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Standing on a verdant hillside far north in Thailand’s Chiang Rai region, I gaze out at rolling hills of jiaogulan, also known as the immortality herb. This name derives from the purported longevity of people living in the mountainous Guizhou province of southwest China, who consume a tea made of steeped jiaogulan leaves on a regular basis. The plant may actually hold a key to longer and healthier life.
Despite its possible benefits for stemming the tide of aging and enhancing youthful health, the plant is not so well known.
Jiaogulan, Gynostemma pentaphyllum, is in the same family of plants as cucumbers and gourds, though the plant bears no fruits. The plant is a climbing vine, and from my vantage point I see the wire fencing supporting the vast quantity of jiaogulan before me, covering perhaps 20 acres or so. The vines have climbed up and over the fencing, covering it all in a thick layering of bright green leaves.
It’s the leaves of this plant that are made primarily into tea, and drunk the way one would drink any other infused tea. Known also as amachazuru, jiaoguan is endemic to the southern regions of China, and to parts of Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, Japan. The herb has never really had its day in the sun, as it has never been distributed as widely as other popular botanicals like ginseng.
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This brings up a connection between jiaogulan, the lesser known herb of immortality, and ginseng, the very well-known, longevity-promoting herb. Thanks to some canny scientific inquiry conducted in the 1970s, we know that the two unrelated plants actually share similar compounds known to offer benefits to many aspects of health. We can thank Japanese chemists Masahiro Nagai and Tsunematsu Takemoto for this knowledge. The former made groundbreaking discoveries that the two plants both contained saponins of particular types known to enhance health. The latter identified a very large number of these healthy saponins.
In ginseng, the 28 active saponin compounds in the root are called ginsenosides. In jiaogulan the 82 known saponins are referred to as gypenosides. The former can actually be converted into the latter, and in the human body both groups promote diverse beneficial effects, improving the health of key organ systems.
Jiaogulan offers potent antioxidant protection. When you consume jiaogulan tea, your body increases its production of its own super antioxidant, known as SOD, or superoxide dismutase. This defends and protects the cells of the body from premature destruction due to exposure to harmful agents of all kinds.
Jiaogulan has shown benefits for heart health, enhancing the muscular activity of the heart and improving overall bloodflow. It also helps to reduce LDL cholesterol, while providing a boost to healthy HDL. Jiaogulan proves a top-rated blood pressure control agent, reducing high blood pressure about half as well as the drug indapamide, which is marketed by Servier.
As an adaptogen, jiaogulan increases energy, endurance, stamina, and recovery time, while reducing all forms of mental and emotional stress. It may also help to mitigate jet lag. The tea also appears to help stabilize blood sugar, and is a source of the popular flavonol ampelopsin, which is used to soothe hangovers. As if that were insufficient, jiaogulan is also liver-protective.
Among the 50,000 or so medicinal plants in the world, only a few hundred are popular outside of their native regions. Jiaogulan is now ready to make its way into the global health market on a larger scale, for all the right reasons.