Angelica Sinensis: The Science Behind Dong Quai

Reader Contribution by Heidi Cardenas
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Heidi Cardenas is a freelance writer and gardener in Lake County, Illinois, with a background in human resources and business administration. She has written about home and garden topics for various online venues, helps you get your green on at HC Greenery and enjoys The Herb Companion’s valuable resources.

I’m sure you’ve heard the countless claims about Chinese herbs, herbal supplements and herbal weight loss plans. Maybe you’ve even seen herbal teas for dieting or cleansing on grocery store shelves, taken Ginkgo biloba to try to improve your memory or tried St. John’s wort to try to get rid of the blues. But do you know how herbs work? Do you know what is in the herbs that make them effective for different conditions? One of the most important Chinese herbs, dong quai, is effective for a variety of ailments because of its chemical and nutritional properties.  

Dong quai is the Chinese name for Angelica sinensis, a common Chinese herb related to celery. Also called Chinese angelica, tang quei, female ginseng and dang gui, its Chinese name, dong quai, means “return to order” for its restorative properties. It is a fragrant, herbaceous perennial native to the mountains of China, Japan and Korea. It grows up to 3 feet high on a central stalk with lacy foliage and large white umbrella-shaped flowers, in moist soils in sun or light shade in a variety of soils, from sandy to heavy clay. Although the National Institutes of Health and the University of Maryland Medical Center report that there isn’t enough research on the use of dong quai to verify claims of menopause relief and blood vessel dilation, it has been used by the Chinese for centuries to treat a wide range of gynecological maladies, including menstrual pain relief, irregular menstrual cycles, heavy menstruation, infertility, recovery from childbirth and relief from symptoms of menopause.

Dong quai is the Chinese name for Angelica sinensis, a common Chinese herb. 

The Alternative Medicine Review reports that dong quai contains vitamin B12, vitamin E, vitamin A, vitamin C, folic acid, biotin, cobalt, iron, potassium, magnesium and calcium. The chemical constituents of Angelica include antispasmodic and blood-thinning properties, which act to tone and calm the uterus before and during menstruation, relieving pain and cramping. It has phytosterols, polysaccarides and flavenoids, as well as several different coumarin derivatives, which are vasodilators and blood thinners. The Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University’s Micronutrient Information Center describes phytosterols as plant-derived compounds similar in structure and function to cholesterol. They support good cholesterol and help eliminate bad cholesterol. Polysaccarides are chains of carbohydrates, and include fiber such as starch and cellulose. Flavenoids are plant compounds with antioxidant properties and red and yellow pigmentation. The Journal of Biological Chemistry reports that coumarins have recently been found to be active in suppressing HIV-1. Coumarin derivatives in dong quai include oxypeucedanin, osthole and imperatorin. Oxypeucedanin is a phytochemical with anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties. Osthole stimulates the central nervous system and may prevent platelets in the blood from sticking together. Imperatorin suppresses cell mutation, protein absorption and cell cycles in diseases and infections.

The high vitamin and mineral content make dong quai an ideal toner for blood, immune system and general health. Its natural coumarins dissolve blood clots, the high iron and mineral content alleviates anemia, its phytochemicals have antifungal properties that clear candida yeast infection and it has mild laxative properties for relief from constipation. Angelica root is commonly used as a blood toner and health tonic, in capsule form or boiled in soups and teas. It is often used in combination with other herbs such as ginseng and astragalus.

Although dong quai has been used since ancient times, some precautions are necessary. Since dong quai has natural coumarins that thin the blood, it shouldn’t be used when taking other blood thinning medications like warfarin (coumadin) and it shouldn’t be used in heavy doses during menstruation. Dong quai should not be used during pregnancy or in high concentrations by heart or cancer patients.

You can grow dong quai in your garden and harvest the roots in the fall to make your own tonic. It’s a great culinary herb, with young leaves adding a celery flavor to salads and seafood dishes, cooked stems that taste like licorice, and the sliced roots adding a sweet potato flavor to savory soups and stews. It is a tall plant that is good for the back of the flower bed or as a striking ornamental display plant. Its long tap root makes it difficult to transplant so it should be sown directly in the garden. Angelica attracts bees and butterflies with its large, fragrant flowers. 

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