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  • Ellen Brown L.Ac. DACM

Bupleurum – ancient detoxifying herb that boosts liver health

The liver absorbs everything our body takes in, detoxifying the blood that circulates through all of our organs. Beyond this crucial function, traditional Chinese medicine asserts that the liver is the chief regulator of Qi within ourselves – the “life-force” or “vital energy” that flows throughout our body and sustains life. Consequently, liver health is essential to our deepest sense of vitality and spirit. In addition to commanding the free flow of Qi, the liver also ensures the smooth flow of our emotions. If you’re often irritable, easily angered, have trouble unwinding at the end of the day or letting things go, your liver is likely imbalanced.

Vibrant, good health depends upon the free flow of Qi and blood throughout the body. When our Qi is flowing well, we journey through life smoothly, without a buildup of toxins, stress, and tension. Alternately, when the liver is imbalanced and the flow of Qi and blood is obstructed or stagnant, pain and disease occur. In our modern, fast-paced lifestyle, the most common pattern of liver disharmony and imbalance is called “liver Qi stagnation.” Some of the symptoms traditionally associated with liver Qi stagnation include: fatigue, anger, irritability, mood swings, feeling overwhelmed, PMS and other hormonal imbalances, prostate inflammation, sluggish digestion or elimination, muscle or joint pain, a feeling of a lump in your throat, consisting waking up between 1am and 3am, and an overall feeling of being stuck in one’s life.

Bupleurum has been a staple of herbal medicine for over 2,000 years due to its ability to promote the free flow of Qi and blood, “cool” and cleanse the liver, and restore emotional and physical balance. It is one of the most widely used liver herbs in Chinese medicine and a chief ingredient in many herbal formulas that target this organ. Known as Chai Hu in TCM, bupleurum is known as the “harmony herb” because it supports equanimity and synergy, in addition to relieving stagnation. Revered for its ability to disperse Qi blockages and clear heat from the liver, bupleurum has been shown to improve general liver function and detoxification, treat cirrhosis and liver cancer, boost adrenal gland function, and harmonize energy flow between the liver, stomach and spleen.

Medicinal herbs that target liver Qi stagnation such as bupleurum often have a dual function of promoting the circulation of both Qi and Blood. As a Qi and blood “mover”, bupleurum helps to remove blockages in the lymph ducts, muscles, nerves and digestive system, which can help resolve pain, reduce blood pressure, alleviate stress and heal emotional blockages. By relieving Qi stagnation and unblocking liver function, blupeurum helps detoxify the liver and boost its ability to cleanse the blood. Because of its strong coursing action, bupleurum is capable of dredging up old, repressed emotions such as anger and sadness so that they can be released, as well as easing mild forms of depression and anxiety.

Bupleurum is slightly cold in nature, and acts on both the liver and gall bladder meridians. Pungent for dispersion, bitter for purgation, and aromatic for lifting and dispersing, bupleurum is very good at relieving half-exterior and half-interior pathogens that often manifest with symptoms of alternating fever and chills. With its relatively strong ascending power to elevate Yang, the herb is often used to help treat hemorrhoids, uterine prolapse or diarrhea caused by weak digestion.

Clinical research has shown that bupleurum has significant antiviral, hepato-protective, anti-inflammatory and adaptogenic properties. It has also been shown to have anti-proliferative (ability to stop the spread of cancerous cells) and chemo-preventive (stops or keep cancer from developing) abilities. Below are ten of the most important benefits bupleurum offers.

1. Improves general liver function and health

The liver is our largest internal organ and is responsible for many vital tasks, including metabolic regulation, nutrient synthesis and hormone processing. The liver also responsible for bile production, which helps the body absorb, and properly utilize, fats and fat-soluble vitamins. Bupleurum helps keep the liver open, strong and flexible so that it can function optimally.

2. Aids in liver detoxification

Many daily habits and environmental factors take a toll on our body – alcohol, processed foods, pharmaceuticals and pollution – and the liver is responsible for detoxifying all of them. Bupleurum is best known for its ability to cleanse the liver and protect it from toxins. Studies have also found that bupleurum is an effective follow-up supplement to liver cancer treatments to help detoxify the body of the side effects of chemotherapy.

3. Helps prevent and treat cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is a slow progressing disease of the liver where healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue that blocks the flow of blood and bile, and prevents the liver from properly functioning. The most common causes of cirrhosis are excessive alcohol consumption and hepatitis C. Bupleurum’s ability to maintain the liver’s smooth flow of Qi and blood, in addition to its potent anti-inflammatory properties, make this a powerful herb to combat cirrhosis.

4. Aids in the battle against liver cancer

Xiao Chai Hu Tang is a Chinese herbal medicine that includes bupleurum. Clinical studies conducted at Osaka City University Medical School in Japan suggest that Xiao Chai Hu Tang has a protective effect on the liver. One study also showed that this herbal formula helped prevent the development of hepatocellular carcinomas (liver cancer) in patients who already have cirrhosis – an important consideration given that the incidence of liver cancer is extremely high in cirrhosis patients.

5. Boosts adrenal gland function

Bupleurum has been used in combination with licorice (Gan Cao) and panax ginseng (Ren Shen) to stimulate adrenal gland function. This is especially helpful for patients with a history of long-term use of corticosteroid drugs, which take a major toll on adrenal health. By aiding the adrenal glands, bupleurum helps improve energy levels and combat adrenal insufficiency.

6. Treats depression related to PMS and menopause

Chinese medicine believes that liver Qi stagnation (and the obstruction of Qi flow throughout the body) is one of the central causes of depression. As a result, Xiao Yao San or Chai Hu Shu Gan San – two herbal formulas that prominently feature bupleurum – are often recommended to treat liver Qi stagnation and restore emotional balance. Both formulas have been found to be especially effective when they’re used to treat the depression that can often occur during premenstrual syndrome (PMS) as well as menopause.

