Flowering Herb for Life: 4 Health Benefits of Chinese Skullcap

Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) is a flowering herb used in Chinese medicine that has gained recognition for its role in the treatment of inflammatory conditions such as arthritisScutellaria baicalensis is not to be confused with other members of the Lamiaceae, or mint family, such as Scutellaria lateriflora found in North America. Both of these species and others are referred to as skullcap because of the shape of their flowers’ calyx.

Bacterial and Viral Infections

Chinese skullcap has other effects in addition to its anti-inflammatory property. Some of the earliest published research documented a bactericidal effect against oral bacteria.1 This effect was subsequently documented in a trial that tested the effects of a toothpaste containing an extract of the herb, which found a reduction in the extent of gingivitis, plaque development, and associated bacteria.2

The Scutellaria baicalensis flavonoid baicalin has shown an ability to inhibit human T cell leukemia virus.3 Baicalin has also demonstrated an ability to inhibit HIV-1 infection and replication in human lymphoid and mononuclear cells.4 Another in vitro study found that the Scutellaria flavonoid wogonin suppressed hepatitis B virus surface antigen production.5 And in a study of patients with severe hand, foot, and mouth disease which compared the effects of Scutellaria baicalensis to those of the antiviral drug ribavirin, Scutellaria baicalensis was more effective at reducing fever duration, time to nervous system involvement, and viral loads, as well as the number of participants with oral ulcers and skin rashes.6

Scutellaria baicalensis flavonoidsbaicalin, baicalein, and wogonin have demonstrated an anti-inflammatory effect similar to that of the drug prednisolone.7 A study published in 2016 found that baicalein inhibits the activation of nuclear factor-kappa beta transcription factors that are involved in inflammation, immunity and other processes.8

Blood Flow

In an experiment involving cultured human umbilical vein endothelial cells, baicalein inhibited the reduction of tissue plasminogen activator (tPA, involved in the breakdown of blood clots) production induced by the enzyme trypsin.9 Elsewhere, Y. Kimura and colleagues concluded that baicalein “might be active as a drug in the treatment of arteriosclerosis and thrombosis.”10

A review of baicalein’s cardiovascular properties noted that “Baicalein is a potent free radical scavenger and xanthine oxidase inhibitor, thus improving endothelial function and conferring cardiovascular protective actions against oxidative stress-induced cell injury. The pharmacological findings have highlighted the therapeutic potentials of using plant-derived baicalein and its analogs for the treatment of arteriosclerosis and hypertension.”11

In rat brain cortex mitochondria, baicalein and baicalin inhibited lipid peroxidation, and in human neuroblastoma cells, the flavonoids protected against hydrogen peroxide-induced injury. It was suggested that baicalein and baicalin could be used to scavenge free radicals that occur in excess in head injuries.12


Scutellaria baicalensis has been used historically in Chinese medicine for its anticancer effects.13 In a study involving human squamous cell carcinoma, breast cancer, colon cancer, liver cancer, and prostate cancer, the herb inhibited growth of all cell lines while dose-dependently inhibiting prostaglandin E2, a metabolite of arachidonic acid that is involved in inflammation.13 In four types of human prostate cancer cells, baicalin inhibited cancer cell proliferation, which was associated with the induction of apoptosis (programmed cell death).14 Investigation of Scutellaria baicalensis extract as well as its compounds skullcapflavone, wogonin, baicalein and neobaicalein in prostate cancer cells revealed comparable cell cycle modifications, growth inhibitory levels, and global gene expression profiles.15 In mice, the compounds decreased the growth of prostate cancer grafts by 55%.15

Scutellaria baicalensis and baicalin have been shown to inhibit the overgrowth of human prostate cancer cells stimulated by the hormone dihydrotestosterone (DHT).16 Also, baicalin has been shown to inhibit androgen activation signaling and to promote human dermal papilla cell proliferation, suggesting that these extracts could be used for treating androgen-associated disorders, such as androgenetic alopecia.16

In a study involving human head and neck squamous cell carcinoma cell lines, Scutellaria baicalensis inhibited growth as well as COX-2 expression.17 And in human brain tumor cells, Scutellaria baicalensis inhibited cell growth in recurrent and drug resistant cell lines, supporting a potential use against glioblastoma multiforme.18

