You may have heard of the wonder herb that is ginseng, but have you heard of the “southern ginseng?” This is another miracle herb with many medicinal uses, and it is known more formally as gynostemma (and scientifically as Gynostemma pentaphyllum). Despite sounding foreign and exotic, it isn’t that different from ginseng.
If you have tried ginseng tea or supplements, and found them helpful, then you’ll also probably want to try gynostemma. It is a delicious herbal tea that helps people of all ages become stronger and healthier.
This article will discuss in great detail what gynostemma is and how it can help improve your health, regardless of whether you consider yourself to be healthy already or if you have some medical condition you want to address.
This article will also touch on how to grow and prepare the herb, should you want to include it in your garden and as part of your daily diet.
What is Gynostemma?
Gynostemma is a green, leafy herb that is indigenous in China, Korea, Japan and other Asian countries. The first recorded medicinal use of the plant is in China, where it is known locally as Jiaogulan. Its leaves have therapeutic properties, and are particularly useful in improving heart and cardiovascular function.
The Chinese have been using Jiaogulan for centuries to cure hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol, and related cardiovascular disorders. Apart from that, it also helps to boost stamina and endurance, strengthen the immune system, promote longevity, and improve memory and mental focus.
The Chinese have long been using another herb with similar uses and benefits as Jiaogulan, and this is the popular ginseng. Because of their similarity, Jiaogulan is also sometimes referred to as “southern ginseng,” given that it is grown in South Central China. However, with ginseng, the roots are harvested, while for gynostemma, the leaves are the most potent parts used for medicinal purposes.
What are Other Names for Gynostemma?
The Chinese term, Jiaogulan, for gynostemma literally means “twisting crotched indigo plant.” This has to do with the appearance of the wild vine that is gynostemma. Another Chinese name for the plant is Xian Cao or Xianxao. Meanwhile, the Japanese call it Amachazuru, the Vietnamese, Jiao Chu Lan, Jiao Gu Lan or Giao Co Lam, the Korean, Dungkulcha, and the Thai, Baan Ja Kahn. Having various names in different languages goes to show that it is a popular Asian tea and medicine that not only the Chinese enjoy.
Interestingly, another moniker for gynostemma is “immortality herb,” and translations of this such as: Herbe de l’Immortalité, Thé de l’Immortalité, and Plante de l’Immortalité. This owes to the belief that it promotes not only good health, but also longevity. As such, “miracle glass” is yet another term for the herb.
In the West, some people have taken to calling gynostemma as “adaptogen.” This word actually refers to something, which can help a person better “adapt to” or cope with an unhealthy or stressful environment. By boosting the immune system, gynostemma helps yuhandle difficult situations or survive unhealthy environments without getting sick.
Another interpretation of adaptogen is that it is something that helps the body adapt to unusual conditions then return it to a balanced state, which is called homeostasis in the biological sciences.
Other, less common names for the herb are: fairy herb, Vitis pentaphylla, sweet tea vine (because it tastes sweet and can be used as a sugar substitute), Ginseng du Sud (a translation for “southern ginseng”), gynostemma pedatum, gynostemma pentaphyllum (its scientific name), and penta tea (because of the plant’s five-leafed appearance).
Perhaps jokingly, gynostemma is sometimes also referred to as “the poor man’s ginseng,” because it is cheaper than ginseng but used for practically identical purposes. What ginseng can cure, gynostemma can too, at a much more affordable price. Old Chinese anecdotes relate that while the emperor and noblemen used ginseng, the common man used Jiaogulan, and everyone stayed hale and strong.
What about the Scientific Name of Gynostemma?
As cited earlier, the scientific name of the herb is Gynostemma pentaphyllum. Some also mistakenly call it Gynostemma pedatum, but this actually refers to another species that is distinct from pentaphyllum. To further clarify this, gynostemma is actually the plant genus, and it is composed of about twenty various species. Of these species, the most famous is the five-leafed perennial climbing vine that is pentaphyllum.
