Herb of Immortality; Strong Adaptogen with Ginseng-like Activity
Gynostemma pentaphyllum, or as the Chinese call it, Jiaogulan, is a climbing vine related to the cucumber or gourd family.
Many companies use the Chinese name, so it helps to know this herb as both. Gynostemma is growing in popularity in the West, where it is needed more than ever these days.
There is a legend that states that there was a Chinese Emperor by the name of Fu Shou (Lucky Immortal). He was a far-sighted ruler that decreed that all water should be boiled for hygienic purposes.
One day, while far away in a distant part of his realm, the servants began boiling water to drink. Some jiaogulan leaves fell into the pot, and the Emperor, ever inquisitive, tried the infusion. He liked what he tasted and brought the tea back to Northern China.
Did this actually happen? Who knows? This plant did grew wild and was used in Southern China where much of the medicine was ignored for a long time by the Northern Chinese. Because of this, gynostemma first showed itself in the historical record only in the 14th century! It is safe to assume it has been traditionally locally used for far longer.
Gynostemma received its nickname, The Herb of Immortality, in Chinese medical texts a couple of centuries after its first historical written appearance in the 16th Century.
To fully understand gynostemma we must talk a bit about the well-known plant, Panax ginseng, commonly called Chinese or Asian ginseng.
Everyone knows ginseng has been studied heavily and found to be beneficial for human health (though you have to get the good stuff, 95% of what’s on the market not being of any real quality).
Many of ginseng’s health effects come from compounds called ginsenosides. Panax was originally thought to be the only plant genus that contained these compounds. These ginsenosides are classed as saponin compounds, of which ginseng has 24 total. Gynostemma, of no relation to Panax sp., had about 82 different saponins!
Gynostemma has been found to contain these ginsenosides (all found in Panax ginseng):
- Rb1 – one study found that Rb1 increased luteinizing hormone. Necessary for testosterone production.*
- Rb3 – has been found to be highly hepatoprotective.*
- Rd – a study discovered that this ginsenoside attenuates oxidative damage related to aging in senescence-accelerated mice.*
- F2 – many studies point to this compounds ability to promote apoptosis.*
Ginsenosides have been found to, “…exhibit their vast range of activities on CVD (Cardiovascular disease) through the inhibition of ROS production, stimulation of NO production, improvement in blood circulation, enhancement of vasomotor tone, and regulation of the lipid profile. However, the exact mechanisms of action of ginsenosides are still unidentified.”(1)*
That, of course, means that the effects found in gynostemma are similar to those achieved through consuming ginseng. It appears, though, that there is more of an effect towards healthy insulin and blood-sugar levels than that possessed by ginseng. That has more to do with the other compounds found in gynostemma of which there are many. Some 80 different gypenosides, unique biochemicals found only in jioagulan have been found. (2)(3)(4)*
Some notable ones include:
- Gylongiposide I
- Gypensapogenin A-D and gypensapogenin E-G
- Gypenbiosides A and B
- Gypenosides GC1 to GC7
- Gypenoside III at 0.9% dry weight (a glycoside of Ginsenoside Rb1), IV (a glycoside of Ginsenoside Rb3), VIII at 0.4% (Ginsenoside Rd), XII (Ginsenoside F2)
- Malonyl Gypenosides III and VIII (Malonyl Ginsenosides Rb1 and Rd, respectively)
Other well-known compounds include:
- Chlorophyll compounds
- 3,5,3′-trihydroxy-7,4′-dimethoxyflavone (a flavonoid found in the leaves)
- Selenium, Calcium, Magnesium and other trace minerals
A short word on why the name, the immortality herb, may be appropriate. Over the years, a strong connection has been established between the pancreatic hormone insulin and biological aging. Insulin seems to be an excellent predictor of longevity. This is perhaps why gynostemma might help people live longer (5).
Many may have heard of a little prescription drug named Metformin. This drug is being investigated by the FDA as the first possible anti-aging drug for the U.S. market. Metformin is a slightly modified form of a traditional herb called French Lilac or Goat’s Rue. Goat’s Rue has insulin-balancing effects, and many believe that this is why it is not just good for people with diabetes but possibly, for all modern people.