Investigation of baicalin and baicalein has revealed an anti-angiogenic effect (ability to prevent new blood vessel formation), which may contribute to its anticancer effect.19

A study that tested the effects of Scutellaria extract enriched with baicalin in peripheral white blood cells obtained from children with acute lymphocytic leukemia resulted in lower viability of these cells, without affecting the survival of healthy white blood cells.20 Scutellaria extract was found to induce apoptosis in these as well as B-type human leukemia cells.20

Scutellaria baicalensis may also be helpful to reduce side effects of chemotherapy. Lung cancer patients treated with chemotherapy and Scutellaria baicalensis underwent stimulation of red blood cell formation, which can be suppressed by chemotherapy.21 The herb was also shown to increase T-lymphocytes in chemotherapy-treated lung cancer patients.22

Brain Health and Aging

Human subjects who received Scutellaria baicalensis and Acacia catechu exhibited significant improvement in accuracy and speed of processing information in computer tasks, suggesting that the combination could help maintain memory, support processing speed, and reduce memory errors that occur with aging.23 In a rat study, baicalein has been shown to reduce the release of glutamate in nerve terminals of the brain’s hippocampus and help protect neurons against kainic acid-induced excitotoxicity.24

Scutellaria baicalensis Georgi is the most widely used medicinal plant in traditional Eastern medicine, especially in Chinese medicine,” note B. P. Gaire and colleagues in the Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine.25 Like most herbs, Scutellaria baicalensis has a variety of traditional and modern uses. Future research could see the development of Scutellaria baicalensis as a source of new prescription drugs for cancer and other needed areas.


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Andrographis Herb Fights Infection and Protects the Body

Andrographis paniculata, is an herb that is cultivated in South and Southeast Asia, where its leaves and roots are used to treat infections. The active ingredients, including andrographolides, have been investigated for potential health benefits in scientific studies.

“A. paniculata has been reported as having antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, choleretic, hypoglycemic, hypocholesterolemic, and adaptogenic effects,” writes Shahid Akbar, MD, PhD, in a recent review. “In the Unani system of medicine, it is considered aperient, anti-inflammatory, emollient, astringent, diuretic, emmenagogue, gastric and liver tonic, carminative, antihelmintic, and antipyretic.”1

A study published in 1975 revealed an effect for Andrographis paniculata against Ascaris lumbricoides, the most common intestinal parasite worldwide.2 Subsequent research determined that the herb could also kill the parasite Dipetalonema reconditum, which infects dogs and is transmitted by mosquitos.3

Andrographis and Liver Health

An early clinical trial conducted in India found improvement in liver function as indicated by serum bilirubin, alkaline phosphatase and other blood factors, in the majority of acute infective hepatitis patients that received kalmegh (another name for A. paniculata).4 In rats given the toxic compound carbon tetrachloride, which induced liver microsomal lipid peroxidation, pretreatment with A. paniculata leaf extract prevented this effect.5 Similar protective effects have been found for andrographolide.6 Andrographolide has also been demonstrated to help protect the liver against the adverse effects of other compounds, including acetaminophen.7

In a study of A. paniculata compounds in toxin-treated animals, andrographiside and neoandrographolide exhibited greater liver-protective effects than andrographolide and showed similar effects as the liver-protective compound silymarin in the prevention of the formation of lipid peroxidation degradation products.8 The researchers suggested that the greater protective activity of andrographiside and neoandrographolide shown in this study may be due to glucoside groups that act as strong antioxidants.

Microbes and Infections

Andrographolide appears to have an antibacterial action against a number of Gram-positive bacteria--particularly Staphylococcus aureus--and was shown to have an inhibitory effect on Staphylococcus aureus biofilm formation.9 In cell cultures, DASM (which is derived from andrographolide) inhibited three strains of human immunodeficiency virus 1 (HIV-1) and one strain of HIV-2.10 In a clinical trial involving 13 HIV positive and 5 uninfected participants, CD4(+) lymphocyte levels increased significantly in those who were HIV positive following the administration of an intermediate dose of andrographolide.11

