Originally posted on Herb Rally, 2017
Schisandra chinensis (Schisandraceae)
Common Names: Schisandra, Schizandra, Mongolia berry, Mongolia vine
There are 19 species in the genus Schisandra, 12 are endemic to China. Schisandra chinesis and S. sphenanthera are the two main species and are used interchangeably in Chinese medicine.
Sometimes I take an herbal tincture or eat an herb just for the flavor thrill. A little Tilia for its sweetness, Tulsi blossoms for some mild exotic spice, or Schisandra berries for a full mouth explosion. They make my mouth water with delight. I find it interesting that each person has a different sensitivity to the five flavors neatly packed into this amazing berry. Some taste the bitter and pungent/spicy flavors primarily. For me, I get the sour first, then salty and finally sweet. There are really six basic tastes, but the story of umami – the strong savory taste from the glutamic acid (think bone broth or soy sauce) – will have to wait for another time.
This herb fascinates me, as in all of my reading about Schisandra, there tends to be varying information about it especially regarding energetics and actions. Is it drying or moistening? Is it warm or cool? Is it a stimulant or sedative? I think it is all of these depending on the task at hand. I am friends with a wise woman from the old-school midwives ouvre of herbalism. She would possibly call this herb “a thinking herb” in that it gives the person/organ/tissue what it needs. Some of us modern herbalists call that “amphoteric”. If I was stranded on a tropical island with only one herb, I think I would choose Schisandra so I could live there forever. Aaaand I’d try to sneak in some Catnip oil for the mosquitos; and some Plantain, Comfrey and Yarrow for general first-aid. Does an herbalist ever only have one herb on hand? I know I feel bad leaving friends behind when adventuring. But I digress…
Schisandra is an elite herb used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) since antiquity, and since I am not a TCM practitioner, I will discuss how it is used in Chinese medicine, but I will not dive deeply into the concepts. It is the rare herb that benefits all of the body functions and organs due it being the only herb that possesses all five flavors. These five flavors correlate to different parts of the fruit: the skin and pulp are sweet and sour, the seed is pungent and bitter, and the fruit is generally salty. In TCM the flavor of an herb has a relationship to the effect of the herb. For example, sweet herbs increase dampness; salty is associated with the kidneys; bitter alerts to potential poisons such as certain alkaloids that affect the nervous system, and glycosides that affect the circulatory system.
Description/Taxonomy: Schisandra is native to northern and northeastern China (Mongolia) and far eastern Russia. It is a deciduous wood vine that thrives in mixed forest margins with dappled sunlight on the banks of a sandy brook or stream. Schisandra is dioecious, so the female plant will only produce fruit if it is fertilized with the pollen of a male plant.
Traditional/Ethnobotanical Uses: Schisandra has been used throughout the history of Chinese civilization as a tonic herb to be consumed daily throughout one’s lifetime as an anti-aging herb and to promote longevity. It was first written about in China’s first herbal encyclopedia, Shen Nong’s Materia Medica, in the first century BC where it was listed as a Superior Herb. Though Schisandra is believed to benefit all functions of the body, it has traditionally been considered to have the most influence on kidney, lung and liver function.
Schisandra is frequently pictured in ancient Chinese art as the symbol of longevity and beauty, even suggesting the ability to attain immortality. In one painting, Magu, the goddess of beauty and eternal youth, is shown serving a tray of Schisandra, Reishi (the herb of immortality) and a “peach of longevity” to her immortal friends. Magu is said to forever appear the age of eighteen.
Schisandra is primarily thought of as an herb in Chinese Medicine, however, it was the Russians who first classified it as an adaptogen in the Russian Pharmacopeia for its ability to assist the body’s adaptive responses to stress of various kinds. The Nanai (Siberian) hunters used the herb to improve stamina and the tough hunting conditions with long, cold days and nights, and scarce food and water. It became most well known in the early 1960’s as an adaptogen as a result of the large number of pharmacological and clinical studies carried out by Russian scientists between 1940 and the early 1960’s.
