Jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum)
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Gynostemma pentaphyllum, also called jiaogulan (Chinese: 绞股蓝; pinyin: jiǎogǔlán, literally “twisting-vine-orchid”) is an herbaceous vine of the family Cucurbitaceae (cucumber or gourd family) indigenous to the southern reaches of China, southern Korea and Japan. Jiaogulan is best known as an herbal medicine reputed to have powerful antioxidant and adaptogenic effects that increase longevity.
Jiaogulan is a vine hardy to USDA zone 8 in which it may grow as a short lived perennial plant. It can be grown as an annual in most temperate climates, in well-drained soil with full sun. The plant is dioecious, meaning each plant exists either as male or female, thus if seeds are desired both a male and female plant must be grown. Unlike most of the Cucurbitaceae, jiaogulan does not show toxicity.
Jiaogulan is consumed as a tea, and is also available as an alcohol extract and in capsule or pill form. It is known as an adaptogen and antioxidant and has been found to increase superoxide dismutase (SOD) which is a powerful endogenous cellular antioxidant. Studies have found it increases the activities of macrophages, T lymphocytes and natural killer cells and that it acts as a tumor inhibitor. Due to its adaptogenic effects it is frequently referred to as “Southern Ginseng,” although it is not closely related to true Panax ginseng. Its adaptogenic constituents include the triterpenoid saponins gypenosides which are closely structurally related to the ginsenosides from the well-known medicinal plant ginseng. It has been shown to lower cholesterol levels in human studies.
The plant is best known for its use as an herbal medicine in traditional Chinese medicine, although its inclusion in Wu Qi-Jun’s 1848 botany book Zhi Wu Ming Shi Tu Kao Chang Bian discusses a few medicinal uses and seems to be the earliest known documentation of the herb. Prior to that, Jiaogulan was cited as a survival food in Zu Xio’s 1406 book Materia Medica for Famine. Until recently it was a locally known herb used primarily in regions of southern China. It is described by the local inhabitants as the immortality herb, because people within the Guizhou Province, where jiaogulan tea is drunk regularly, have a history of living to a very old age. Most research has been done since the 1960s when the Chinese realized that it might be an inexpensive source for adaptogenic compounds, taking pressure off of ginseng stock.
Adaptogenic herbs are nontoxic in normal doses, produce a nonspecific defensive response to stress, and have a normalizing influence on the body. They normalize the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). As defined, adaptogens constitute a new class of natural, homeostatic metabolic regulators. However they are also functional at the level of allostasis which is a more dynamic reaction to long term stress, lacking the fixed reference points of homeostasis. Jiaogulan is a calming adaptogen which is also useful in formula with codonopsis for jet lag and altitude sickness.
Western languages such as English and German commonly refer to the plant as jiaogulan. Other names include: