Ligusticum wallichii (chuan xiong) is a popular herb in Chinese medicine. It is known by many names, but often referred to by Chinese medicine practitioners in the US as “Sichuan lovage root.” While the root and rhizomes have therapeutic properties, ligusticum is also used to flavor food and add fragrance to cosmetics because of its warm and spicy qualities. The ligusticum plant has a pungent odor in the wild as well as in its dried and processed forms; some describe this as a earthy caramel or butterscotch smell. Don’t let that fool you, though. The thickest part of the ligusticum root, which is used in Chinese herbal medicine, has a powerfully spicy, bitter taste, with a subtly sweet aftertaste.
Ligusticum’s pharmacological properties are well suited for treating the ailments that typically arise – or are aggravated – during the change of seasons between summer and fall. Autumn is generally a cooler and dryer season than summer, and many people experience illness as a result of this seasonal shift. Allergic and dry coughs, as well as muscle aches, joint stiffness, and a worsening of skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis are common. Though spring and summer are more widely known for triggering an increase in allergy and asthma symptoms, autumn weather can also be inflammatory in this respect. This is where ligusticum is most beneficial.
When added to a personalized formula crafted by a skilled practitioner, ligusticum has many uses. In Tao Hong-Jing’s Shennong Ben Cao, a text on Chinese medicinal plants dated between 200 and 250 CE, chuan xiong is considered an “upper or superior” grade herb. The Shennong Ben Cao is written from a Daoist perspective, so the idea of using herbs as an aid in self-cultivation is evident in this context:
The nature of the herbs in the upper superior class is quite capable of expelling illness. The strength and function of these substances is gentle and they don’t produce hasty results. If these herbs are however, consumed over years and months, a very beneficial effect is inevitable. All illness will be overcome and one’s existence will be extended. The way of Heaven is characterized by humaneness and creation. Therefore, it is said that the effect of these herbs corresponds to Heaven. They correspond to the time when all things come to life and flourish.
The text also describes chuan xiong as spicy and warming, and thus able to ease persistent blood stagnation. In Chinese medicine, the blood houses our emotional life. So, we can see how the need for self-cultivation and a release of sluggishness can be addressed with ligusticum wallichii. It is one of the primary herbs in Chinese Medicine Materia Medica used for the expulsion of head wind and bi syndrome, by invigorating stagnant blood. By removing physical impediments, ligusticum can also free us from emotional constraints and fixations.
Ligusticum is featured in a formula called chuan xiong cha tiao san, which translates to “ligusticum chuan xiong powder to be taken with green tea.” The Chinese Medicine Materia Medica specifies this formula for exterior disorders that include head and neck symptoms, like wind and cold aggravated headaches, migraines, and congestion. Ligusticum is frequently used in herbal formulas as an envoy to guide other medicinals to the head – or, more specifically, to the temporal region of the head. In the perspective of Chinese medicine, the head and neck are located furthest from the earth and are, therefore, the most yang. Wind-heat or wind-cold disorders often manifest in the head and neck, as these are the areas that tend to be most vulnerable to environmental and atmospheric changes. In Western medical terminology, the “exterior of the body” describes how disease enters and lodges itself into a person. The most common pathogens enter the body through the back of the neck, causing coughing, sneezing, watery eyes, neck stiffness and pain, and generalized body aches.
Chuan xiong cha tiao also treats conditions such as upper respiratory infection, migraine headaches, and acute and chronic sinusitis – otherwise known as sinus infection – which can cause minor to severe head and neck pain. As discussed above, ligusticum helps to promote healthy blood flow and relieve pain by opening up blocked channels around the head and neck. The results of a promising 2011 study indicated that researchers should be looking more closely into the analgesic (pain-relieving) properties of ligusticum, specifically for head pain. The researchers found that a compound in ligusticum called senkyunolide appears to be profoundly helpful for easing migraine symptoms. The compound may work, in part, because it lowers brain and blood levels of nitric oxide (NO); this is an action that is crucial in the Western medical treatments used for most types of migraine. Since roughly 10% of the population suffers from regular and often debilitating migraines, ligusticum may be prescribed more and more frequently in the future, even outside of Chinese medicine.
Over the past few decades, ligusticum has been shown in clinical trials to be useful for especially severe problems relating to the head and neck, not just mild to moderate conditions. One study from 2010, which was published in the journal Neuropharmacology, found that ligusticum can reduce the inflammation associated with cerebrovascular diseases. Because they affect blood supply to the brain, these conditions can lead to serious complications, like ischemic stroke and intracerebral hemorrhage. By calming the inflammation in vital cerebrovascular pathways, ligusticum allows key arteries to function more normally without becoming blocked with dangerous levels of plaque. In light of this study and others conducted recently, it seems probable that ligusticum could help prevent strokes and hemorrhaging in populations – usually older people – that are vulnerable to these potentially fatal events.
Ligusticum is also highly effective at treating skin conditions. This is due to chuan xiong’s categorization as a “blood mover”; put simply, it increases circulation, particularly to the surface of the skin. In one 2012 animal study, researchers found that ligusticum in the form of an essential oil alleviated hypertrophic scarring and its associated tenderness. This type of scarring, which is less pronounced than keloids but nearly as likely to lead to long-term complications, is often itchy and painful. This can be a substantial problem for people who develop hypertrophic scars after surgery. Though more research is needed, the results of this study suggest that constituents of the ligusticum plant can help skin repair itself. This may explain why it is so often prescribed to treat chronic skin problems – particularly those that have itchy, irritating, or painful elements. It is also why ligusticum is used as an envoy and warming herb in custom formulations for the treatment of Raynaud’s disease.
Ligusticum may also be used to treat gynecological issues. Many Chinese medicine practitioners prescribe ligusticum as part of an individualized formula to treat people who struggle with irregular menses or infertility, and is routinely used for problems related to menopause. This may be because of the phytoestrogenic compounds in the root. (These are estrogen-like substances found in plants. In the right circumstances, phytoestrogens have been shown to have a range of health benefits – including a lowered risk of osteoporosis and breast cancer. That said, their use is still somewhat controversial.)
Another of ligusticum’s benefits is its potential to prevent and even reverse the heart and liver problems that can arise during menopause. One study showed that this herb effectively prevented cardiovascular complications in rats that had experienced a quick accumulation of visceral adiposity (body fat), as many people do during menopause. Without medical intervention, this period of hormonal flux can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, heart attack, or stroke.
I expect that clinical trials will continue to demonstrate the wide-reaching health benefits of chuan xiong in the coming years. The recommendations of centuries-old Chinese medical texts regarding this versatile herb have been consistently supported by the research so far. If you’re interested in learning more about how ligusticum may be able to help you, consult an experienced Chinese medicine practitioner.
Updated September 12, 2016