Herbs for Health: Schisandra, Dandelion and Saw Palmetto

Schisandra for the liver

Numerous studies have shown that the fruit of schisandra (Schisandra chinensis) can lower serum levels of certain enzymes associated with liver disease, thus protecting the liver and promoting regeneration of liver tissue. A recent study in Argentina sought to determine whether the “five-flavor fruit” (wu-wei-zi in traditional Chinese medicine) would improve the performance of sluggish racehorses, which have high levels of these enzymes in their blood.

Two groups of twelve poorly performing racehorses of similar age, weight, temperament, and training at the San Isidro Sporting Club in Buenos Aires exhibited high levels of two liver enzymes and creatinine phosphokinase (CPK), an enzyme found in striated and heart muscles that is excreted during intense anaerobic exercise. High levels of this enzyme in association with high levels of serum lactic acid can lead to muscle damage.

One group of horses received a standardized schisandra extract while the other group received a placebo. After seven and fourteen days, levels of all three enzymes were significantly lower in the treated horses than in those in the placebo group. Fifty percent of the treated horses also performed better. Researchers attributed the improvement to a recovery from liver damage and lowered CPK levels due to decreased lactic acid.

The genus Schisandra, related to magnolias, comprises about twenty-five species of aromatic woody vines, all native to eastern Asia except S. coccinea, which grows in the southeastern United States. S. chinensis is grown as an ornamental in Europe for its showy, shiny red fruits, which have a combined sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and pungent flavor, but is rarely seen in this country.(1)

Dandelion and diabetes

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), America’s most underappreciated weed, has been used in European traditional medicine to promote urination, stimulate the appetite and flow of bile, and in the treatment of diabetes mellitus (excess sugar in the blood). Now researchers at the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Leuven, Belgium, are studying the effect of dandelion root extract on reducing the clumping of human blood platelets in blood vessels, a condition that is worsened in arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), a common complication of diabetes.

A preliminary study showed that two chemical fractions extracted from dandelion root strongly inhibited platelet aggregation. Further studies are planned to isolate the active compounds and determine their mode of action.(2)

Understanding saw palmetto

Researchers in Spain have suggested that the ability of saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) to decrease the symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), ­especially the urge to urinate at night, may be related to its ­capacity to reduce spasms.

Clinical studies of more than 2,000 men showed that the fruit of this small palm found in the southeastern United States is an effective treatment for BPH but failed to reveal how it works. Theories that it inhibits androgens (substances such as the hormone testosterone that promote masculinization) or 5-alpha-reductase (an enzyme that affects testosterone levels) or ­reduces inflammation have been advanced, but all of these mechanisms should result in shrinkage of the prostate gland, which generally does not occur in men taking saw palmetto.

In laboratory experiments ­involving male rats given saw palmetto extract, the Spanish ­researchers observed a decrease in spasms associated with ­increased muscle tone and ­relaxed muscles in the prostate and urethra, which might decrease the urge to urinate without reducing prostate size. They attributed the muscle relaxation to increased calcium ion exchange between cells and theorized that sterols (compounds related to steroids) in the extract might induce protein synthesis in prostate cells, which would further relax smooth muscles.

German health authorities have approved the use of saw palmetto fruit preparations for urinary problems in early stages of BPH.(3)


(1) Hancke, J., et al. “Reduction of Serum Hepatic Transaminases and CPK in Sport Horses with Poor Performance Treated with a Standardized Schisandra chinensis Fruit Extract”. Phytomedicine 1996, 3(3): 237-240.
(2) Neef, H., et al. “Platelet Anti-aggregating Activity of Taraxacum officinale Weber”. Phytotherapy Research 1996, 10: S138-S140.
(3) M. Gutierrez. “Spasmolytic Activity of a Lipidic Extract from Sabal serrulata Fruits: Further Study of the Mechanisms Underlying This Activity”. Planta Medica 1996, 62:507-511.

“Herbs for Health” is offered bimonthly by the American Botanical Council and the Herb Research Foundation as a supplement to ­The Herb Companion.Editor, Steven Foster

American Botanical Council
PO Box 201660 Austin, TX 78720
Herb Research Foundation
1007 Pearl St., Ste. 200 Boulder, CO 80302

“Herbs for Health” is intended as an educational service, not a source of medical advice or a guide for self-medication. Please consult a qualified health-care professional for treatment of any serious health problems. For further information on any of the topics in “Herbs for Health”, write the American Botanical Council or the Herb Research Foundation.

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