A trial of 152 adults with pharyngotonsillitis found that A. paniculata had similar fever and throat pain-relieving effects as acetaminophen when consumed daily for seven days.12In a trial that included 158 adults with a common cold, treatment with a dried extract of the herb decreased fatigue, sleeplessness, sore throat, and nasal secretions after two days in comparison with a placebo.13 At day four, all symptoms, which included those above as well as headache, earache, throat mucus, and cough frequency and intensity, were significantly reduced in the Andrographis-treated group. Double-blind trials that evaluated the effects of Kan Jang, a Chinese medicine that contains A. paniculata, have also resulted in a reduction in upper respiratory tract infections and sinusitis.14,15

Heart Health

In an experimental model of heart attack, intravenous administration of A. paniculata limited the area of ischemic damage and its surrounding area and showed a weak fibrinolytic action.16 Another experiment showed an ability for an extract of A. paniculata to prevent blood clots or heart attack in animals undergoing coronary artery injury.17 A randomized trial of A. paniculata extract in 60 participants with elevated triglycerides (which is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease) resulted in those who received a higher dose experiencing a reduction in triglycerides comparable to that associated with a 300 milligram daily dose of the drug gemfibrozil.18

Effects on Cancer

Like most plant compounds, andrographolide is associated with an anticancer effect. In human colorectal carcinoma cells, andrographolide inhibited cell cycle progression in a dose-dependent manner.19 In a study involving human oral cancer cells, treatment with the A. Paniculata compound dehydroandrographolide inhibited migration and invasion, in addition to suppressing tumor metastases in mice that received implanted cells.20 In non-small cell lung cancer cell cultures and in tumors transplanted into experimental animals, andrographolidehad a synergistic effect with the chemotherapy paclitaxel.21 In human T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia cells, A. paniculata induced apoptosis (programmed cell death) and inhibited growth in animals that received tumor grafts.22 And in human breast cancer cells, andrographolide increased apoptosis and demonstrated an inhibitory effect on cell cycle progression.23 “Andrographolide seems to have a potential role as an ideal chemopreventive agent for breast cancer although it deserves further in-depth studies in order to explore its precise mechanism of action as an anticancer agent in vivo,” Malabika Banerjee and colleagues remark.

Andrographolide has reduced viability and migration in human prostate cancer cells, and decreased proliferation and induced apoptosis in multiple myeloma cells.24,25 Andrographis paniculata and its components have been shown to be effective against human pancreatic cancer cells, liver carcinoma cells, and more.26,27

Andrographis and Autoimmune Conditions

Among other benefits for A. paniculata, the herb may be helpful to patients with multiple sclerosis (MS).28 In a randomized, double-blind trial, A. paniculata taken twice per day for a year significantly reduced fatigue severity scores in interferon-treated MS patients in comparison with a placebo.28 Another trial, involving 120 ulcerative colitis patients, resulted in clinical response among 76% and remission in 21% of participants who received an extract of A. paniculata, while those who received the drug mesalazine had clinical response and remission rates of 82% and 16%. The authors concluded that A. paniculata extract “may be an efficacious alternative to mesalazine in ulcerative colitis.”29 And in a randomized trial that included 60 participants with active rheumatoid arthritis, 14 weeks of treatment with Paractin which contained 30% total andrographolides, was associated with decreased joint tenderness, number of tender and swollen joints, blood markers, and other factors in comparison with the placebo group, suggesting that Paractin could be a useful natural complement in the treatment of the disease.30

Skin Health

Of interest to life extensionists, A. paniculata was shown to increase epidermal stem cell proliferation and enhance type 1 collagen production in normal human fibroblasts.31 When tested in humans, eight weeks of topical A. paniculata extract improved skin hydration, dermal density, wrinkling and sagging. “Based on these results, we suggest that Andrographis paniculata may be introduced as a possible anti-aging agent,” J. You and colleagues conclude.31

The Bottom Line

Andrographis paniculata, its components, and preparations derived from the herb, have shown remarkable effects in several areas of health. As one of its most popular uses is in the treatment of infection, it may be worthwhile keeping some on hand in the event that one strikes.


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Obesogens Are Making Us Fat, Not Fast Food

Stewart Lonky, M.D.

The other day, I was sitting with a group of friends when one started griping about fast food marketing campaigns targeted at children, particularly minority kids where the obesity and related- illness rates are much higher than the general population. Despite recent national data showing that childhood obesity rates have stabilized at 17 percent, and are even declining among 2- to 5-year-olds, childhood obesity is still at epidemic levels.