Going up the botanical lineage of gynostemma, it belongs to the Cucurbitaceae family, the same family that gourds, melons and cucumbers belong to. It is different from its more common cousins in that it is not fruit-bearing, and it exists as a dioecious species (having a distinct gender, male or female). When a male and a female gynostemma are grown together, the female can reproduce small berries with black seeds.
Where is Gynostemma from?
As mentioned, its earliest known origin is Southern China. The native inhabitants of the subtropical area of Fanjing Mountain in the Guizhou province are perhaps the most well-known earliest users of the herb. They are famous in the region for being robust and having longer lifespans than other Chinese, going beyond the centenary years. It is probably because of this that gynostemma came to be called the immortality tea or herb.
However, even in China, it was initially not very well known. It certainly was not as popular as ginseng, because it was originally found only in the remote highlands in the south. It was therefore not included in the official Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) list of herbs and cures, which evolved from central China. However, when news of the many health advantages of gynostemma spread, its use and cultivation also became popular.
These days, gynostemma is also grown in many other parts of Asia, especially Thailand, Japan, northern Vietnam and Korea. Many Asians now favor it as an herbal tea substitute for coffee, drinking it daily in the morning to start their day.
Where can you Grow Gynostemma?
The plant flourishes best in subtropical mountainous regions, where it was originally grown. Nonetheless, with proper care, it is actually possible to grow anywhere as long as the weather isn’t extremely cold or hot. You can even grow it indoors, the way many kitchen herbs are grown.
In the United States, gynostemma can be grown easily in USDA Zones 8 and 9. As a rough guide, the plant will thrive with proper care anywhere in temperatures between 20 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, or -6 to 29 degrees Celsius.
The plant doesn’t require much light. It prefers shaded areas and indirect sunlight. As a vine, you can grow it in a trellis or in a spacious outdoor garden, but you can also put it in a pot and grow indoors.
What Makes Gynostemma Medicinal?
Scientists have determined that gynostemma has the substance saponin, which in turn has medicinal properties. Saponins are phytochemicals found in certain plants. There are many types of saponins, varying from plant to plant. Overall, they function as antioxidants that reduce cellular decay. They have also been shown to boost immune function, improve blood cholesterol levels, stimulate bone growth and even help slow down cancer.
Numerous other health benefits of saponins have been reported, but these claims are still being researched by scientists to confirm if they are real or not. What is special about the herb is that it contains large amounts of saponins, called gypenosides. Some studies indicate that there may be four times as many saponins (gypenosides) in this herb as there is in ginseng (ginseng saponins are called ginsenosides).
More specifically, gynostemma has more than 80 gypenosides, while ginseng has less than 30 ginsenosides. Furthermore, some of the saponins in the herb synthesize into the same saponins found in ginseng once they are digested by our body. This means that taking it is better than taking ginseng because you can take in many more types and a greater number of saponins. Given that gynostemma is much cheaper than ginseng, it seems like the better option overall.
What are the Health Benefits of Gynostemma?
Traditionally, gynostemma is an all-around cure used for various medical conditions. The list of its health benefits is as long as that of the purported uses and advantages of saponins and phytochemicals enumerated in botanical medicine literature.
To summarize, though, here are the most common uses of gynostemma:
- To stabilize cholesterol levels, by decreasing total cholesterol count and increasing the good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein or HDL) count
- To improve heart function and cardiovascular health
- To energize the body and fight off fatigue (the same effect that drinking coffee and other teas brings)
- To treat pain and swelling, as an anti-inflammatory agent. A notable use of the herb is it relieves chronic back pains.
- To remedy gastrointestinal or digestive problems including constipation, ulcers, gastritis, gallstones, stomach pain, and even poor appetite.
- To ease respiratory problems, such as cough and bronchitis
- To help relieve stress and increase body resistance and immune function
- To delay and reduce the effects of aging, as an antioxidant agent
- To detoxify the body
- To help in managing chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cancer. Research indicates that taking gynostemma supplements increases the effectiveness of anti-diabetes and anti-cancer medicines.
