Found in many herbal 'women's supplements', dong quai, or angelica, is a tonic traditionally used in Asia to boost the function of the female reproductive system. Its popularity is second only to ginseng's in China and Japan, but Western experts continue to debate its effectiveness.
What it is?
Although dong quai grows wild in Asia, it's widely cultivated for medicinal purposes in China (the Angelica sinesis variety) and in Japan (A. acutiloba), where many women take it daily to maintain overall good health. The most widely available therapeutic form is derived from the root of A. sinensis, a plant with hollow stems that grows up to 2.5 metres tall and has clusters of white flowers. When in bloom, angelica resembles Queen Annes's lace, its botanical relative. Other names for dong quai include dang gui, tang kuie and Chinese angelica.
What it does?
Generally, dong quai is believed to keep the uterus healthy and to regulate the menstrual cycle. It may also widen blood vessels and increase blood flow to various organs. Even among herbal experts, however, questions linger about its benefits. One reason why dong quai's properties have been difficult to assess is that it is often taken in combination with other herbs.
Traditionally, dong quai has been used to menstrual and menopausal difficulties. Claims for the herb include balancing the menstrual cycle, correcting abnormal bleeding patterns, alleviating symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), easing menstrual cramps, reducing menopausal hot flushes, and improving the vaginal dryness associated with menopause.
There are two theories about how dong quai may help to relieve these problems. Some herbalists believe that it contains plant oestrogens (phyto-oestrogens), which are weaker than the oestrogens produced by the body, but which still chemically bind the oestrogen receptors in human cells. Because of this, phyto-oestrogens may minimize the potential negative effects of a woman's own oestrogen, which include an increased risk of breast cancer. Phyto-oestrogens may also prevent hot flushes by compensating for the decline in oestrogen levels that occurs after menopause.
Other experts attribute the effectiveness of dong quai to its abundance of Coumarins. This group of natural chemicals dilates blood vessels, increases blood flow to the uterus and other organs, and stimulates the central nervous system. Coumarins also appear to reduce inflammation and muscle spasms, which may account for dong quai's ability to alleviate menstrual cramps.
Although dong quai is not typically used to lower blood pressure, it does have this effect because it dilates blood vessels, making it easier for the heart to pump blood through the body. The herb is also rich in vitamin B12, and so may help build red blood cells.
- Dried herb/tea.
- Dong quai should not be used by pregnant women or those who are breast-feeding.
- People on anticoagulant drugs should not take dong quai without consulting a doctor.
- Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
For PMS, menstrual irregularities, menstrual cramps or hot flushes: Take 600 mg of dong quai daily (or, alternatively, 30 drops or 1.5 ml of tincture three times a day). whether in pill or liquid form, extracts should be standardized to contain 0.8-1.1% ligustilide. You can also use a single preparation in which dong quai is combined with other herbs that help regulate the menstrual cycle, such as chaste tree, licorice and Siberian ginseng.
Guidelines for use:
For symptoms of PMS, use dong quai on the days you're not menstruating. If you also get menstrual cramps, continue using dong quai until menstruation stops. For cramps without PMS, start taking dong quai the day before your period is due. For hot flushes, use daily. Continue the herb for two months before deciding if it works.
Possible side effects
Dong quai may have a mild laxative effect and may promote heavy menstrual bleeding. Protect yourself from the sun when using dong quai, because its root contains compounds called psoralens that can make some people more sensitive to sunlight and cause a severe sunburn.
- If you want to try dong quai for menstrual cramps or menopausal symptoms, be sure to buy Chinese angelica (Angelica sinensis) or Japanese angelica (A. acutiloba). Traditionally, American angelica (A. archangelica) and European angelica (A. atropurpurea) have both been widely used for respiratory ailments and stomach upsets, but they have shown no benefit for gynaecological problems.
A recent US study found dong quai was no better than a placebo as a remedy for hot flushes and other menopausal problems, such as vaginal dryness. Both dong quai and the placebo reduced the frequency of hot flushes by 25-30%. But this study tested the effect of dong quai alone. In Asia, it is traditionally used in combination with other herbs.