Right now, between 12-13 million U.S. children are obese — that’s one out of every six children — and millions more are overweight, with the CDC estimating that more than 30% of children 2−19 years old fall into this category. Obese children have an increased risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, as well as asthma and type 2 diabetes. They’re at increased risk of bullying and even mental illnesses like depression. It’s a shame that more than 200,000 American children have type 2 diabetes.

But here’s where things get more complicated. Obesity isn’t a simple matter of calories in versus calories out. It never has been. Our weight woes were never about the dinosaur energy balance model of eating less and exercising more, or too much television or too much access to inexpensive, high-calorie fast food. The knowledge of what to eat and what not to eat for weight loss has been known for 50 years. We all know that French fries aren’t a diet food.

Despite all we know about the underlying causes of extreme weight gain, many scientists remain unconvinced, even ignoring other critical factors affecting the nation's obesity spike. I’m still surprised how few scientists, and physicians, pay attention to, or even know about the most significant factor underlying extreme weight gain: A class of natural and synthetic endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which we know as obesogens. Bruce Blumberg, professor of developmental and cell biology and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of California, Irvine first coined the term “obesogen” and it is any chemical that promotes weight gain by:

  • Increasing the number of fat cells.
  • Increasing fat storage in existing fat cells.
  • Changing the metabolic rate.
  • Altering hormonal control of appetite or satiety.
  • Shifting energy balance to favor the storage of calories.

The Threat to Weight Gain That is Hidden … Yet Everywhere

Scientists have known for years that obesogens disrupt our hormonal systems’ delicate balance and functioning, altering the way our bodies store fat and regulate metabolism, leading to weight gain and its associated diseases. Not surprisingly, the increase in obesity prevalence correlates with the rise in the use and distribution of industrial chemicals. This is perhaps the biggest reason why we struggle to lose weight. Even an extreme, calorie-restricted diet won't lower your obesogen exposure. Obesogens are ubiquitous and are found in any number of sources — from hormones administered to animals, plastics in some food and drink packaging, processed foods ingredients, and pesticides sprayed on produce.

Organotins, which are also obesogens, are widely used in polyvinyl chloride plastics manufacture, crop fungicides, and pesticides, and as slimicides in industrial water systems. A “slimicide” is an anti-slime agent and an antimicrobial agent that kills slime-producing microorganisms such as bacteria, slime, fungi, and algae. Slimicides are also used in paper manufacturing. They specifically affect the body’s metabolism by changing the way it responds to calories.


Organotins also include chemicals like tributyltin (TBT), a wood preservative and marine antifouling paint and fungicide, which is now banned, in part because of its habit of turning female snails into males. TBT’s obesogenic effects are thought to be due largely to its ability to bind with hormone receptors called PPARγ (peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma) receptors that play an important role in turning pre-fat cells into mature fat cells, a process known as adipogenesis. This binding to the PPARγ receptor also affects fat storage and glucose metabolism. It also impacts other hormone receptors, such as retinoid X receptor (RXR), and the thyroid gland. Thus, TBT promotes obesity by increasing the number of fat cells, the storage of fat in existing fat cells, changing the metabolic rate, altering hormonal control of appetite or satiety, or shifting energy balance to calorie storage, meaning it can either directly or indirectly lead to increased fat accumulation and weight gain. In one study, animals exposed to tributyltin and triphenyltin developed more and bigger fat cells. The animals treated with these chemicals didn’t eat a different diet than the ones that didn’t get fat. They ate the same diet, but still got fatter.