Parts Used: Berries – fresh or dried
Cultivation/Harvest: It is cultivated in northeastern China, largely in the provinces of Jilin, Liaoning, Heilongjiang, and Hubei; as well as in Russia. It is propagated from seed in the spring and the ripe berries are harvested in the fall. Schisandra needs a cooler climate and is hardy in zones 4-7. It will be frost tolerant in temperatures as low as thirty degrees below zero if the plant is dormant. If the plant is not dormant it can withstand a late spring frost. These are cold-tolerant plants and they need to cold to set the berries.
Schisandra also needs plenty of water and is not drought tolerant. Provide it with plenty of water and good drainage. A good mulch layer of pine needles or oak leaves will help maintain the moisture and create a slightly acidic soil that this berry loves.
The berries can be gathered by picking the individual unripe fruits and allowing them to ripen afterwards; or they can be gathered in clusters, allowing them to dry on the stalk. The stalks can be removed after drying to prevent damaging the fruits. They are typically dried in the sun or sun-dried after steaming.
Herbal Actions: Chinese tonic, adaptogen, sour astringent, hepatoprotectant (hepatoprotectant principles found in the seeds are not soluble in water), anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, trophorestorative, expectorant, antitussive, immune tonic, nervine, sedative, strong vital stimulant, aphrodisiac, blood pressure regulator, emmenagogue, oxytocic, anhydrotic
Constituents: Lignans (schizandrin, schisandrols, schisantherins, deoxyschizandrin, gomisin), triterpenes, phytosterols, stigmasterol, organic acids (citric and malice acids), volatile oil, vitamins A, C and E, minerals (phosphorous, manganese, silicon), tannins, resin, sitosterol, saccharides, pectin
Energetics: Balanced energetics due to it possessing all five flavors. Rising, restoring, and stabilizing (Holmes). I have seen Schisandra listed with a wide array of energetics: cooling and moistening, warm and dry, etc.
Tissue states: Astringent, moistening, tonifying
Meridians/organs affected: Lungs, heart, kidneys, liver, spleen/pancreas, bladder, nerves and brain, stomach, intestines
Medicinal uses: Schisandra is a tonic herb acting throughout the body by strengthening and toning many organs in the body, benefiting Qi. Extensive pharmacological and clinical studies have been conducted in Russia/USSR and China for its adaptogenic and hepatoprotective abilities, respectively. Pharmacokinetic findings are specific to lignans schizandrin, schisandrol A, and gomisin A.
Liver protection (Liver and Adrenal Yin deficiencies) – Schisandra has been shown to support the liver with its detoxification process of binding endogenous and exogenous waste and toxins and eliminating them from the body. Much of this activity is due to an apparent strong antioxidant activity, specifically enhancing the hepatic glutathione antioxidant system, and a reported ability to induce liver microsomal cytochrome P-450 and stimulate biosynthesis of protein and liver glycogen (Liu 1991). It helps protect the liver from the damage caused by toxins in the diet and from the environment, improves the overall functioning of the liver, and stimulates the growth of new liver cells. (1)
In 1986, researchers Chang and But reported that more than 5000 cases of various types of hepatitis have been treated with Schisandra preparations, resulting in the reduction of elevated liver enzymes. (1)
Respiratory health (Lung and Kidney Yang deficiency) – Schisandra is well known in Chinese medicine as a respiratory restorative, expectorant, oxygenator, and antitussive. It is indicated for chronic coughing, wheezing, asthma, low respiratory capacity (shortness of breath), altitude sickness, tissue hypoxia, and respiratory infections.
Balancing fluid levels (Kidney Qi deficiency) – Schisandra is used to tone and strengthen Kidney function and to help the body balance fluid levels. This is useful for the person struggling with night sweats, excessive daytime sweating, and frequent urination.
