Fo-ti root has long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to support liver and kidney health, fight various effects of aging, and “nourish the heart and calm the spirit.” (1) Many of fo-ti’s benefits are due to its supply of antioxidants and beneficial compounds, including anthraquinones, emodin and chrysophanic acids.
When it comes to improving your health, what is fo-ti root good for? In Chinese medicine, it is said to be a natural liver and kidney “youth-giving tonic,” meaning it’s taken to improve general well-being and for its invigorating properties. Fo-ti benefits include its ability to help treat numerous health conditions, such as tuberculosis, cancer, prostatitis, high cholesterol, insomnia, skin ailments, constipation, atherosclerosis, neurodegenerative diseases, and joint pain or soreness.
What Is Fo-Ti Root?
Fo-ti (Fallopia multiflora or Polygonum multiflorum) is a Chinese herbal medicine that’s derived from a plant that primarily grows in China, Japan, Tibet and Taiwan. Fo-ti is a member of the plant family called Polygonaceae and has red stems, heart-shaped leaves, and either white or pink flowers. Various parts of the plant are utilized for different medicinal purposes, including the leaves, root tuber, stem and rhizomes.
Around the world, fo-ti goes by other names too, including he shou wu, Chinese cornbind, fleeceflower, Chinese knotweed, climbing knotweed and flowery knotweed. According to a 2015 review published in the journal Pharmacognosy Research, “Polygonum multiflorum (PM), officially listed in the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, is one of the most popular perennial Chinese traditional medicines known as He shou wu in China and East Asia.” (3)
The same review also point out that, “Laboratory studies and clinical practice have demonstrated that PM possesses various biological and therapeutic actions, including anti-tumor, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-HIV, liver protection, nephroprotection, anti-diabetic, anti-alopecia, and anti-atherosclerotic activities.”
Benefits and Uses
Below are some of the main benefits associated with fo-ti root (or he shou wu):
- Has Anti-Inflammatory Effects
- Can Improve Skin Health
- May Promote Hair Growth and Reduce Gray Hair
- Relieves Constipation
- Can Help Improve Sleep Quality
- May Help Increase Estrogen and Manage Menopause Symptoms
- May Fight Age-Related Memory Problems
1. Has Anti-Inflammatory Effects
In terms of fo-ti’s chemical structure, the herb has been shown to contain bioactive compounds, including:
- chrysophanic acids like anthrone and chrysophanol
- stilbene glucosides
Both in vivo and in vitro studies have demonstrated that anti-inflammatory effects of fo-ti’s bioactive constituents occur by inhibition of the expression of pro-inflammatory signaling factors, including nuclear factor-κB, tumor necrosis factor-α, nitric oxide synthase and chemokines. Studies published in the aforementioned Pharmacognosy Research review suggest that fo-ti may have effects similar to prescription anti-inflammatory agents that are used to treat conditions like inflammatory bowel diseases and dyslipidemia. Additionally, a traditional use of fo-ti is maintaining the strength and stability of the lower back and knees by reducing aches associated with aging and inflammation.
2. Can Improve Skin Health
Fo-ti is used in certain skin care and hair products and can be applied directly to the skin to help treat many different ailments, such as acne, sores, carbuncles, skin eruptions, itching, athlete’s foot, dermatitis, razor burn and scrapes. Fo-ti can protect the skin thanks to its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects, according to WebMD.
3. May Promote Hair Growth and Reduce Gray Hair
Some use fo-ti to help prevent premature graying of the hair, thinning hair or hair loss. In fact, because it is said to bring color back to graying hair, the Chinese translation of he shou wu is “Mr. He’s Black Hair.” A 2017 study conducted on various animal species that was published in the Journal of Advanced Pharmaceutical Technology & Research found evidence that fo-ti used at safe doses can act as a potential agent for the treatment of early hair graying and other loss pigmentation-related diseases. (4) Fo-ti seems to significantly induce melanin synthesis, having a positive effect on hair pigment.