The Negative Impact Beyond Weight Gain

Obesogens’ effects are not strictly limited to fat metabolism and weight gain. They also affect fertility, particularly in males, increase the risk of genital malformation, reduce male birth rates, trigger precocious puberty, impair immune function, and increase the risk of miscarriage, behavior problems, brain abnormalities, various cancers, and cardiovascular disease. Most significantly, obesogens damage the unborn and newborn, who are vulnerable to epigenetic changes via their mother. Prenatal obesogen exposure has been shown to tilt a type of stem cell in the body in the direction of fat cell development at the expense of other cell types (bone or muscle as examples). Thus, in utero and early postnatal obesogen exposure predisposes a child to obesity by influencing all aspects of adipose tissue growth, starting from multipotential stem cells and ending with mature adipocytes. Some evidence suggests that the intrauterine environment has a significant and lasting effect on the long-term health of the growing fetus and the development of metabolic disease in later life. Metabolic diseases have been associated with epigenetic changes that occur without changes in the DNA sequence, such as cytosine methylation of DNA (these epigenetic modifications can be reversed by the addition of methyl donors, such as dietary folic acid, which I explain in greater detail at the end of this article).

It’s clear to me that we can’t continue to frame the obesity discussion simply in terms of calories in and calories out, or by only examining the nutritional content of food. Given the proliferation of industrial pollutants, a paradigm shift in thinking is needed. A heightened understanding of the effects of these endocrine-disrupting chemicals is key to freeing ourselves from weight gain. Without it, we remain stuck in the insidious cycle of weight loss and weight gain.

How Can We Protect Ourselves from Obesogens?

Below are a few common sense and easy-to-follow recommendations for reducing the effects of obesogen exposure.

Buy less plastic.

We really don't know yet if the BPA in computer casings, car dashboards, and other things we contact every day makes its way into our bodies. But it seems likely that anything that's plastic and ends up in a landfill could break down and contaminate groundwater. Try only purchasing plastic items you really need, which may help keep BPA out of your house dust and off your skin, not to mention help eliminate it from our waterways. I never put plastic in the oven or the microwave. Heat damages plastic and increases leaching. Avoiding plastic-wrapped meat is also a good idea since most varieties contain mostly PVC (the plastic wrap most folks use at home is increasingly made from polyethylene). PVC contains phthalates that, according to animal studies, may lower testosterone levels. In humans, lower testosterone leads to weight gain as well as a decrease in muscle mass and sex drive. Go to a butcher who uses paper instead.

Consume a diet high in folic acid.

There are now a number of studies that show that consuming a diet high in folic acid (dark leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, citrus fruits, beans, peas, lentils, seeds and nuts, just to name a few) can actually reverse in utero-induced epigenetic changes in adult animals. When attempting to lose weight, these items are a definite “plus” in the diet and should help with overcoming some obesogen-induced disadvantages. If necessary, you can also add a high-quality folic acid supplement. But please be sure to check the manufacturer. Not all brands have equal bioavailability.

Keep protein intake high when dieting.

One of the reasons why high protein, low carbohydrate diets are so successful is that they may reverse some in-utero epigenetic changes. This may be one of the reasons why people who try Atkins, Paleo, and other high-protein, low-carb diets have early success.

Try to maintain a diet with adequate L-methionine.

Once again, animal data show that adults with previous epigenetic changes can reverse these changes by supplementing with methionine, an amino acid that favors DNA methylation. Foods high in this amino acid include eggs, lean beef, lamb, Brazil nuts, parmesan cheese, and soybeans (even if roasted).

These are just a few of my recommendations for taking control of some of the changes resulting from our constant obesogen exposure, as well as the exposures that caused changes in previous generations. You see, some of these changes are generational; they are passed down from one generation to the next. But, we can take control and change course by following a modified diet and limiting exposure to obesogens.

About: Stewart Lonky, M.D., is a physician, toxicologist, and biomedical engineer. He is board certified in internal medicine, pulmonology and critical care medicine, and a recognized expert in the related fields of preventive medicine and environmental toxicology and its associated diseases. Dr. Lonky is known for his cutting edge research into the causes, treatment and prevention of toxic chemical exposures and heralded for his in-depth knowledge of obesity's biological, environmental, and social influences, which is the subject of his forthcoming book. Dr. Lonky resides and practices in Los Angeles, California. www.stewartlonky.com

Shiitake Mushrooms: Anti-Cancer, Anti-Aging, and More

Shiitake mushroom (Lentinus edodes), once little-known outside of East Asia, is a frequent sight these days in the produce section of Western supermarkets. While prized for its texture and flavor, it is shiitake’s health benefits that render this fungus priceless.

Why Supplement with Mushrooms?