Sexual health (Kidney Qi deficiency) – as a sexual tonic for men and women, Schisandra increases the secretion of sexual fluids by increasing the “Water Qi” in sex organs. Its astringent action conserves sexual fluids until the appropriate time for release. It is said to increase warmth and sensation in female genital organs.
It is famous for its ability to relieve sexual fatigue and improves stamina. It is an ingredient in a vast majority of sexual tonics for men in Asian herbalism, often combined with Goji, Cistanche, Deer Antler, Cnidium, and Epimedium.
Central Nervous System trophorestorative (Kidney Essence deficiency) – indicated for cerebral and nervous deficiencies including memory loss, loss of concentration, headache dizziness, chronic physical and mental fatigue, insomnia, sleep disorders, nervous breakdown, psychosis, paralysis, cerebellar ataxia, peripheral neuritis, myelitis, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Menière’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Guillian-Barré syndrome.
Schisandra is showing relevance as a restorative to the brain and nervous system, specifically stimulating nerve cells, thereby increasing intellectual activity, coordination, and sense perception. This action has been applied to a wide range of neurological conditions ranging from a headache to neuro-degenerative diseases, and neuro-disorders like psychosis. All of the symptoms associated with the conditions listed above seem to respond positively to tonification of the Kidney Essence.
Combat stress (Liver and Adrenal Yin deficiencies) – Schisandra’s traditional use as a tonifier in Chinese medicine was another reason that led the Russians to research this effect. There is a significant amount of evidence, in conjunction with its long-standing traditional use as a tonic, that as an adaptogen, it is effective. The majority of this earlier adaptogenic research is marred with poor study design and insufficient data. Though generally not an accepted category of therapeutic substances in modern medicine, adaptogens are substances believed to reinforce the nonspecific resistance of the body against physical, chemical, or biological stressors. Primarily they are considered to enhance the body’s general physiological adaptive responses (Wagner 1995).
Schisandra is most well-known in the West as an adaptogen facilitating a response to unproductive stress by modulating endocrine and immune functions. By tonifying the adrenal cortex and liver, Schisandra addresses metabolic deficient conditions such as fatigue, endurance, frequent infections, and blood sugar swings. As an adrenal-corticol restorative, Schisandra overcomes chronic loss of stamina, fatigue, stress, over-work and chronic illness.
Many resources cite that Schisandra may be taken daily for long periods of time. According to some schools of thought, this is not advised for herbs classified as adaptogens, as extended use can tax the adrenals without lifestyle changes. Similarly, it is often recommended to take a break with long-term use of tonic herbs. However, this advice as absent in my readings about Schisandra.
Endurance and performance enhancer – Between the1940 and the early 1960’s, the Russians were particularly interested in Schisandra to increase endurance, stamina, and stress-protective effects against an array of environmental factors including, heat, frostbite, skin burns, heavy metal intoxication. In healthy subjects, Schisandra was shown to increase endurance and accuracy of movement, mental performance and working capacity.
Hunters and athletes in China and Russia have long used Schisandra as a daily tonic to increase performance, endurance, metal clarity and reaction times. It’s oxygenation-enhancing effects plays a major role in reducing altitude sickness, but the implications of this action are reaching beyond this and may prove appropriate for chronic disorders including bacterial and viral infections. Research is currently being conducted using Schisandra for breaking up biofilms.
Immune system support – Schisandra is an immune enhancer in conditions of low immunity and frequent chronic infections as well as immunodeficient disorders such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). It is also an immune regulator and antiallergic supporting the immune system when under the stress of allergic and autoimmune reactions. Studies have been done on the long list of Lignans in Schisandra and have shown immunosuppressant activity.
Respiratory infections – Often used in the treatment of chronic coughs, shortness of breath, and wheezing.
Sedative (Calm the Shen) – Schisandra is often listed as a strong vital stimulant and a sedative. IN TCM, Schisandra is used to quiet the spirit and calm the heart. It is given for insomnia and dream disturbed sleep. This is a prime example of the amphoteric qualities of this herb by working in apparently contradicting ways in order to restore normal body function.
