The Divine Husbandman's Classic or ‘Shen'nong Bencaojing' written in the 1st century A.D. in China made the first mention of lycium, an important Chinese herb that is used as a tonic for several disorders. By tradition, the lycium is a life span enhancing herb and is believed that regular use of the herb offers a healthy and longer life. Although it may appear to be incredible to many, a Chinese naturalist reported to have lived for 225 years had attributed the secret behind his long live to the benefits of tonic herbs, including the lycium. Currently, the roots as well as the fruits or berries of lycium are effectively used to heal a wide variety of disorders.
Lycium is native to Asia, particularly in China where the herb grows naturally and in abundance. Lycium plants can be found growing in the wild in the northwest provinces of China - Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia and central parts of Mongolia. The herb is also found in far eastern Chinese areas like Hebei and on the western side of Tibet and Xinjiang. Normally, the lycium fruit is a red berry that is collected from two close varieties of plants - Lycium chinense and Lycium barbarum - of the same species. The fruits borne by both the trees are not only identical, but also transposable. Naturalists prefer the larger variety of the fruits which grows on Lycium barbarum plants. It may be mentioned here that lycium belongs to the Solanaceae family that also yields several varieties of fruits - many of them coloring yellow to red. The other fruits yielded by the Solanaceae family include tomatoes, peppers and also the cape gooseberry - belonging to the Physalis species from Peru.
Lycium is known as gouqi in Chinese and its fruits or berries are called gouqizi. It may be mentioned here that the Chinese use the term ‘zi' to describe all small fruits. Lycium also has a common name - ‘wolfberry' - as the character of the gou is related to the one that identifies a dog or a wolf. Lycium is a spiny or spiky shrub that is also often known as the matrimony vine. However, the reason behind naming the plant such has been forgotten over the years. In fact, the plant got its genus name Lycium in 1753 from naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who is also responsible for the species name barbarum. On the other hand, botanist Philip Miller named the other species of the genus Lycium chinense 15 years after Carl Linnaeus named the first species.
Significantly, lycium is extensively cultivated in the Ningxia province of China. Ningxia, which was formerly an autonomous region of Gansu, has initiated numerous lycium production projects since 1987. It is surprising to learn that China alone now produces more than five million kilograms of the dried lycium fruit annually and most of this is for the country's internal use. Many people squeeze the fresh lycium fruits to obtain its juice which is concentrated before preserving. Later, the concentrate is used in the preparation of different beverages. On the other hand, large quantities of the lycium berries are also dried with or without adding sulfur for marketing the same as an herb.
Berries and root.
People in China usually consume lycium berries as a blood tonic or to stimulate the blood circulatory system. Lycium berries not only help in enhancing the circulation system, but also help the cells to absorb nutrients in the system. In addition, lycium berries are useful in healing several ailments like dizziness, tinnitus, blurred vision and wasting conditions of the body. The berries are also excellent stimulants for the liver and kidneys. According to the Chinese medical science, the liver is connected to the eyes and hence it is believed that the consumption of lycium berries help to cure failing eyesight.
The Chinese herbal practitioners also apply the lycium roots or extracts from them to bring down or soothe the blood temperature and thus help in lessening fever, irritability, sweating as well as thirst. The comforting or cooling properties of lycium are also effectual in impeding nosebleeds, diminish vomiting of blood and also relieve coughs and wheezing caused by ‘excessive heat prototypes'. Positive results from recent researches on the herb have encouraged the Chinese herbalists to use the lycium roots to treat people suffering from hypertension.
The Shennong Bencao Jing first mentioned and described the lycium fruits or berries as early as in ca 100 A.D., but the traditional usage of the herb for healing different disorders was greatly confined till the end of the reign of the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 A.D.) in China. According to the Chinese medicine of those days, in the initial stages, the lycium fruits were generally mixed with other tonic herbs like the rehmannia, cornus, cuscuta and deer antler to nurture the kidney as well as heal the vital organ from various deficiency disorders. In fact, Zhang Jingyue was the first naturalist to use the gently warming and chunky tonic herbs for nourishing the internal organs. It may be noted here that Zhang Jingyue had prepared a compilation of all the herbal prescriptions used by him in a book form and titled it ‘Jinygue Quanshu' in ca 1640 A.D.
For several centuries, the Chinese doctors have considered the lycium fruit or berries to possess rich properties that help in nourishment of the blood, augmenting the yin, tone up the liver and kidneys as well as humidifying the lungs. Amongst all these, the lycium fruits' ability to nourish the negative aspects of the kidney and also supplementing the negatives or yin of the liver are the most dominant as well as beneficial features. Lycium berries are also administered to people suffering from conditions like consumptive disease that go along with thirst - which are early indications of the onset of diabetes and tuberculosis in an individual, dizziness, weakening visual perception as well as chronic cough. Rural herbal practitioners commonly use the lycium fruits as a medication to aid vision and also as therapy for enhancing life span of an individual. It is also widely used to cure diabetes.
Interestingly, owing to intensive researchers on lycium as well as other herbs, herbal medicine physicians now rely less on the descriptions of these herbs by the ancient Chinese naturalists, but more on the recent findings by the researchers. This is primarily owing to the fact that now the herbal practitioners have become more aware of the chemical contents of these herbs and also their benefits. Thus, also the use of herbs and extract derived from them are as useful and popular as ever, only the perception regarding their effectual use has changed following findings by the modern scientific studies.