Gynostemma has insulin promoting effects as well (though not in the same way as Metformin), and this may be the key to why it has traditionally been observed as a longevity herb.(2)(3)
One study of 24 diabetics found that consuming six grams of the herb as a tea for 12 weeks found a significant statistical increase in insulin sensitivity and balancing of blood sugar (3).
A rat study found that an ethanol extract of gynostemma leaves had pancreatic protective powers, especially, “helping insulin-positive beta-cell numbers. (6)”
Our high-sugar/high-carb lifestyles can leave our pancreas exhausted. Gynostemma can help tonify and calm the pancreas, making it better able to handle high blood sugar loads and prevent its tendency to over-compensate by releasing too much insulin.
Too much insulin has been found to promote mTOR as shown below.
The activation of mTORC1 by growth factors and nutrients inhibits autophagy and promotes protein synthesis. Over time, this may promote cellular stress (protein aggregation, organelle dysfunction, oxidative stress), which might lead to damage accumulation, a reduction in cell function and thus promote the development of aging-related diseases. Also, mTORC1 activation induces stem cell exhaustion, which reduces tissue repair and promotes tissue dysfunction. (7)*
What this is implying is the less mTORC1 we have in our cells, the better off we will be and the slower we shall decline. This compound is closely connected to diet, many of the studies on longevity and calorie restriction involve mTOR and have found that calorie restriction reduces its activation, primarily no doubt through lower levels of insulin and greater insulin receptor sensitivity. The herb of immortality may be found to affect mTOR through its health moderating effects on insulin one day.*
Probably of more interest to most younger people is the strong adaptogenic properties of Gynostemma tea that make it perfect for all things athletic.
Gynostemma has strong anti-fatigue effects. A study on mice that supplemented with it for 28 days were afterward forced to performed swimming tests and had their biochemical markers checked.
The results demonstrated that GMP prolonged the exhaustive swimming time, increased the liver glycogen and muscle glycogen contents, and decreased the BLA (Blood Lactic Acid) and BUN (Blood Urea Nitrogen) levels. It also improved the SOD and GPH-Px activities in blood of mice.(8)*
Another forced swimming study, “…indicated that PGP (polysaccharides from Gynostemma pentaphyllum) supplementation had anti-fatigue effects, which could make mice swim for a longer time to exhaustion, with the blood lactic acid, serum urea nitrogen, serum triglycerides, and serum creatine kinase contents decreased, and the liver glycogen and muscle glycogen contents increased.(9)”*
So, at least in mice, we know gynostemma can help to produce champions.
Lets examine a larger animal. You don’t often find studies using horses as subjects but that we did. We won’t go into the interesting case studies presented because that would take to long, instead, this quote neatly sums up the findings:
The same changes in level of alertness, energy level and pink color of the gums and tongue, as seen in the horses on Gynostemma in the laminitis trial, was observed. The higher energy level manifested as enthusiasm for work, not nervousness or jumpiness.(11)*
That last bit is highlighted because we feel that might be of some importance to a few people. Enthusiasm for work (here they mean physical training) isn’t something many people usually look for in their herbs. As can clearly be seen with these few studies though, mammals seem to derive very significant physical and stress-adaptive effects from consuming gynostemma.
Many other studies have been undertaken on animals that show similar results. None so far on humans. Though, there is one commonly cited on websites selling gynostemma that speak of a human study. It claims it was done on 30 healthy individuals and 270 athletes that showed many of the same results as above. We could not find the original source, so for now this line of marketing must be taken with a grain of salt.*
Gynostemma is one of those herbs that can seemingly do-it-all. In Chinese Medicine, it is considered sweet (building) and slightly bitter (good for digestion), growing Yin and supporting the Yang. It is applied to many conditions. Here are a few uses:
- Neuroprotective (11)(12)(13)*
- Helps support a healthy heart (14)(15)(16)*
- Works as a powerful antioxidant (11)(17)(18)*
- Immunomodulatory effects (13)(18)*
- Modulates the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine (12)(19)*
No toxicity has been reported with moderate to high usage of gynostemma.*
If on anti-diabetic medication, have your doctor closely monitor any changes that might need to occur from taking gynostemma.*
As no studies have determined if it is safe for pregnant women to consume, caution is advised.*