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Various clinical uses of medicinal plants


China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine
18 Beixincang,
Beijing 100700
China *

* Temporary Address: Traditional Medicine Research Unit, P.O. Box 65001, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania


There is a long history of medicinal plants application in China. The earliest "Shennong's Herbal" was written more than two thousand years ago. In this classic work, many medicinal plants, animals and minerals have been recorded. The number of species increased rapidly from 365 in "Shennong's Herbal" to 5767 in the Dictionary of Chinese "Materia Medica" among which, 4773 (82.76%) were medicinal plants, 740 were animals, 82 were minerals and 172 were other processed materials. Evidently, the majority of the drugs used were medicinal plants.

During the long period of application, a wealth of experiences has been accumulated and recorded. After the founding of a New China, the clinical practice of the Traditional Chinese Medicine has been further widened in depth and scope. Many medicinal plants with medicinal and non-medicinal uses were found, not only for the domestic markets, but also for the international markets. Some even became goods in great demand, which showed the potential of the medicinal plants.

The use of medicinal plants is wide and diversified, and the following are their various aspects.

Treating diseases

No doubt, the principal use of medicinal plants is to treat and cure diseases. At first, single drug was used, then multiple drugs (compound prescription), and later on, some active principles were isolated and used in clinical practice, with better efficacy. In the theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine, relieving symptoms are always the initial aims of the treatment. However, later, the resolving of the syndrome was developed. The drug form also multiplied from traditional decoction to the pill, powder and ointment to the new drug form such as injection, tablet, granule, droplet and aerosol. On the whole, the species of medicinal plants increased, the indications expanded, the efficacy enhanced and the side-effects reduced. It is now being warmly welcomed by the patients for its convenient use.

Based on the allopathic principle, people are able to use the traditional Chinese medicinal plants in treating numerous diseases. They can cure both the acute and chronic diseases as well as the infectious and intractable diseases For instance, using qinghaosu isolated from Artemisia annua will greatly reduce the mortality of chloroquine-resistant Plasmodium which induce malignant cerebral malaria. Using coronary heart tablet, kuanxiong, aerosol and anti-infraction mixture in treating angina pectoris and myocardial infection, would relieve the anginal pain within 3 minutes, reduce the size of infection area and lower the mortality rate from 28% to less than 10%. Apart from that, using harringtonine and indirubin in treating leukemia, using essential oil of Vitex negundo in treating chronic bronchitis, tongmailing in treating scleroderma, Tripterygium wilfordii in treating rheumatic arthritis, as well as using Anisodamine in treating shock and DIC, satisfactory results were obtained with the above-mentioned remedies To some intractable diseases such as malignant tumour and AIDS, a large scale screening project of medicinal plants all over the world (4500 in 3 years) has been implemented by he National Cancer Institute of the United States.

Moreover, enhanced efficacy fully displays the advantage of medicinal plants with the aim of high efficacy, low toxicity, convenience in use, and lower dosage. There is a broad prospect in exploiting medicinal plants for treating purposes.

Prevention of diseases

"Put priority on prevention" is one of the four health policies in China. Ancient Chinese also took the viewpoint of those that could prevent people from contracting disease as wise doctors.

At present, the chief preventive measure is planned immunization, for which the medicinal plant could play a role also. For example, Alternanthera philoxeroides syrup could prevent influenza, as it has been proved clinically and virologically: Taking Guben tablets (Codonopsis pilosulae, Astragalus membranaceus, Atractylodes macrocephala, etc.) in autumn-winter season will prevent the acute attack of chronic bronchitis, Dracocephalum heterophyllum could prevent the acute highland-reaction, serve as blood circulation promoter, and also as a stasis reliever. Plants such as Squama manis pentadactyla, Salvia miltiorrhiza and Carthamus tinctorius could prevent acute radiation sickness, induced experimentally. Liuwei Dihuang decoction (Rehmannia glutinosa, Cornus officinallis etc.) could interrupt the canceration of esophageal epithelium hyperplasia in high incidental area of esophageal cancer. Fuzheng granules (Astragalus membranaceous, Psoralea corylifolia, etc.) could alleviate the adverse effect of chemotherapy, used in late stage postoperative gastric cancer patients. Furthermore, Typha angustifolia, Crataegus pinnatifida, Carthamus tinctorius oil and Camettia sinensis (tea) have the function of lowering the hyperlipidemia, hence prevent the incidence of arteriosclerosis.