“It is estimated that approximately 50% of the annual 5 million metric tons of cultivated edible mushrooms contain functional ‘nutraceutical’ or medicinal properties,” R. Chang noted in Nutrition Reviews. “In order of decreasing cultivated weight in tons, Lentinus (shiitake), Pleurotus (oyster), Auricularia (mu-err), Flammulina (enokitake), Tremella (yin-er), Hericium, and Grifola (maitake) mushrooms have various degrees of immunomodulatory, lipid-lowering, antitumor, and other beneficial or therapeutic health effects without any significant toxicity.”1

Shiitake has become a popular mushroom due to its smoky, savory taste and versatile texture. The recently confirmed benefits of this “Queen of Mushrooms” in mice and humans add evidence to centuries of traditional use. “Shiitake mushrooms are currently one of the five most cultivated edible mushrooms in the world,” note Kuo-Hsiung Lee and colleagues in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine. “They have been used medicinally and as healthy food for thousands of years in Japan, China, and Korea, and are now becoming popular in nutritional and medicinal products throughout Europe and North America.”24

The Health Benefits of Shiitake Mushrooms

In Advances in Applied Microbiology, S. C. Jong and J. M. Birmingham mention that “The shiitake mushroom is the second most popular edible mushroom in the global market. The shiitake mushroom contains proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Hypolipidemic and antithrombotic substances have been identified; the nucleic acids induce interferon production.”2

Early research uncovered an ability of shiitake to lower blood cholesterol when added to the diet of rats.3 A study involving an essential oil of shiitake found an inhibitory effect against platelet aggregation, which the researchers involved in the study attributed to a sulfur-containing compound known as lenthionine.4 Other research uncovered an ability of shiitake to modulate adhesion molecule expression, indicating a potential protective effect against cardiovascular disease.5

Shiitake Mushroom is Beneficial for Oral Health

Fluid in which shiitake mycelium was cultured has shown an antimicrobial effect when pitted against Streptococcus pyogenes, Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus megaterium.6Lenthionine was suggested as the component responsible for the effect.

In a comparison of shiitake extract to chlorohexidine (the active component in the leading gingivitis mouthwash), pathogenic bacteria were reduced by shiitake while bacteria associated with health were not affected. 7 In contrast, chlorhexidine’s effect on all varieties of oral bacteria evaluated was limited. Another experiment found that an extract of shiitake mushroom prevented or reduced the induction of gene expression of the periodontal pathogens Prevotella intermedia and Actinomyces naeslundii.8In a study that compared the effects of an oral rinse that contained shiitake extract to Listerine or water in human participants, shiitake was associated with less plaque and a decrease in specific oral pathogen counts in comparison with water and less gingival inflammation compared to water or Listerine.9 The authors of the report concluded that shiitake could prove beneficial in controlling dental caries and/or gingivitis/periodontitis. A randomized, double-blind trial of a rinse containing shiitake concluded that shiitake extract has anticariogenic potential.10

The Anticancer Properties of Shiitake Mushroom

One of shiitake’s most promising areas of use is in cancer therapy. In two human breast carcinoma cell lines and two myeloma cell lines, an ethyl acetate fraction of shiitake induced apoptosis (programmed cell death) in 50% of the population of the tumor cell lines, whereas nonmalignant cells exhibited less sensitivity to the fungus.11 The authors of the report suggest that apoptosis may be the reason for shiitake’s growth-inhibitory effect in tumor cells. In another study, water extracts of shiitake inhibited the proliferation of a breast adenocarcinoma cell line and demonstrated an immunostimulatory effect in rat thymocytes.12

In addition to enhanced immunity, antitumor mechanisms of newly identified shiitake polysaccharides SLNT1, SLNT2, JLNT1, JLNT2, and JLNT3 include a tumoricidal effect and the induction of apoptosis.13

The immune-enhancing effect of shiitake was explored in a study in which MPSSS, a polysaccharide derived from the fungus, was administered to myeloid-derived suppressor cells, which inhibit T cell activity and promote tumor growth.14 Researchers demonstrated that MPSSS reversed immunosuppressive functions of myeloid-derived suppressor cells. Treatment with the compound also inhibited the growth of tumor cells in mice, which was correlated with a 38% lower percentage of myeloid-derived suppressor cells in the blood of treated animals compared to a control group.