4. Relieves Constipation
Raw fo-ti root acts as a natural laxative, helping reduce constipation and promote regularity. When used for this purpose, it’s recommended that you take the root short term, for about two or three days. (5) Taking laxatives long term may result in loose stools, dehydration and diarrhea, so use precaution when using raw fo-ti tea, tinctures or capsules in this way.
5. Can Help Improve Sleep Quality
A large-scale survey done at Taipei Veterans General Hospital’s Center for Traditional Medicine in Taiwan that focused on the use of Chinese herbal medicines found that P. multiflorum was the most commonly prescribed single Chinese herb, especially for the treatment of sleep-related conditions like insomnia. (6) Although P. multiflorum is often used to treat insomnia in clinical practice, no clinical research exists in the West that has verified its sedative or anxiolytic effects.
However, there is some evidence obtained from research conducted by branches of the Bipolar Clinic and Research Program at both Harvard Medical School and Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, Korea, showing that P. multiflorum’s bioactive compounds may have beneficial effects on anxiety and insomnia in patients with bipolar disorder. (7)
6. May Help Increase Estrogen and Manage Menopause Symptoms
Due to concerns over using hormone/estrogen replacement therapy, many post-menopausal women are driven to seek alternative sources of estrogen to reduce their symptoms, including herbal remedies. In one study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, estrogen bioactivity was studied among herbs, including red clover, dong quai, black cohosh, soy, licorice, chaste tree berry, fo-ti and hops. (8)
Soy, clover, licorice and hops have a large amount of measurable estrogen bioactivity. The researchers also state, “We discovered surprisingly high estrogen activity in extracts of fo-ti not previously reported.” Soy had the most estrogen activity of all the tested herbs, while fo-ti had the second most (more than licorice, hops and red clover). While more studies are needed to confirm how fo-ti may help reduce menopause symptoms, we would expect that it may work in similar ways as soy — which contains high levels of isoflavones, a substance that mimics estrogen. This can be helpful for managing symptoms tied to decreased estrogen like hot flashes, flushing, low sex drive and night sweats.
7. May Fight Age-Related Memory Problems
Studies conducted on mice by researchers at the Department of Scientific Research at Xi’an Jiaotong University College of Medicine’s Hong Hui Hospital in China have found that TSG, one of the anti-inflammatory and bioactive compounds purified from fo-ti root, can help to significantly reduce age-related changes in the hippocampus section of the brain and offer neuroprotection that may help prevent Parkinson’s disease, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. (9)
Some research has also shown that when fo-ti is used with another herb, ginseng, it can be especially helpful for reducing memory loss in older adult, including a study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology. Results from the study from Providence University’s Department of Food and Nutrition in Taiwan conducted on mice also suggest that dietary supplementation with either ethanol or water fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum) extracts can reduce brain pathological changes and promote learning and memory ability. (10)
In TCM and Asian herablism, he shou wu (pronounced huh show woo) is a popular and highly revered tonic herb. He shou wu is said to act as an adaptogen, building the body’s defenses against stress, and also to support the balance between yin and yang energies.
The kidneys are often referred to as “the root of vitality” in TCM, since they are involved in essential life processes, including supporting our metabolism, reproduction, blood cleansing and waste removal. Fo-ti root is believed to absorb lots of qi (energy) and nourish the kidneys, which helps increase yin energy — or our “female energy” that represents allowing, opening, intuition, nourishing and receiving (“being versus doing”). Yin deficiency can contribute to accelerated aging, fatigue, burnout, stress, anxiety and aggression — all of which fo-ti may be able to help decrease.
The primary essence of fo-ti is called Jing, and it’s said to share many of the same properties as goji berry. While fo-ti is not a stimulant, it’s beneficial for lifting one’s mood and energy. It’s believed to positively affect the central nervous system and to be both energizing and calming at the same time. Historically, it’s also been said to “cleanse the blood,” relieve muscle aches, strengthen the bones and fight bacterial infections.