Cardiovascular health – In Korea, Schisandra is used in traditional medicine to improve cardiovascular function and a feeble pulse. It is thought to improve blood flow by promoting the health of blood vessels.
Skin Health (Yin deficiency with dryness) – Schisandra has always been popular in China, especially among the rich, to promote beautiful skin and provide protection from sun and wind damage. Due to the astringent nature of Schisandra, the skin holds moisture promoting a plump, supple complexion. Its action on the liver can largely be attributed to improvements with skin issues including hives and eczema. When used regularly, Schisandra promotes a youthful glow.
Longevity and vitality – Schisandra has long been recognized as an herb that promotes longevity and acts against aging. We know today that the berries are rich in antioxidants, but they also have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. Both of these actions help to improve cellular function and promote a longer life. In traditional Chinese medicine the ability of Schisandra to promote longevity and vitality is attributed to its tonification of the three treasures: Qi, Jing, and Shen.
Cold intestines (Spleen and Kidney Yang deficiencies) – chronic diarrhea – especially in the morning, fatigue.
Cancer protection – Limited cancer research has been conducted regarding the antioxidant, protective and cancer/tumor killing potential of Schisandra, specifically lignans schisandrin C and gomisin A.
Other uses – Schisandra is also indicated for a wide variety of physical disorders including, anticonvulsive activity, labor stimulating activity, dysentery, regulates blood sugar, treats diabetes due to internal heat, as well as to improve failing eyesight and hearing.
Allies: Schisandra and Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) are used for asthma, in tonics for liver “cleansing”, and longevity. Combine with Astragalus membranaceus to address states of deficient fluid loss: menopausal night sweats, frequent urination, diarrhea, excessive vaginal discharge, premature ejaculation, etc. Commonly used with She Chuang Zi (Cnidium monnieri) for impotence and infertility in both men and women. Chinese medicine has many formulas using Schisandra.
Culinary uses: Russia is also a major producer and consumer of Schisandra, using tens of tons of berries annually for the commercial manufacture. China, Korea, Japan and Russia all use Schisandra berries to make juices, wines, teas, extracts, and sweets. Great in smoothies and lemonade. Pucker up!
Side Effects, Cautions & Contraindications: There are no reports of side effects or contraindications when used properly. Normally it should be taken for 1-3 months. A break is recommended before resuming use. In rare cases it may cause upset stomach or skin allergic reactions.
Individuals with high gastric acidity or peptic ulcers may experience increased acidity (Sandberg 1993). Those with abnormally high intracranial pressure or with epilepsy should avoid use (Niu and others 1983). Based on the limited information available, Schisandra should be avoided or used with the support of a trained professional in pregnancy (Sandberg 1993; Trifonova 1954).
It has been reported that concomitant use of Schisandra and vasoconstrictors or sympathomimetics such as epinephrine, ephedrine, methoxamine, and phenylephrine reportedly may result in severe hypertension (Lupandin 1970). Specific details regarding this finding were lacking from the report.
Schisandra is contraindicated in exterior and interior excess heat patterns and in the early stages of cough and rashes due to internal heat pathogens (Bensky and Gamble 1993; Yeung 1985).
Schisandra is contraindicated with Yu Zhu, Polygoni odoratum. (Ang 1694)
Dosage/method of use: Tincture – 1-3 ml 3x/day, decoction or infusion 4-8 oz 3x/day, electuary – 1 TBS 3x/day, eaten dried or fresh – 10 berries/day
From the American Herbal Pharmacopeia: Powder: 1.5-6 g daily (Pharmacopoeia of the People’ s Republic of China 1997). Decoction: 5-15 g daily (Harnischfeger and Tewocht 1994).
Note: In TCM, lung conditions are usually treated using relatively small doses (1.5-3 g daily) while larger amounts (6-10 g daily) are used to supplement the kidneys.