In mice inoculated with lymphoma or human colon cancer cells, oral pretreatment with lentinan, a high molecular weight beta glucan isolated from shiitake, showed an antitumor effect.15 In another mouse study, animals injected with liver cancer cells and treated with the chemotherapy 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), the addition of polysaccharides derived from shiitake was associated with a greater reduction in tumor weight and volume than chemotherapy alone. This was accompanied by an increase in spleen and serum immune factors.16

In a study involving 8 patients with advanced gastrointestinal cancer who received a course of chemotherapy alone followed by a course of chemotherapy plus an extract of shiitake, 6 patients experienced chemotherapy-related adverse effects after the first course, but no adverse effects were reported following the second course that included shiitake.17

In a similar study, which included 7 patients undergoing postoperative chemotherapy to treat breast or gastrointestinal cancer or to prevent gastrointestinal cancer recurrence, quality of life and immune function improved following a second course of chemotherapy combined with shiitake extract, whereas an initial course of chemotherapy alone was associated with no changes.18 Among 10 patients who received 4 weeks of cancer immunotherapy followed by 4 weeks of immunotherapy plus shiitake mycelia extract, quality of life scores and immunity improved during the period in which shiitake was administered compared to the period in which the participants received immunotherapy alone.19

The Antiaging Potential of Shiitake Mushrooms

Research suggests that shiitake could have antiaging effects. In one study, shiitake mycelia zinc polysaccharides showed antioxidant activities in vitro and, in mice, upregulated total antioxidant capacity and the antioxidant enzymes glutathione peroxide and superoxide dismutase (SOD), and decreased malondialdehyde, a marker of oxidative stress.20 In a study involving aged mice, the heteropolysaccharide L2 from shiitake restored the aging-related decline in immune response and partially reversed the age-related alteration in intestinal microbiota.21 A study of aged mice inoculated with colon carcinoma found that pretreatment shiitake extract retarded tumor growth, which was accelerated in older mice compared to younger mice.22

The Bottom Line

Shiitake, commonly consumed as a food, appears to be safe when used medicinally by nonallergic individuals. A phase I trial that evaluated the effects of an extract of shiitake known as active hexose correlated compound (AHCC, which contains alpha-glucan and beta-glucan from shiitake mycelia) in healthy men and women found no significant laboratory parameter abnormalities and few adverse effects at a dose that was higher than that routinely used in humans, adding evidence to its safety.23

“As part of the Traditional Chinese Medicine and other folk medicine systems, many plant and fungal species are used as foods and dietary supplements to promote good health, as well as to prevent or treat many diseases,” they conclude. “Modern scientific methodology and medicinal chemistry approaches will continue to identify and evaluate the bioactive components found in Traditional Chinese Medicine prescriptions, and validate their use as sources of new, effective, and safe world-class new medicines and dietary supplements.”24


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Beyond Resveratrol: The Health Benefits of Japanese Knotweed

Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum var. Japonicus or Hu Zhang) is an herb used in
traditional Chinese medicine. The root of the herb has been used clinically for increased lipid levels, endotoxic shock, infection, inflammation, cancer and other conditions.1

Over 67 compounds have been identified in Polygonum cuspidatum, including quinones, stilbenes, flavonoids, coumarins and lignans.1 One of the most remarkable compounds identified to date is the stilbenoid resveratrol, which studies have found to be of benefit in numerous conditions. The compound has even shown life-extending effects in yeast, worms and flies.2

Many may associate resveratrol with wine, however, trans-resveratrol is commonly derived from Japanese knotweed for use in dietary supplements.

Polygonum cuspidatum contains a compound known as polydatin, or piceid. Benefits associated with polydatin include cardiovascular, neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, immunoregulatory, antioxidative and antitumor effects, as well as liver and lung protection.3 While polydatin and resveratrol act as precursors to each other in the body, research indicates that polydatin predominates in the serum following the administration of either compound.4

Polygonum cuspidatum is ranked among the top five herbs used most frequently in traditional Chinese medicine formulations for the treatment of chronic hepatitis B (HBV), a viral disease of the liver.5 In addition to resveratrol, polydatin is believed to be one the herb’s components that acts against the virus.