In general, according to the adage that "one that has abundant vitality will not be invaded by pathogenic factor", immuno- enhancing medicinal plants (Panax ginseng, Astragalus membranaceous and Cordyceps sinensis), complemented with pathogenicidal or inhibitory agents (Lonicera japonis, Coptis chinensis, Paeonia rubra), would exert prophylactic action on the body.


It is called anti-aging or delay the aging process. Aging is a physiological process of the human body, with multiple endocrine disturbances. Traditional Chinese doctors usually diagnose it as kidney deficiency, or take the aging process as physiological kidney deficiency. The triad senility-kidney deficiency-endocrine disturbances are very closely interlinked. Drugs such as Panax ginseng and ginsenoside, Astragalus membranaceous, Epimedium brevicornum, Polygonatum multiflorum as well as Chunhui capsule, Zhibao Sanbian pill, Guilingji etc., are widely used in treating senility diseases such as hyperlipidemia and weakened intelligence. They have the function of anti-fatigue, anti-stress and anti-oxidation, and also the cerebral thinking and memory improvement. Hence realizing the aim of prolonging the life-span. The well-known anti-aging and rejuvenescent agent-qingchunbao, was a prescription which originated in the royal palace of Ming Dynasty and its chief components are Panax ginseng, Ophiopogon japonis, etc.

The therapeutic function of medicinal plants in treating disease is evident, but in the majority of cases, the organism is expressed as being healthy and in a non-disease state. Therefore the non- therapeutical applications of medicinal plants are wide, and deeply penetrated in the various aspects of daily life in China, as follows:

Medicated oral liquid

Medicated oral liquid is administered to patients with weakened constitution, after suffering from severe illness or high fever, over-exhaustion, precacious senility or neurosis. The commercial products include Acanthopanax granule, Chinese Pollen, and Ginseng Royal jelly. The acanthopanosides A, B, C, D, E, F and G have the function of serving as an antifatigue, and also for alleviating the damage exerted by over-cold, or over-heated stimuli and X-ray irradiation. The life-span of queen bee, owing to taking the royal jelly, is extended 20 times more than that of the working bee. Therefore, taking these oral liquids over a lengthened period, would exert a gradual accumulation of replenishing and strengthening the body, and without any adverse effect. Hence in the international market, these are goods warmly regarded.

Medicinal foods

Chinese traditional doctors consider that there is no apparent difference between medicine and food. For instance, the garlic is a daily eaten food, while at the same time, it possesses bacteriocidal and anthelmintic functions, as well as serving as a stomach tonic, even used for AIDS. The famous "Compendium of Materia Medica" has recorded pharmacological effect of many common foods such as rice, mutton, orange, etc. This is a good method of effecting the "place medicine in food" principle. At present, the medicinal plants have been integrated with the art of famous Chinese cooking, using different kinds of seasoning as well as the cooking technique of frying, stir-frying, stewing and roasting, so that the bitter tasted drugs become delicious cuisine, such as Angelica-Ginger-Mutton soup, Shiquan Dabu soup, Aconitum chicken and Astragalus porridge, etc. In Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, several restaurants of medicinal food have been set up. They are warmly welcome by the international community.

Medicated beverage

Some of the Chinese materia medica could increase the salivation. Some plants were used as beverage in the past dynasties. Prunus mume (drink) and Camellia sinensis (tea) could for example, inhibit the dysentery bacillus and serve as a remedy. One kind of tea - Wurong tea - could lower the blood lipid markedly, and therefore, serve as medicine for arteriosclerosis. At present, there are new developments for beverages such as Tianfu Cola, Lucky Cola, Shaolin Cola, etc, which incorporate medicinal plants for replenishing oil, and promoting salivation. These include Paeonia rubra, Codonopsis pilosula, Acanthopanax senticosus, Rehmannia glutinosa, Ophiopogon japonis and Scrophularia ningpoensis, added to the Cola drinks. Epimedium brevicornum also has been added and thus could enhance the explosive force of people, so it is indicated for the sportsman. Furthermore, Hippophae rhamnoides which is able to relieve the phlegm and soothe the chest, is made as Hippophae soda water, and is readily acceptable to the consumers.

In general, the medicinal plants are orally taken, but they could be used for external applications also. Based on this, various kinds of medicated cosmetics and other materials used daily have been developed. The aim is both to make one beautiful and treat some minor skin diseases.