- To normalize body weight. This means that it can help underweight people gain weight, and obese people lose weight.
Apart from these, there are other, lesser known uses of the herb, such as the following:
- Hair loss prevention and remedy
- The treatment of insomnia
- As a sugar substitute
- As an anti-anxiety and anti-stress agent
- To speed up recovery and healing after sickness or a traumatic event
- As an aid to restore or increase sexual appetite among older or stressed people
How is Gynostemma Taken?
To take advantage of the many benefits of gynostemma, it is traditionally consumed as a tea drink. You can take it once or twice daily without any adverse effects. The famed centenarians of Southern China mentioned earlier drank gynostemma every single day, and they lived long and healthy lives.
The easiest method of preparing gynostemma tea is to take fresh leaves of the plant and infuse these in hot water. Let the leaves steep for anywhere between 3 to 15 minutes then enjoy the greenish brown tea produced. This method is called decoction.
Unlike other teas, gynostemma does not become bitter the longer it steeps in water. Instead, it becomes sweeter. Many people find it delicious without being overly sweet.
Alternatively, the leaves of the plant may be dried then stored for later use. The leaves are actually edible, but heat (by infusion in hot water, or by drying under the sun) is necessary to release the beneficial chemicals in the plant.
Commercially, the herb is available in capsule or pill form to be taken orally like other supplements. You can also buy it in powder form, as an extract, and in tea bags to consume it as tea. Majority of commercial gynostemma are exported from China and Thailand. Some are also organically grown.
Note that you don’t need to drink the tea warm or hot. You can chill it first in the fridge, or cool it down with ice cubes then drink it as a refreshingly cold tea during warm weather.
For a cup or glass of tea, the standard adult dose is about 5 to 12 grams when decocted (infused or steeped in warm water), or 1 to 10 grams when using powder to mix with water.
For those with high cholesterol issues who wish to supplement with gynostemma extract, the recommended dosage is 10 mg three times each day.
How can One Prepare Gynostemma Tea at Home?
If you’re thinking of making gynostemma tea yourself, you can easily do so at home. All you need are the leaves, preferably freshly picked, and boiled water. It is best to use boiled, pure water instead of tap water because the former is relatively free of chemicals that can interfere with the potency of the herb.
The recommended amount is about one teaspoon of leaves for a cup of hot water. You can later adjust the amount of leaves to suit your taste.
You can also boil a whole pot of water with the leaves mixed in at the start before turning on the stove. After boiling, you can strain the liquid then drink the tea as you please – warm as it is or with ice cubes to make a cool drink.
Are there Negative Side Effects from Taking Gynostemma Supplements?
Like many herbal food and drinks, gynostemma is generally safe to use for normal people who aren’t sick or taking any special medications. This is proven historically by the Chinese centenarians who have been drinking gynostemma tea every day for most, if not all, of their long lives.
However, for those who aren’t healthy, or who have some food sensitivities or allergies, it may possible to experience a few adverse effects from taking this herbal supplement. These side effects include the following:
- Increased bowel movements
- Fatigue and lethargy
- Dryness in the nose and throat areas
- High pulse rate
The good news is that these effects, in the rare instances that they do occur, are often mild and short-lived. Moreover, only one or two, or at most three, of these listed side effects are experienced at a given time.
Simply staying off the herb for a few days then restarting with it more slowly, or reducing your intake, will resolve the situation. If the problem persists, this could mean that you are allergic to gynostemma and should therefore stop taking it. This, however, rarely happens.
Doctors also advise staying away from the herb if you are:
- Taking medications that affect blood clotting
- In any treatment program where the immune system is suppressed
- Pregnant or breastfeeding (Consult your ob-gyne doctor before proceeding to take gynostemma.)
Apart from these precautions, it should be safe to drink gynostemma tea or take capsules and pills every day, while making sure not to go beyond the recommended dosages. To repeat, the safest dosage for adults is one to two cups of tea daily. If taking the powdered form for tea, less than 25 grams of gynostemma daily should also be safe.
