July 28, 2020
Ask someone to name some herbs. I’m willing to bet that they can name a bunch of culinary herbs like Rosemary and Oregano and I am willing to bet that most folks can name some medicinal herbs like Ginseng or Astragalus. These are the herbal celebrities that everyone knows and their celebrity is not undeserved, but in the same way that Meryl Streep’s performances, as fantastic as they are, wouldn’t be anywhere near as good without great lighting, costumers, makeup and hair, these celebrity herbs wouldn’t be able to do what they do without some other herbs doing some considerable heavy lifting offstage. Here I would like to introduce you to Atractylodes Macrocephala also known as Bai Zhu, one of the most useful herbs you’ve never heard of.
Scientific NameAtractylodes Macrocephala Common Name (Western)No common name, simplified to Atractylodes in English text Chinese Name (Pin Yin)Bai Zhu OriginFamously grown in Zhejiang province in Eastern China.
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All members of the Atractylodes genus are members of the sunflower (aster) family, which means they have a lot of cousins, like 32,000 cousins. Atractylodes macrocephala (Bai Zhu) is one of the oldest and most frequently used herbs in all of traditional Chinese Herbology. The first recorded mention appears to be in the Divine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica ( Shen Nong Ben Cao) from the second century, CE. The part of this plant that is used in herbal medicine is the rhizome (an underground stem). It is dried and sliced and good quality Bai Zhu has a khaki or buff color with an earthy but sweet smell and mild sweet flavor.
In TCM herbs are rarely used alone. As a part of other formulations Atractylodes Bai Zhu is considered historically to have 4 functions. Tonify Qi: and strengthen the spleen. What this really means is good for digestion. Dry Dampness: There have been some studies that suggest this herb can reduce edema by increasing urination. Stop sweating: No, this isn’t going to do you any good on a hot Texas day, but it is often used in formulations for night sweats due to menopause. Stabilize pregnancy: There is a condition in TCM called restless fetus and Bai Zhu had a historical indication for this condition. It is well worth noting that this is not an herb you should use during pregnancy without consulting your physician and your herbalist.
A study published in the journal Molecules in 2019 (PMID 31443182) suggested that extracts from this plant might have effects on inflammatory response, tumors and viruses. Another study (PMID 27636508) found that a constituent, atractylodes, showed that it had an effect on mast cells in the nasal mucosa which can reduce allergic inflammation. It is always wise to consider the nature of these studies and not to draw too much inference from a test done in a petri dish and how something behaves in the human body.
It is not recommended to use this herbs by itself if you are dehydrated and overheated. Because this herb is often used for digestive issues, it is best to not use this herb when there are feelings of distention and gastric oppression.
Atractylodes is in 7 Herbalogic formulas, making it tied with most Poria for title of most used herb. Often times in TCM formulas get built on top of other formulas and then get new names. Here is an example. There is a formula called the Four Gentleman Decoction which is meant to help with energy and digestion. There is also a formula called the Four Substances Decoction which is meant to help with blood, like mild anemia. The combination of these two formulas is Eight Treasures Decoction, to help with both blood and energy. Adding two more herbs, astragalus and cinnamon yields the All Inclusive Great Tonifying Decoction, the base of Herbalogic Peak Power. Fundamentally, Atractylodes is in Herbalogic Peak Power because it is in the Four Gentleman Decoction.
Three Herbalogic formulas are based on the traditional formula Xiao Yao San (Rambling Powder): Decompress, Peacekeeper and Flashback. Decompress is the base formula for both Peacekeeper, where additional herbs are included for PMS specific symptoms, and Flashback where additional herbs are included for hot flashes and night sweats, both of which can be exacerbated by emotional stress. Atractylodes is part of Xiao Yao San to improve digestion, because what emotional stress isn't worse with poor digestion?
Herbalolgic Easy Breather, based on the classic formula Yu Ping Fang San (Jade Wind Screen Powder) includes atractylodes because of its traditional inclusion. Modern research studies suggests atractylodes helps with allergic inflammation.
Chronic pain and inflammation interferes with normal digestion, leading to a loss in energy. Herbalogic Back in Action includes atractylodes to normalize digestion and break that cycle.
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