and observation… and now, with the power of scientific experimentation and evidence… there’s one herbal compound in particular that stands out among the rest.
And we are only just beginning to understand just how special it is!
Greater than the sum of its parts
Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) has a unique property that conventional medicine doesn’t always recognise or even understand. What many mainstream doctors can’t quite grasp is the concept of having the whole remedy being greater than the sum of its parts.
By this I mean that CHM formulas contain multiple ingredients that work together in harmony to create a certain effect. In doing so, that formula has the ability to modify side effects and to alter physiology in a way to enhance healing.
This is very different from Western medications, where the single ingredient is isolated and the amount and potency standardised, with everything else in it being considered unimportant.
Yes, that virtually guarantees that the resulting compound will be more potent… but it also ensures that it will be much more dangerous… and that you will be more prone to its side effects when you take it!
In nature, on the other hand, many compounds work synergistically within the same plant. It’s not all about just one ‘active ingredient’.
A good example of this is white willow bark, the herb from which aspirin was originally derived.
White willow bark contains a flavonoid called salacin, which breaks down to salicylic acid (aspirin) in the body. But salacin is much less irritating to the stomach than salicylic acid is!
Besides that, the other plant substances with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties – called flavonoids – contribute to the pain-relieving effect of white willow bark.
And all those things work together in nature’s perfectly designed harmony without the dangerous side effects of aspirin.
A blend that rescues a liver in distress
In a similar manner, most CHM formulas have many different individual herbs – which, in combination, contribute a multitude of different functions that work together to enhance the activity of the whole formula.
Take, for instance, the CHM formula called Minor Bupleurum Combination (MBC), a common and ancient treatment for hepatitis and other liver problems. It’s usually a combination of at least seven herbs, sometimes more.
I’ll share more on its herbal components in just a moment, but first – a little science that backs the use of MBC.
You might not find a lot of peer-reviewed studies that mention MBC specifically, but there’s a Japanese (‘Kampo’ medicine) version of this CHM formula, called Sho-saiko-to (SST), that’s been fairly well-studied in the literature for its effects on liver disease and its action in preventing liver carcinoma and other liver diseases.
In a recent mouse study, published online in the peer-reviewed PLOS, SST was found to slow down the development of the serious liver condition known as NASH (non- alcoholic steatohepatitis).1
NASH is a frequent result of high blood-sugar and increased blood lipids, as what you might find with the common condition known as metabolic syndrome. In this condition, fat is deposited in the liver, causing injury to the liver cells themselves.
In the study, SST prevented inflammation of the liver cells (hepatocytes) and inhibition of the resulting scar tissue (fibrosis).
In another study published in the journal Cancer, SST prevented scarring of the liver (fibrotic liver disease, or cirrhosis) from progressing to liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma).2
Half the patients with cirrhosis were randomly given either 9.5g of SST daily or nothing, with all receiving comparable therapies otherwise. At the end of five years, the group receiving SST had less progression to cancer than the non-SST group.
For the subset of patients who were not positive for hepatitis B, the results were even greater, and statistically significant. Another peer-reviewed study, published in the journal Hepatology, attempted to clarify the mechanism by which SST can prevent cancer development. In this animal study, researchers found that SST inhibited the production of a compound with the tongue-twister name of 8-hydroxy-2’-deoxyguanosine, or 8-OHdG, which is associated with oxidative stress and increased risk of developing cancer.3
SST has been shown in other studies to prevent and even reverse cirrhosis. It appears to do this by inhibiting the activity of the collagen-producing cells of an inflamed and damaged liver that are activated in the process of creating scar tissue (hepatic stellate cells).
Animal studies also confirm SST can interfere with the cell cycle of liver cells, slowing down and even stopping the life cycle of liver cancer (hepatoma) cells.
Not only that, but SST appears to also promote apoptosis, the ‘suicide’ of cancer cells that is the goal of many biological chemotherapy drugs as well.
The parts aren’t too shabby, either
While the combination of herbs in SST and its CHM equivalent, MBC, have a synergy that gives it such potent and widespread actions, the individual herbs in these formulas have impressive activity on their own.
As I mentioned earlier, classic formulations of MBC contain seven herbs:
2. Skullcap (Scutellaria)
6. Red ginseng (Panax ginseng or Korean ginseng)
Sometimes, Schisandra or other herbs are added as well.
In the past, I’ve already shared with you a remarkable activity of skullcap, whose flavonoids baicalin and baicalein can reverse the damage to the neurofibrillary ‘tangles’ in brain cells, thus reversing the condition that leads to Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
But baicalin and baicalein also have important activity as part of the liver-protecting activity of SST and MBC. Both flavonoids have been found to inhibit the proliferation of cell growth on their own, let alone in combination with other herbs.
In addition, they are similar in chemical structure to another flavonoid called silybin – which is the major component of milk thistle, the ‘go-to’ herbal supplement for liver support.
As well, the ‘B’ in MBC – Bupleurum (Thorowax Root) – has a Chinese name (Chai Hu) which loosely translates to the colourful nickname ‘Kindling of the Barbarians’.
But some of the active compounds in bupleurum provide MORE protection than just kindling – particularly those known as saikosaponins a, c, and d. Those belong to a class of compounds called saponins, which have a variety of effects on the body, due largely to their steroid-like structure and fat permeability. (Saponins are responsible for the ability of soap to dissolve grease and fat-soluble dirt.)
The saikosaponins in bupleurum, like the flavonoids in skullcap, have been shown on their own to stop the growth of cancer cells… limit the activity of fibrosis-creating hepatocytes… and even slow down the activity of the Hepatitis B virus in the liver.
As well, liquorice (Glycyrrhiza, with its main components, called glycyrrhizins) is widely used in CHM for its harmonizing qualities – but those glycyrrhizins in particular also can protect cells and have broad anti-inflammatory effects.
They actually seem to slow down the release of Hepatitis C particles into the liver!
Finally, red ginseng is known to improve liver function generally… act as a hepatic antioxidant… and even lower your levels of lipids.
A little sun for every cloud
MBC/SST is so powerful that it’s earned the reputation of standing out, even within the crowded compendium of Chinese herbal medicines.
You can find many of its individual herbs pretty easily at your local health food store or online and you may even reap some benefit from them.
But there’s both an art and science to pairing the yin with the yang – and so, it’s best to work with a doctor who’s well-versed in nutritional medicine, particularly Chinese herbal medicine, to get the right balance of all the ingredients for maximum effect.
Now, you might find something called ‘MBC’ on the shelves, but don’t mistake it for the ancient Chinese cure! In that case, MBC stands for ‘Micro-Biome Colonizer’ – and it’s a high-potency probiotic supplement.
In terms of SST specifically, it’s a commonly-prescribed medicine in Japan – but even if you managed to get your hands on it without a prescription, it’s not something you want to take on your own without the guidance of someone trained in herbal medicine.
After all, this ancient practice has taken thousands of years to develop its unique approach to supporting the various functions of your body. And while it’s generally safer than the conventional method of hitting any medical condition with a sledgehammer, you’ll benefit much more by working with someone with the expertise and finesse that comes from knowing these herbs – individually, as well as in combination with each other – intimately.
Wishing you the best of health,
Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld
Nutrition & Healing
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.