Chances are, you’ve never heard of dong quai before – yet it’s a very popular health product in China, Japan, and Korea.
Pronounced as dang gui in Chinese, the name literally means “restore proper order.” A member of the same family as carrots, celery, parsley, and coriander, dong quai is a traditional medicinal and edible plant, typically harvested for its leaves and roots. The roots are usually dried and cut up into pieces or ground into powder for brewing into an herbal tea with a strong, bitter taste similar to anise (the distinctive flavor of licorice).
Also known as Chinese angelica (scientific name Angelica sinensis), the “Empress of herbs,” and female ginseng, dong quai has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for toning, replenishing, and invigorating blood as well as relieving pain, combating constipation, and treating irregular menstruation and amenorrhea .
It is believed that dong quai’s health-promoting properties are because of the naturally occurring compound coumarin, along with others, such as ferulic acid and phytosterols.
Dong Quai in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
The biological actions of dong quai have been extensively researched for thousands of years in China, where it has a well-established reputation as a remedy for ailments of the female reproductive system and as a blood tonic.
Research from China indicates that dong quai boosts production of red blood cells, promotes better blood circulation, and dissolves blood clots. Chinese herbalists typically prescribe this herb to women who need to enrich the quality of their blood throughout the menstrual cycle, during and after childbirth, and during the transition to menopause.
For women in menopause, it is prescribed to reduce the severity of hot flashes, insomnia, and mood changes. This is why dong quai is known as the “female ginseng.”
Additionally, dong quai has been shown to contain high levels of vitamin A, C, B3, B12, and E, along with the minerals iron, cobalt, magnesium, and potassium. For this reason, this medicinal herb is routinely prescribed as a tonic, usually in combination with other Chinese herbs, to treat fatigue, mild anemia, high blood pressure, and poor circulation in both men and women.
Dong Quai Relieves Symptoms of Menopause
Menopause is a natural reduction in the number of female hormones produced by the ovaries, especially estrogen, typically as women get into their 40s and 50s. Symptoms of this decline include hot flashes, night sweats, hair loss, changes in mood, and loss of bone strength and density, known as osteoporosis.
An Alternative to HRT?
Many women turn to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) which provides synthetic hormones to combat the effects of menopause – however, these come with their health risks and adverse effects.
As we have already seen, dong quai has a long history in TCM as a natural resource to help alleviate symptoms of menopause. Modern scientific research supports this therapeutic function of dong quai.
For example, in a 2003 study, 55 postmenopausal women complaining of hot flushes were randomly assigned to either chew five tablets daily of dong quai and chamomile or placebo tablets for 12 weeks . For the entire duration of the study, these women were asked to complete a daily questionnaire that assessed the frequency and intensity of their menopausal symptoms.
Relative to women in the control group, women who took dong quai and chamomile experienced a dramatic reduction in both the number and intensity of hot flashes in the first month already, and reported fewer sleep disturbances and less fatigue.
The authors of the study concluded that dong quai helps to relieve the symptoms of menopause without any apparent major side effects and that it can be considered as a natural alternative to HRT .
Similarly, a randomized, crossover study published in 2016 showed that a combination of nutraceuticals – which contained a dry extract of dong quai – given to 43 postmenopausal women for four weeks helped to relieve their symptoms, while also improving their cardiovascular profile .
The results of these and other studies are not surprising, given that extracts of dong quai roots have been shown to have estrogenic activity in laboratory animal experiments .
Can Dong Quai Help Reverse Bone Loss (Osteoporosis)?
Osteoporosis is a bone disease. The word comes from the Latin for “porous bones.”
Healthy bones have small spaces inside them, like a honeycomb. These spaces tend to grow larger during osteoporosis so that bones lose both their strength and density.
Osteoporosis is quite common in older adults, especially in women when they reach menopause. Unfortunately, osteoporosis increases the risk of fractures – especially in the ribs, hips, and bones in the wrists and spine – even when carrying out routine activities such as standing or walking.
In China, dong quai is believed to help prevent bone loss and even to help build bone strength. Indeed, preliminary laboratory studies in cell lines and animals seem to confirm this, although there have been no human clinical trials confirming these results so far.
In a 2016 study, a natural compound known as ferulic acid, extracted from dong quai roots, was shown to boost bone mineral density, bone mineral content, and trigger bone cell growth in laboratory mice .
Similarly, treating rats with dong quai extract was seen to help preserve bone mineral density . Even better, a dong quai extract was shown to trigger collagen synthesis and stimulate the growth of human bone precursor cells in a laboratory experiment .
Dong Quai Promotes Heart Health
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. today. Improving cardiovascular profile – specifically, reducing the ratio of total cholesterol to low-density lipoprotein (LDL) as well as the ratio of LDL to high-density lipoprotein or HDL, along with lowering levels of triglycerides are all considered effective ways to reduce heart disease risk.
Promisingly, a 2015 laboratory study has shown that treating mice with dong quai for four weeks lowered levels of both total cholesterol and triglycerides. Dong Quai was also seen to lower levels of fasting blood glucose and serum insulin, thereby reducing diabetes risk .
Similarly, combining dong quai with Huang qi, another medicinal plant, was seen to reduce levels of total cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL, and very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) in a laboratory experiment on rats .
In a very promising outcome from a study in China back in 1992, treatment with dong quai lowered blood pressure and improved heart function in 40 patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) .
When Not to Take Dong Quai
Dong Quai consumption has been associated with some side effects, including the sensitivity of the eyes and skin to light, excessive development of breasts in men (gynecomastia), diarrhea, and fever – hence, it should only be taken medicinally under the supervision of a qualified herbal practitioner.
Further, it is advisable not to take dong quai in any form when:
- Taking anticoagulants such as warfarin, as dong quai contains coumarin, which promotes blood thinning, and may increase the risk of bleeding
- Pregnant or breastfeeding
- Undergoing radiation therapy, as dong quai can worsen the effects of radiation therapy on the skin
- Having hormone-sensitive cancer, as dong quai has estrogenic effects and can potentially stimulate the growth of estrogen-responsive cancer cells .
Pregnant or lactating women and menstruating women who are experiencing unusually heavy bleeding, in particular, should not use dong quai unless advised by a qualified healthcare practitioner.