7. Fights ovarian cancer

A 2015 study conducted by the Department of Traditional Chinese Medicine at the Military General Hospital of Beijing PLA in China evaluated the anticancer, apoptotic and antioxidant properties of bupleurum root extract against human epithelial ovarian cancer cells in vitro. Results show that the extract was able to induce cancer-killing effects on ovarian cancer cells. Moreover, the extract also demonstrated an ability to encourage cancer cell shrinkage. The anticancer effects of the bupleurum extract were attributed to the herb’s ability to foster the programmed cell death of cancer cells, and disrupt the energy metabolism of cancer cells.

8. Reduces stress

Several commonly prescribed bupleurum herbal formulas have been found to deliver the same kind of acute, anti-stress relief as the medical anti-stress drug diazepam (prescribed to reduce severe anxiety). The benefit was as strong as that of diazepam but without the side effects (such as addiction and day time drowsiness). In a one-month, single-human study, plasma β-endorphin levels (a brain chemical associated with euphoria) were significantly increased, while stress-related hormones (adrenaline and dopamine) were markedly decreased after the administration of the bupleurum herbal formula. Clinically, many mood symptoms were found to have improved, including temper, irritability, sadness and premenstrual irritability, along with significant improvements in anxiety.

9. Fights inflammation

Inflammation is present in many medical conditions, including arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, heart disease and most skin conditions. The anti-inflammatory activity of bupleurum appears to be related, at least in part, to its ability to both induce the body to secrete its own anti-inflammatory chemical, corticosterone, while also potentiating its anti-inflammatory activity.

10. Relieves symptoms of hepatitis

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver which is often caused by a viral infection. Research among patients with chronically enlarged livers found that bupleurum helped to significantly mitigate patients’ suffering. After taking bupleurum for 10 days, most patients showed a marked improvement in their mental state, appetite and pain.

Buleurum root contains several active compounds – including saponins, plant sterols and saikosaponins – that are responsible for the herb’s healing properties. Pharmacological research has found that the saponins in bupleurum have a tranquilizing effect. They have also been found to be anti-biotic and anti-viral against influenza. Saponins and plant sterols have been shown to lower fever and reduce inflammation. Saponins and saikosaponins generate anti-oxidant action that helps support the immune system, reduce redness and swelling, and stimulate the liver. One specific saikosaponin, called saikosaponin C, may have the potential to support the development of new blood vessels. High levels of saikosaponins are one of the main medicinal properties of bupleuum. Promising research shows that saikosaponins help inhibit liver cancer cell growth as well as reduce the effects of hepatitis in some patients. Test tube studies show evidence that it may even inhibit the Human Immunity Virus (HIV) cell expansion. Together, these combined actions support the circulatory system and help create an environment that supports liver health.

As with most traditional Chinese herbs, bupleurum is rarely used alone. Instead it appears as the prominent herb in dozens of classical, centuries-old, herbal formulations that regulate the body’s energy, relieve blockages, support the circulatory system, and safely discharge toxins out of our system.

The most commonly used bupleurum formula is Xiao Chai Hu Tang, first recorded in the famous Chinese text, Shang Han Lun (Treatise on Febrile Diseases), circa 280 AD. This classic prescription is formulated to treat Shaoyang syndrome, manifesting as alternating chill and fever, fullness and discomfort in chest and rib-side, poor appetite, irritability and vomiting. Since this formula is both tonifying and detoxifying, warming and cooling, and effective against both acute as well as chronic disease, it is a remarkably well-balanced formula. Showing great promise against chronic liver disease, Xiao Chai Hu Tang is one of the most widely researched and prescribed Chinese herbal formulas of all time.

Bupleurum is the star herb of another famous Chinese formula called Xiao Yao San – popularly known as “Free and Easy Wanderer,” a reference to the root’s ability to enhance the free-flow of Qi within the body and help a person “go-with-the-flow” instead of clashing with life’s inevitable obstacles. This harmonizing formula is particularly useful for irregular Qi symptoms associated with GYN conditions such as PMS. Typically, this formula is indicated for symptoms such as mood swings, lassitude, digestive problems and irregular menstruation.

Lastly, another important liver Qi regulating formula that relies on bupleurum (along with several other Qi regulating herbs) is called Chai Hu Shu Gan Wan. This important formula soothes the liver as it relieves liver Qi stagnation and is widely relied on to treat issues like PMS, emotional stress and depression, all of which are associated with liver Qi stagnation in TCM.

Although the usual raw dosage on bupleurum is between 3 to 12 grams in a decoction, there is no single, standard dose of the herb – the appropriate dose always depends on the patient and the condition being treated. While buplerum is generally regarded as a safe herb, as with all herbs, it is best to consult with a healthcare professional to determine your individual requirements. Because it stimulates the immune system, persons with auto-immune disorders should avoid taking it. Additionally, people who suffer with dizziness should avoid taking bupleurum since it raises Yang Qi. Precaution should also be taken by patients with Yin deficiency, hyperactivity of liver Yang, or if pregnant/nursing. Bupleurum should not be used for extended periods of time, usually not more than a few months. Importantly, bupleurum is not a cure-all for chronic liver disease.

Bupleurum is one of the most widely-prescribed herbs to treat mood disorders and stress. Due to its ability to protect the liver, reduce inflammation, treat cirrhosis and liver cancer, bupleurum is also one of the most effective liver support herbs worldwide. Because of its ability to clear liver Qi stagnation and reduce heat, bupleurum has a unique reputation for deeply cleansing this overburdened organ.

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