The Health Benefits and Side Effects of Jiaogulan

(Last Updated On: August 3, 2018)

Herbal medicine is the practice of using the seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, or flowers of a plant for medicinal purposes. Herbal remedies have been used to treat various health complaints for a long time, and now they are becoming more popular due to increased research on herbal remedies and their efficacy in treating some health conditions.

The history of herbal medicine

Herbal medicines have been used for medicinal reasons for thousands of years. The ancient Chinese and Egyptians used herbal medicines in around 3000 BC. African cultures and Native American Indians used them in healing rituals, and in India, they have a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine.

In the early 19th century, chemical analysis of substances was available, and scientists were able to extract and modify the active compounds in plants. They then began making their own version of the compounds and these were made into some of the medicines we know today.  Around one fourth of medicines available now include some form of botanical extract.

Herbal medicines have increased in popularity, as people become fed up with the cost of conventional medication and the undesirable side effects that it can cause.

How do herbs work?

Plants contain many compounds which seem to produce health benefits when they work together. There are several factors which might affect how well a herb might work, including what type of environment that they plant was grown in, how it was harvested, and the technique used to process.

What is herbal medicine used for?

Herbal medicine is often used to treat skin conditions, PMS, IBS, and even some cancers. You should always use them under the guidance of someone who is trained to advise you correctly on whether a herb can interact with a medication you are on, or with an existing health condition that you might have.

Is there anything I should be cautious of?

Herbal medicine is preferred by some people because generally there are little or no side effects involved. But natural does not mean safe, and herbal products are not generally regulated. They might have additives that are not listed on the label, and they may be toxic at certain levels if they interact with your usual medications. For example, St John’s wort, which is used to treat low mood can cause photosensitivity and may reduce the effectiveness of some drugs such as blood thinners and the contraceptive pill. Herbs like garlic, ginkgo, feverfew, and ginger may increase the risk of bleeding. Many herbs interact with cancer treatments so always get sound advice before taking herbal medicines.

How can you buy herbal medicines?

Most herbs are available in tea form, syrups, oils, tinctures and in pills or capsules. Teas are made by soaking dried herbs in hot water, syrups are made from concentrated extracts, oils are extracted from the plants and are often used in massage therapy, and pills or capsules are usually the most concentrated form of a herb.

The growth of herbal medicine

Herbal medicine is integrating more with conventional medicine, however, in many cases there is still a lack of compelling evidence to support their use in the treatment of certain health conditions.

Jiaogulan

Jiaogulan is a herbaceous climbing vine plant which hails from southern China, the north of Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan. The vine has leaves that are often divided into five leaflets and usually with a larger leaflet at the end of the leaf stem. This is often surrounded by leaflets of decreasing size on either side.  It is a member of the cucurbitaceae family, to which the cucumber and melon also belongs. The plant is said to have powerful antioxidant properties and advocates of its use say that it can increase lifespan. There is some research which suggests that it can lower cholesterol, reduce blood pressure and boost immunity. The fruit of the plant is small, purple, and inedible. Instead of an edible fruit, it has small dark berries and light yellow flowers. While the seeds sprout, the plant ordinarily spreads by sending out runners, which are woody extensions of its roots that run under the ground and produce shoots for new plants to grow. The plant is now grown commercially throughout Southeast Asia. Commercial cultivation is usually done in greenhouses or under tents or canvas because the plant tends to wilt in direct sunlight. The plant is harvested in the late summer, and the leaves are dried and used in medicine. Due to the compounds called saponins, which are known to make a lather when mixed with water, the plant may also be used in soaps and detergents. The earliest recorded use of the plant was as a food during a famine, rather than as a herbal medicine, though later it was documented as being used for various ailments including oedema, tumours, and trauma.There are over 30 varieties of the plant grown in China. It can grow well in most temperate climates but not in the cold.

Jiaogulan is most often consumed as a herbal tea but it is also available in capsule form. It was not used extensively in traditional Chinese medicine because it grew quite far from central China. In the mountain regions of southern China, people call it the ‘immortality herb’ because people in the Guizhou province, who consume the tea frequently, tend to have a long lifespan. The plant was not known to researchers until the 1970’s where it was studied as a possible sugar substitute. Other early research found that it contained similar chemicals to a variety of ginseng, and so it is being studied for its efficacy in treating a number of health conditions.

