Asian Herbal Medicine

Asian Herbal Medicine

Asian herbal medicine involves treatment with specific herbal preparations, some of which are complex mixtures of many different herbs.  Asian herbal medicine may be used on its own or in combination with acupuncture and other components of traditional Chinese medicine.  Asian herbal medicine is administered in multiple forms, including raw herbs, herb extracts, tablets, pills, powders, and tinctures.
There are several important considerations when using Asian herbal medicine or any other type of herbal therapy.  There may be significant variability in the quality and composition of herbal preparations.  Some chemical compounds in herbs may be toxic or may interact with prescription medications.  It is important to recognize that the safety of these herbal preparations in people with MS has never been extensively studied.

If Chinese or Japanese herbal medicine is considered, people with MS should be aware of individual herbs or mixtures of herbs that may activate the immune system.  Since MS is characterized generally by excessive immune system activity, these herbs pose theoretical risks.  That these herbs may be immune-stimulating does not necessarily imply that they are “bad” for people with MS.  Instead, it means that there is a theoretical risk to be considered before using these herbs that are poorly studied in MS.

These immune-stimulating herbs include:

  • Chinese herbs:  Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), Acanthopanax obovatus, Angelica sinensis (dong quai), Artemis myriantha, Artemisis annua, astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), coix, Epimedium sagittatum, ge-gen-tang, green tea, licorice, Ligustrum lucidum, maitake mushroom, reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), Salvia miltiorrhiza, shiitake mushroom (Lentinus edodes), Sophora flavescens, and xiao-chai-hu-tang.
  • Japanese herbs:  kakkan-to (same as ge-gen-tang), kanzo-bushi-to, and shosaiko-to (same as xiao-chai-hu-tang).
  • Asian ginseng and licorice, which are components of many different Chinese herbal preparations, have varied actions on the immune system, including stimulating activities.  “Fu-zheng” therapy, which is believed to improve the ability of the body to defend itself, contains two herbs, astragalus and Ligustrum lucidum, that may stimulate immune cells.  Green tea contains antioxidant compounds, some of which may be immune-stimulating.

Toxic effects, including serious liver and kidney toxicity, have been associated with the use of some types of Asian herbal medicine.  These herbs should be avoided or used with caution.  These herbs include:  Aristolochia fangchi, baijiaolian, bushi, caowu, chuanwa, datura preparations, fuzi, guangfangji, guiji, jin bu yuan, licorice, ma huang (ephedra), naoyanghua, and yangjinhua.

Potentially fatal toxicity has been associated with some of these herbs.  Ma huang, also known as ephedra, is used in Chinese herbal medicine as well as some Western herbal preparations for weight loss and fatigue; ma huang has been associated with multiple dangerous side effects and, rarely, death.  Less significant toxic effects have occurred with regular use of licorice, which may produce high blood pressure and low blood levels of potassium.

Asian herbal medicine should be used with caution by people with MS.  There have been reports of beneficial effects of this therapy in people with MS, but, due to the lack of published information in English, these studies cannot be fully evaluated.  In addition, some immune-stimulating herbs pose theoretical risks for people with MS, other herbs may be toxic through other mechanisms, and the safety of long-term use of this therapy, especially in people with MS, has not been established.