Habitat and cultivation
Lycium, is a herb that is believed to increase the life span of a person, grows naturally across all over China and Tibet. These days the herb is being widely and commercially grown in central and northern China. Lycium is propagated through its seeds and the best time of the year to sow them is in autumn. The lycium root, which is rich in medicinal value, can be dug out of the ground any time of the year, but it is generally harvested in spring. However, the lycium berries are picked either in the latter part of summer or during early autumn.
Fruit: the fruits or berries of the lycium plant are highly useful for safeguarding the liver from injury caused by exposure to toxins.
Root: naturalists consider the lycium roots to incite the parasympathetic nervous system that manages the involuntary actions of the body. Lycium is also effectual in lowering the blood pressure as it loosens up the artery muscles. Studies conducted by Chinese scientists on lycium have shown that the roots of the herb possess the ability to lower fever. In addition, during a clinical test of lycium, scientists found that the herb had a noteworthy consequence in reducing excess body temperature in malaria.
Chemical analysis of lycium has shown that in general this life enhancing herb contains betaine, beta-sitosterol. The berries of the plant contain physalien, carotene, vitamins B1, B2 and C. On the other hand the lycium roots enclose cinnamic acid and psyllic acid.
The berries as well as the roots of lycium may be ingested as tincture as well as decoction (a concentrated substance that results from boiling and then cooling a substance in water). It is recommended that people ingesting the lycium decoction should take 200 ml or eight fluid ounces of the same daily. Tinctures prepared from the lycium roots may be consumed in 5 ml or one teaspoonful two times every day. However, the Chinese dosage of medications prepared from lycium is six to eighteen g or 5/8 to 7/8 ounce daily.
How it works in the body
Lycium berries as well as its roots have multiple medicinal values. The lycium berries are considered to be effectual in protecting the kidneys and liver as they nurture both the crucial organs and also functions as a stimulant. Lycium berries are said to be most effective in conditions of painful back and legs. In addition, the berries are beneficial in alleviating mediocre abdominal pain, unwarranted urination during nights - a disease called ‘nocturia', wasting and thirsting disorders, consumption of alcohol as well as impotence in the male reproductive system. Apart from these benefits, lycium berries also serve as a tonic for eyes particularly where the blood circulation becomes weak. They are also effectual in alleviating conditions of giddiness and vertigo, unclear vision as well as diminished eye sight. Tinctures prepared from the lycium berries are also helpful in healing respiratory disorders as they are used as a stimulant for the lungs. It is especially helpful to heal conditions of consumptive coughs. Lycium is also used to heal cardiovascular problems and is especially used as a tonic to improve the circulatory system. At the same time, lycium also aids in lowering the blood pressure and lipid (an insoluble fat found in the body) levels. Lycium grown in China possess sweet and neutral properties.
Himalayan goji juice
While lycium is well-known in China for its traditional medicinal properties and food therapy values, in the U.S., the lycium fruit is popular as a constituent of a juice product known as the Himalayan Goji Juice. In fact, ‘goji' is a literal translation of the word ‘gouqi'. This juice, called the Himalayan Goji Juice, is available in one liter of 33 fluid ounces bottles and is recommended for use two to four ounces every day. This way one bottle of the Himalayan Goji Juice can sustain for about 8 to 16 days. Taking a clue from the popularity of the Himalayan Goji Juice, many other companies launched similar products and some of them have even used the lycium fruit as the main or secondary ingredient of their new juice products!
Despite using the lycium fruit as an ingredient in the Himalayan Goji Juice or the others of its kind available in the U.S. market these days, it is practically impossible to compare these juices with the lycium fruit originally described in Chinese medicine. According to the manufacturer of the Himalayan Goji Juice, one liter of the drink possesses polysaccharides that are equal to 2.2 pound or one kg of fresh goji berries. A normal dried lycium berry is actually one sixth of the weight of a fresh berry which signifies that the moisture content in the fresh lycium fruit is as high as 83 per cent. Keeping this in view, it may be said that a dosage of two to four fluid ounces of the juice would be equivalent to 10 to 20 grams of the dried lycium fruit. Although different amounts of the medicine are administered to patients suffering from different ailment, according to traditional usage of lycium berries as a medicine, the correct dosage is two to four fluid ounces every day.
In addition to the juice prepared from lycium berries, many people also consume the dried lycium fruit as a whole. Significantly, the raw or crude berries can be obtained at even cheaper rates, dried up and consumed later as a whole fruit or in the juice form. However, manufacturers of these juices claim that their product possess superior therapeutic values and hence are more effectual as they are prepared from specific selection of the berries. In comparison, they say that the dried lycium berries easily available in the Chinese herb and grocery stores are less effective against diseases. The manufacturers further argue that the juice prepared from lycium berries are easy to consume as they are blended with other fruit juices to add flavor and taste. Hence, it is always worthwhile to use these juices at an additional expense rather than ingesting lycium berries collected from the wild or its extracts. However, there is little evidence to support the claims of the lycium juice manufacturers. Researches have shown that there is no difference in therapeutic effect from consuming similar amounts of the lycium fruit, irrespective of the fact whether they are drinking the juice prepared by the above mentioned manufacturers, directly eating the dried fruits or ingesting supplements prepared from the lycium supplements.