With 170 million American adults taking supplements regularly, today’s industry might seem pretty vast and overwhelming. But America’s obsession with supplements is barely a flash in the pan compared to how long traditional Chinese medicine has been using thousands of herbs as medicine.
Now, after thousands of years as the cornerstone of herbal health, Chinese medicine is finally reaching the American mainstream through a special set of herbs that, along with India’s ancient Ayurveda, are giving the supplement industry a decidedly East-West spin.
Traditional Chinese supplements in today’s America
People are often attracted to the holistic nature of traditional Chinese medicine, especially its philosophies about triggering the body’s own natural healing. Besides the additional thousands of years it’s been around (and studied), many find Chinese herbal medicine to be an appealing alternative to the litany of Western medications and their endless side effects.
But Chinese medicine faces inherent challenges in its immigration to America, many of which pose hurdles for typical consumers.
- How they’re taken: The two most popular methods for ingesting herbal supplements in China are through teas and honey-bound supplements. Both are viewed as too inconvenient or too bad tasting by most Americans—which may account for the popularity of herb capsules and tablets here.
- Fear of the unknown: Most of the controversy in the West surrounding Chinese herbal supplements comes down to tainted products and unforeseen interactions between Western-style medications and Eastern herbs. Because the FDA’s requirements are different, and far more lenient, for dietary supplements than over-the-counter medicine, manufacturers’ claims about their products aren’t easily verifiable. This can be an issue for U.S.-based brands, but it’s especially difficult for foreign supplement manufacturers, who typically have no name recognition and are selling herbs that few in America have ever heard about.
- Lack of definitive research: Traditional Chinese medicine has a philosophy markedly different than the ones dominant in America, making it often baffling to researchers. A macro-study of the effectiveness of studies concerning traditional Chinese medicine found that out of 70 systematic reviews of acupuncture or herbal medicine, 41 could not draw conclusive results due to lacking evidence. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Yet trends show that traditional Chinese medicine is picking up steam in the U.S., making it a growing subset of the massive global herbal supplement market, which is expected to reach $74 billion in just four years.
The most common Chinese herbal supplements
Thousands of Eastern herbs are used as supplements—and every single one is derived from the root, stem, leaf, bark, fruit or vegetable of a plant. These whole ingredients are then processed into granules, capsules, teas, liquid extracts or powders. More than 300 herbs have been in use for at least 2,000 years; that’s nearly 100 times as long as America has been a country.
Here are a few of the most popular Chinese herbs gaining popularity in the U.S. today.
- Reishi mushrooms: Medicinal mushrooms come in all range of appearances and applications, but reishi mushrooms are particularly popular for their cancer-fighting properties. Plus, they help ward off fatigue, strengthen the immune system and better balance your hormones.
- Astralagus root: The roots of the astralagus are one of the most popular herbal supplements in China. These long roots are extremely rich in polysaccharides and flavonoids, thus helping cancer patients avoid the white-blood-cell deficiencies common to chemotherapy. Astralagus is also used in treatments for AIDS, hepatitis and chronic colitis, and to promote the properties of other herbs, like salvia.
- Gingko biloba: The cognitive enhancing properties of this common root might be widely disputed, but it’s becoming increasingly popular among U.S. supplement devotees. Studies have shown that the supplement could be beneficial in slowing age- or dementia-related memory loss.
- Ma-Huang: Despite being outlawed in the U.S., this herb has two alkaloid components used in common asthma and sinus congestion drugs. It’s renowned in China for alleviating asthma by freeing up breathing passages, stimulating weight loss and perspiration. Ma-Huang’s adverse interaction with high-blood pressure medication is largely responsible for its American banning.
- Salvia: The dark-red Salvia is applied to any damaged body tissue to improve circulation and soothe chronic inflammation, as well as being taken to lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure.
- Licorice: The root commonly known as a Western candy is said to neutralize toxins and enhance digestion. A European drug known to heal gastric ulcers has been made from the licorice root, although Chinese physicians are just as likely to prescribe it for a sore throat or muscle spasms, and bake it with honey to treat heart-valve diseases.
For a medical system that’s been around thousands of years, this article is merely the tip of the iceberg. As Chinese herbs continue to pop up in the U.S. herbal supplement industry, expect more thorough research—and much more discussion—about the health potential of these potent ancient herbs.