Ho Shou Wu

Polygonum multiflorum

By Steven H. Horne

Ho shou wu (also known as fo-ti, ho shou wu, he shou wu, flowery knotweed, and fleeceflower) is a major Chinese tonic herb. In Chinese medicine it nourishes the “yin” energy of both of the liver and kidney energy systems. To understand what this means, it helps to understand a little about Chinese philosophy.

In Chinese medicine, the kidney is the home of the “jing” or basic life energy you were born with. The kidney energy also maintains the “bones” or structural integrity of the body. So, in strengthening the kidney energy, ho shou wu strengthens the body structure and nourishes the vital essence, or basic life energy. For instance, it helps relieve backache, a common symptom of a deficiency of kidney energy.

Since the Chinese liver energy “builds the blood,” it is also a tonic for the blood. Research suggests that ho shou wu has some specific circulatory-enhancing properties. Studies have confirmed the plant has the ability to reduce hypertension and blood cholesterol. In addition to directly inhibiting cholesterol, it also decreases cholesterol absorption in the digestive tract. In one study in China, over 80% of high cholesterol patients showed improvement when taking a decoction of the root. An animal study done in 2000 suggested it had a heart-protecting antioxidant effect.

Ho shou wu has a bitter, sweet flavor with an astringent nature. Energetically, it is a warming herb, used as a tonic for rebuilding weakened conditions. The botanical name for ho shou wu is Polygonum multiflorum. The Polygonum genus contains a number of useful medicinal plants, including the Western herb bistort (Polygonum bistorta). All of these plants contain tannins, which make them astringent, so they tone tissues and arrest discharges.

What makes ho shou wu interesting is that it also contains a small amount of anthraquinones, the same laxative compounds found in cascara sagrada and senna. This gives the herb a mild laxative effect. The combination of a stimulant laxative action and an astringent action makes ho shou wu useful for a variety of gastrointestinal problems. In India, it is used for colic and enteritis; in Brazil, it is used for hemorrhoids; in China for ulcerations. The Western herb yellow dock also combines this astringent and laxative action.

Ho shou wu has some infection fighting qualities. It has been found useful for tuberculosis, malaria, and some types of viral infections. There is also some evidence that ho shou wu can help increase sugar levels in the blood, making it useful for hypoglycemia.

Considering the overall properties of this plant, it is obvious why it would earn the reputation as an anti-aging herb. Its ability to aid the cardiovascular system alone makes it a useful tonic to counteract some of the effects of aging.

The Chinese cook ho shou wu in a black bean sauce and then dry it, which turns it into a superior tonic. This means the herb is food-like and has a long-term beneficial effect in strengthening the body.

Traditional Chinese medicine uses ho shou wu to treat premature aging, weakness, vaginal discharges, numerous infectious diseases, angina pectoris, premature hair loss, graying of the hair, intestinal gas, bleeding, malaria, infertility and impotence. The herb is contraindicated in Chinese medicine with stomach and spleen qi (chi) deficiency and accumulation of phlegm. In other words, don’t use it if you have mucus congestion and weak digestion.

The Chinese common name comes from the name of a famous herbalist whose infertility was supposedly cured by the herb. His grey hair was also restored to its black color after taking the herb and he was able to live a long life and retain his black hair. So, Ho Shou Wu literally means Mr. Ho’s hair is black (shou = head, wu = black). Although there isn’t a lot of scientific data to support this claim, there is folk evidence for it, and clinical trials of various formulas containing ho shou wu in China suggest it may be useful in treating alopecia or hair loss.

According to Chinese medicine, the health of the hair is governed by the kidneys and “liver blood.” The kidneys are also thought to govern the bone marrow, and the health of the teeth is connected to the quality of the bone marrow. So, ho shou wu may help us hold onto both our hair and our teeth as we age.

Besides being available as a single, ho shou wu is also found in the Chinese formulas Blood Build and KB-C, which respectively “build the blood” and strengthen the kidney qi. Ho shou wu is a gentle, tonic herb that must be taken regularly over a period of many months to have optimal effects. It is very safe and can be consumed in doses up to 5 grams per day (about 8 capsules). Recommended dose is 2-4 capsules twice daily.


Selected References

The Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine by Daniel B. Mowrey.

The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants by Andrew Chevallier

Oriental Materia Medica: A Concise Guide by Hong-Yen Hsu

Ho Shou Wu: What’s in an Herb Name? by Subhuti Dharmananda