The health benefits of Jiaogulan

Studies have looked at the possible benefits of Jiaogulan when used by people with some health conditions, this is what they found:

Diabetes

Several studies have shown that jiaogulan might help to control diabetes. In a clinical trial published in the journal Hormone and Metabolic Research in 2012, researchers gave 24 diabetes patients 12 weeks of treatment with either jiaogulan tea or a placebo. Results revealed that those given the jiaogulan tea experienced a reduction in blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity by the end of the 12 weeks.

Previous research on jiaogulan and diabetes included an animal study published in the Journal of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences in 2006. The study tested the herb’s effects on diabetic rats and found that it helped to normalise blood sugar levels and lower bad cholesterol. A further 2008 study carried out on mice found that jiaogulan might help to regulate blood sugar by changing activity in some liver enzymes.

The health benefits of Jiaogulan

Obesity

Jiaogulan may have an anti-obesity effect, a study published in the journal Obesity found. As part of the study, 80 obese people were given either jiaogulan or a placebo for 12 weeks. By the end of the 12 weeks, the group who had taken jiaogulan had lost weight, reduced their body fat, abdominal fat and BMI compared to the group who were given the placebo.

Stress

An animal study in the journal Molecules in 2013 suggested that jiaogulan might help to protect against stress-related anxiety and associated disorders. In tests on mice, researchers found that jiaogulan helped to reduce stress-induced anxiety, by appearing to influence activity in certain brain cells involved in regulating mood.

Asthma

Jiaogulan may help to fight asthma, according to an animal study in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine in 2008. Researchers looked at jiaogulan’s effects on mice, and found that it helped to reduce airway inflammation which is associated with asthma.

What are Jiaogulan’s Side Effects?

What are Jiaogulan's Side Effects

Known side effects

Jiaogulan might cause a number of side effects, including nausea and an increase in the frequency of bowel movements.

There’s also the possibility that jiaogulan can inhibit blood-clotting, and therefore could possibly cause harm to people with blood conditions and those taking anticoagulant drugs or anti-platelet agents.

Due to jiaogulan’s possible effects on blood clotting, it is also advisable to avoid the use of this herb prior to undergoing surgery.

Who should avoid the herb or use it with caution?

Since jiaogulan might lower insulin levels, people with diabetes should use it with caution. Also, the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with existing medical conditions is not proven so it is best for those people to avoid taking jiaogulan. In studies of animals, jiaogulan was found to cause possible birth defects in some of the babies born to mothers given the herb during pregnancy. Although no reports of similar effects have been reported in humans, women who are pregnant are advised not to take jiaogulan nonetheless.

People who are taking medications should also get qualified advice prior to taking jiaogulan as it may interact with medication you are taking. Remember that herbs and other supplements aren’t regulated or generally tested. In some cases, the product can contain additives which aren’t shown on the label. In other cases, the product may be contaminated with other substances such as heavy metals, especially if they come from countries like China. While consumers face a certain amount of risk when buying any unregulated dietary supplement, these risks can be greater if products are purchased which contain many herbs in a variety of doses.

Drug Interactions

Jiaogulan might interact with the following drugs, due to the effect it has on blood clotting. In studies, jiaogulan has been shown to increase the time blood takes to clot. When it is taken with antiplatelet or anticoagulant medications, the effect of the drug may be increased, resulting in uncontrolled bleeding.

Jiaogulan may interact with The antiplatelet drugs Plavix and Ticlid, and the anticoagulants heparin and warfarin.

Because jiaogulan can increase the functioning of the immune system, it might alter the effects of drugs used to suppress the immune system after organ transplants. It might interact with cyclosporine, Prograf, cellcept, and Rapamune.

Jiaogulan blood clotting effects can also interact with aspirin, as the herb can affect the ability of blood to clot after an injury. Aspirin can also prevent clotting, so the herb should not be taken at the same time as aspirin, as there is a risk of excessive bleeding.

Jiaogulan also can interact with other herbal products that can also inhibit clotting. It might interact with the following herbs; devil’s claw, garlic, ginger, gingko, horse chestnut, and ginseng.  

Therapeutic dosages

In a few studies conducted on humans, an effective daily amount used to lower cholesterol levels was 30 mg of jiaogulan extract, taken in three 10 mg doses. For treating other conditions, recommended doses varied from about 20 mg to over 150 mg per day. While even large doses (several cups of jiaogulan tea per day) appear to be safe, no current evidence is available to confirm a maximum therapeutic dosage.

Active compounds in Jiaogulan

The active compounds in jiaogulan are called saponins. They are known to have certain effects in the body such as boosting immune function, but they can also negatively affect the amount of nutrients the body digests. Jiaogulan can contain more than 80 different types of saponins. Because the content of saponins and other chemicals in the herb varies depending on the species of the plant and the conditions under which it grows, standardising the herbal products is difficult. Standardisation requires each product to have similar amounts of active ingredient in each batch of the product that is sold commercially. This is not the case in the case of jiaogulan.

Where to find it

Jiaogulan is sold in many health food stores and stores specialising in herbal products. It can also be bought online, but always ensure you buy it from a reputable source.

Is it a good idea to use Jiaogulan for health?

Due to the limited amount of available research and evidence, there is no definitive proof that jiaogulan is completely effective for any health condition. Always see a doctor before starting to take any herbal medication or attempting to treat any condition. A herbal medicine is not a substitute for proper medical treatment and advice.

Final thoughts

Herbal medicine has been used since before records began by ancient peoples, who used nature to treat various health complaints. Herbs were used extensively by the ancient Chinese and Egyptian civilisations, and also by native American Indians and African cultures in healing rituals. Indian people also used them in Ayurvedic medicine. Herbs began to be used within conventional medicine in the 19th century, when scientists invented techniques to extract active compounds from plants and to develop synthetic versions of them to make some of the well-known drugs we have today. Herbs are increasingly being used to treat conditions, as people become fed up at the price of drugs, and are also unwilling to tolerate the side effects that come with conventional medications.

But the problem with herbs is that they are largely unregulated, and research into their efficacy is lacking. Many studies are carried out on animals so evidence to support their use in humans is lacking. And because herbs are natural, people assume they are safe, when in fact, active compounds in plants can interact with our bodies, existing health conditions and other medications we might be taking just in the same way as conventional drugs can. You should always get appropriate advice before starting any herbal medication.

Jiaogulan is a herb which is native to southern China. It is a vine plant, which belongs to the same family as the cucumber and melon, but it does not produce edible fruits. The herb was not widely used in Chinese medicine as it grew originally in a remote mountainous area, but it soon became known for its apparent health benefits, especially in promoting longevity. The inhabitants of a small village in the region who drank tea made from jiaogulan regularly were famed for their unusually long lifespans.

Jiaogulan has been studied for apparent benefits in reducing blood sugar and insulin resistance, so it may be beneficial for diabetics, it may help to lower bad cholesterol and it may reduce stress associated with anxiety disorders. The herb has also been shown to help people to lose weight and also to reduce airway inflammation associated with asthma. Unfortunately, many of these studies were carried out on animals and not humans, so there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that the herb is helpful for people with these health conditions. However, that is not to say that supplementation with jiaogulan does not have its place.

As mentioned earlier though, active plant compounds can affect the body just like medication, and jiaogulan is no exception. It’s known to cause nausea in some people, and to overstimulate the bowel, and the big effect it might have is to slow down the ability of the blood to clot. This has implications for anyone who is taking blood thinners or who has a clotting issue with the blood. Seek advice, stay safe, and be warned, with herbs as you would with any other medication.

Written by Irina Radosevic MD
Irina graduated from the University of Belgrade, School of Medicine as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and spent over 3 years working in the Clinical Hospital Center Zvezdara, in the Department of Emergency Medicine. She also undertook a postgraduate in Cardiology from the same University and had previously worked for over a year as a Physician and Nutritionist Dietitian for the Fitness club Green Zone. She eventually left her chaotic but fulfilling job in the ER to pursue her passion of writing, travelling and mountain climbing which has included writing a first aid course for the alpine club of Belgrade. Irina currently works as a VA for PintMedia focusing on medical and travel writing. Feel free to connect with Irina on LinkedIn and FaceBook. Her CV can be seen here.