In mice exposed to carbon tetrachloride, treatment with polydatin reduced liver fibrosis and inflammation via inhibition of oxidative stress and inflammation.6 In another study involving carbon tetrachloride-exposed mice, pretreatment with polydatin for 5 days protected against increases in markers of liver injury and inflammation, in addition to protecting against a decline in antioxidant enzyme activities.7

In diabetic rats, supplementation with polydatin decreased fasting blood glucose, glycosylated hemoglobin, glycosylated serum protein, total cholesterol, triglyceride, and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol.8 In insulin-resistant human liver cells, the compound increased glucose uptake and usage and lowered lipid accumulation. Another study involving rats found that oral supplementation with polydatin prevented insulin resistance and fatty liver in animals given a high fat diet.9

In human colorectal cancer cells, polydatin revealed an antioxidant activity similar to that of resveratrol and demonstrated an inhibitory effect on cell growth.10

Brain Health

In rats with induced cerebral ischemia, administration of polydatin decreased the volume of the injured area and improved neurologic deficits, while lowering levels of cellular adhesion molecules in comparison with a control group that did not receive the compound.11 In rats with memory impairment induced by chronic insufficient blood flow, 30 days of oral polydatin supplementation reduced cognitive deficits in comparison with untreated animals, while lowering the production of malondialdehyde (a marker of oxidative stress) and increasing the activities of the antioxidant enzymes SOD and catalase.12 Polydatin also alleviated injury in cultured neurons deprived of oxygen and glucose. The findings suggest a potential use for polydatin against vascular dementia.

In rats subjected to hemorrhage and sepsis, polydatin improved organ function, prolonged survival and lowered multi-organ dysfunction syndrome incidence.13 It also suppressed oxidative stress and inflammation, while helping to protect against mitochondrial dysfunction.

Antimicrobial Effects and Beyond

Emodin is another P. cuspidatum compound identified as having health benefits. The compound is used to treat constipation and cancer in traditional Chinese medicine. According to a recent review, “Emerging evidence indicates that emodin possesses a wide spectrum of pharmacological properties, including anticancer, hepatoprotective, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antimicrobial activities.”14

Emodin has shown an ability to combat Epstein-Barr viral infection.15 In cultured rat cortical neurons, pretreatment with emodin derived from P. cuspidatum protected against amyloid beta-induced toxicity, leading the researchers to conclude that emodin is a viable candidate for treating Alzheimer’s disease.16

Extracts of Polygonum cuspidatum have shown effectiveness against a variety of conditions, including itstraditional use for menopausal complaints.17

An evaluation of P. cuspidatum’s antibacterial action found inhibitory effects against Streptococcus mutans, a bacterium that is involved in dental plaque and caries formation, in association with an alcohol extract of the root.18 An evaluation of the effects of a fraction of P. cuspidatum root against biofilm formation resulted in inhibited viability of Streptococcus mutans and Streptococcus sobrinus, leading the researchers to conclude that it was likely to be useful in the control of oral biofilms and dental caries.19

In addition to an antibacterial effect, research in mice has revealed an anti-inflammatory effect in association with P. cuspidatum extract that was comparable to that of trans-resveratrol and greater than that of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) indomethacin.20 Another rodent study revealed anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects in association with P. cuspidatum extract, as well as an inhibitory effect against elevations in C-reactive protein (CRP, a marker of inflammation).21

Like Polygonum multiflorum, Polygonum cuspidatum has a laxative effect, which may be related to its anthraquinone content.22

In rats, an extract of P. cuspidatum accelerated wound healing, confirming one of its traditional uses.23

Like most plants, P. cuspidatum has significant antioxidant properties.24 In one study, extracts of the root scavenged two types of free radicals and protected against hydroxyl radical-induced DNA damage.25 The researchers also discovered that the extracts also inhibited cell growth and induced apoptosis in two human lung cancer cell lines.

“Hu Zhang has been prescribed in China for medical purposes for thousands of years,” Huan Zhang and colleagues observe in a 2013 review. “Reports in the literature have demonstrated Hu Zhang’s potential beneficial effects such as antimicrobial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, estrogenic, neuroprotective, and cardioprotective activities.

They conclude that “Hu Zhang might be a valuable alternative medicine that could be integrated into conventional treatments,” adding that more research is needed.26


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