What do Medical Studies Further Say about Gynostemma?
The previous sections give out sufficient information for people who are curious to know about gynostemma and its therapeutic properties. For those who are seeking more in-depth medical details, below are some interesting research findings:
- The reason why pregnant and breastfeeding women are cautioned about taking gynostemma is that one of the saponins (chemical components) of the plant has been linked to possible birth defects. There are, however, more than 80 saponins contained in the herb, and only one of them is a possible risk for pregnant women and their unborn children.
It is left to the woman and her doctor to decide whether to take the small risk or stay on the safe side and avoid it altogether.
- Gynostemma is not recommended for people suffering from so-called “auto-immune disorders” such as lupus, multiple sclerosis (MS) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The herb can boost immune function, and the immune system is what causes the symptoms of these disorders to flare up. As such, it is best for people with these diseases to avoid taking gynostemma.
- Similarly, people with bleeding disorders should also not take the herb as it is known to slow down blood clotting. Additionally, those who are scheduled for surgery, especially any major surgery, are strongly cautioned against ingesting any form of it as it increases the risk of bleeding during surgery and even afterwards.
- As an adaptogen, gynostemma does wonders to promote balance and homeostasis in the body. It can modulate immune activity by either enhancing it (if the immune system is underactive) or suppressing it (if it is overactive).
- Taking gynostemma can contribute to weight loss if the person is obese, or promote weight gain if he or she is underweight.
- As a morning drink, gynostemma tea can stimulate the body and mind in the same way coffee does, but without the caffeine that can cause nervous jitters. Interestingly, this herbal tea can also have exactly the opposite effect of calming and soothing the nervous system when this is what the person needs. This is yet another demonstration of its effectiveness as an adaptogen. It provides just what is needed by the body at the time you ingest it.
- You can enhance the effectiveness of the herb as an adaptogen with daily use over a long period of time (more than a few months).
- Gynostemma appears to be a highly effective adjuvant supplement in treating chronic diseases including cancer. An adjuvant medicine is something that enhances the effectiveness of the primary medicines used to treat a disease. This has been seen in chemotherapy treatments for lung, liver and colon cancers.
- As an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, gynostemma works by helping preserve quantities of glutathione and superoxide dismutase in the body. These are two important antioxidant enzymes that the body eventually loses supply of as you age.
- The saponins or gypenosides in gynostemma have been shown to increase the levels of monoamine neurotransmitters in the brain. In turn, these neurotransmitters improve mood; hence, they have an anti-depressive effect. This is useful for those who are depressed or anxious.
- Not only do the plant chemicals in gynostemma help boost mental activity and promote emotional wellbeing; they also work at the physical level by relieving fatigue and energizing the body. The saponins are responsible for the first function at the mental and emotional levels, while the polysaccharides (sugars) in the herb are responsible for the rejuvenation of the physical body.
- Many gynostemma pills and tea capsules are being marketed as weight loss supplements. These can work, but one should remember to lose weight sensibly, by exercising and eating properly as well, not just by relying on pills and on get-thin-quick fads that can backfire and cause greater weight gain in the future.
Studies indicate that gynostemma pills work best when combined with regular exercise and a healthy diet. An additional effect is that it also improves insulin secretion and absorption, thus helping in managing type 2 diabetes.
Gynostemma appears to be a bonafide “wonder herb” much like its famous counterpart that is the ginseng. The two have a long list of health benefits that anyone, whether healthy or sick, young or old, can definitely make good use of. Gynostemma helps you become healthier, stronger and happier by energizing your mind and body and getting rid of toxins and diseases.
Best of all, it is relatively cheap and easy to come by, as it available commercially as pills, capsules or tea powder. You can even grow it at home and easily prepare it as tea. There are a few precautions for some people with special conditions, but overall, it is a miracle herb that can go a long way in making us all healthy and hale.