Medicated daily materials

Detumescent and analgesic Zanthoxylum nitidum or anti-febrile and bacteriocidal Sacandra glaber was added in the tooth paste to form a kind of medicated tooth paste, which is more welcome than adding ordinary perfumes and foaming agents. For example the itch-relieving Polygonatum odoratum was added in soap which is particularly used by the aged people.

Medicated cosmetics

In ancient times, in the royal palace, traditional medicinal plants such as Angelica dahurica, Aloe and Pteria margaritifera (pearl) powder were often used to make the skin white and delicate. Therefore, in cosmetics manufactured today, these medicines form anti-wrinkle creams. Furthermore, some fragrant herbs such as Moschus moschiferus, Gleditsia sinensis and camphor, were used to get rid of the foul odour of bromhidrosis. These products are very attractive in the domestic and international market.

Hair growing agent

Traditional Chinese doctors considered that "hair is the extension of blood", and "the deficiency in kidney makes one bald and his teeth loosened". Therefore in clinical practice, Polygonatum multiflorum, Lycium barbarum, Rehmannia glutinosa, and Angelica sinensis were used to replenish the blood and kidney. Merchandises such as Shengfajling and Shengfajing contain these medicines, together with Strychnos nux-vomica. These are believed to improve the blood circulation of scalp, and therefore to promote the growth of hair.

Snore curing

Snoring during sleep is not a severe disease, but sometimes it affects other people's sleep, and is disturbing. Many kinds of devices have been developed in an attempt to prevent snoring habit, without complete success. Traditional Chinese doctors considered that the occurrence of snoring is due to some deficiency of the patients which causes the uvula to drop. Therefore some astringent medicine such as Magnolia liliflora, Angelica dahurica, etc. were apparently used to suppress snoring. This kind of medicine greatly interested the international pharmaceutical society.

Stopping smoking

Cigarette is an astonishingly large consumable item. Some people take it for one of their daily necessities. They believe that smoking cigarettes may induce inspiration. But others hold that smoking causes air pollution and affects neighbouring people. Particularly the medical society provides more and more evidence that smoking is a carcinogenic factor. So many people wish to stop smoking; they have tried candy as a substitute for smoking, or have transferred their attention to avoid the desire for smoking, but with little success. In China, there are some commercial products called Jieyanling and Jieyancha, in which certain herbal medicines such as Folium, Nelumbo nucifera (lotus leaf), etc. are added, so that the smoker senses a deplorable odour when they contact the cigarette smoke, hence give up the smoking habit voluntarily. Such smoking deterring agents also have a great demand in the international market.

Medical cigarette

Some people have a chronic habit of smoking, and do not want to give up, but they have some ailments affecting the respiratory tract or other systems. So an addition of a medicinal plant extract to the cigarette, giving it some therapeutic effects, is quite useful. Euphorbia helioscopia is used in medicated cigarettes to treat chronic bronchitis; Apocynum venetum is used in treating hypertension and neurasthenia; and Datura metal is applied in treating bronchial asthma. Japan favours medicated cigarette especially with Apocynum.

Alleviating obesity

Obesity is an abnormal state. Sometimes it is quite annoying and is a burden to those patients with myocardial disfunction. Many diseases are relevant to obesity. These include hypertension, hyperlipidemia, arteriosclerosis, coronary heart disease, fatty liver, etc. Moderate eating and drinking is one of the important measures, but it is not enough. Traditional Chinese doctors considered that there is phlegm in fat people, and some phlegm- relieving medicine such as extracts from Pinellia ternata, Arisaema consanguinemn, etc. have been used, as medicinal plants and have proved to be effective in lowering the blood lipids. Other plants used for this purpose are Alismatis orientale, Crataegus pinnatifida, Polygonatum multiflorum and Cassia obtusifolia. Herbal tea based on these plants is widely used by obese people.

Medicated dress

Some people also use the dress for covering and warming the body. Some medicated dresses, gloves, and shoes have been designed and manufactured for therapeutic purpose. Camphor (Bletilla striata), etc. are for example put in dress in cloth and shoes. After wearing for one month, the Tinea pedis, foul odour, moisture and itching are evidently less than in the control. Culture tests have shown that in such remedies fungi are also markedly reduced.

From the above, one can see that the function of medicinal plants are numerous and have a huge potential since the resource is abundant. In order to meet the needs of the vast majority of people who crave for cheap, affordable, but effective medicine, we need to seriously go into full exploitation of the various aspects of medicinal plants. The issue is not only urgent, but also of practical necessity.