Fo-Ti vs. He Shou Wu
Is he shou wu the same as fo-ti?
Fo-ti is commonly called “he shou wu” in Chinese. The two products are essentially the same and have the same uses in Chinese medicine. What is he shou wu good for? Benefits of he shou wu are the same as those of fo-ti, including promoting skin and hair health, reducing constipation, supporting the liver and kidneys, and promoting restful sleep.
Around the world, you can find four primary types of fo-ti: raw, cured, wine and steamed. Fo-ti root is edible when consumed raw and can also be taken in supplement, tea or tincture form. It’s said to have a “sweet yet bitter taste” that most people find pleasant or at least not very off-putting. Because it’s usually difficult to find fresh root in most Western nations, the easiest way to consume it is usually to take it in pill or powder form after it’s been dried and processed.
Some people describe raw/unprocessed fo-ti as “white” compared to “red” fo-ti that has been processed. Raw fo-ti root is usually firm, coarse, and light brown or beige in color. The color of the product depends on which parts of the plant were used, the processing methods involved in making the product, etc.
Fo-ti herb can be used by itself or prepared in a traditional manner in which it’s cured in water with black soybeans. The basic process of curing it involves curing raw roots in a soup of black soybean sauce.
Depending on your current health and any ailments you’re dealing with, you might benefit from taking it with antiviral herbs to boost your immune system or adaptogen herbs to help you deal with stress. For example, fo-ti can be used with ginger to improve digestion, licorice root to fight viruses or infections, cat’s claw to reduce aches and pains, ashwagandha to reduce anxiety, and calendula to help treat skin conditions.
Supplements and Dosage
When taking fo-ti in capsule/supplement form, always look for a product that lists the correct plant name for fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum). A quality product should supply about 1000 milligrams or more of Polygonum multiflorum per two-capsule serving.
How much fo-ti should you take?
- Fo-ti dosage recommendations differ depending on the condition you’re treating, your age and general health. Because herbal products can differ considerably in terms of their concentration from batch to batch, always read directions and begin with a low dose.
- There have not been any clinical studies supporting a specific dosage of fo-ti. It’s most commonly used at daily doses of nine to 15 grams of raw herb. (11)
- Doses of 560 milligrams in dried capsule form can be taken two to three times daily.
- One teaspoon containing five grams of the root can be boiled in one cup of water for 15 minutes and then taken by mouth. (12)
- Creams or ointments can be applied to the affected area three to four times daily, although to be safe read dosage recommendations.
Due to potential side effects, it’s important not to take high doses without being monitored by a doctor, especially for extended periods of time. Keep fo-ti products away from young children, dry and at room temperature (around 59°–86°F or 15°–30°C).
According to the Handbook of Medicinal Herbs, he shou wu is considered one of China’s great four herbal tonics (along with angelica, lycium and panax). (13) The use of fo-ti in Chinese herbal medicine dates back at least to 713 A.D.
The man who is credited with first discovering he shou wu in China is Neng Si. He was a follower of Taoism and often shadowed his Taoist teachers in the mountains, where he discovered a long, winding vine that he believed had healing properties. Neng Si ground up the root into powder and swallowed a small amount on an empty stomach, and within a week he felt “vitality flowing through his veins,” increased sex drive and experienced youthful changes in his appearance. The tale of the discovery of he shou wu was written about by Li Ao from the Tang Dynasty (618–907), who authored the book “The Legend of He Shou Wu.”
The herb also became well-known in China after a Ming Dynasty Emperor named Shi Zong (who reigned from 1521 to 1566) was given an herbal elixir called Seven Treasure Beard Beautifying Pill, in which he shou wu was the main ingredient. Still today, Seven Treasures formulas containing he shou wu are used to address “qi deficiency” and to promote an attractive, youthful appearance.
An herbalist named Li Shi Zhen, who authored a book named “The Great Herbalism” in 1578, was another man who brought attention to fo-ti’s benefits. Li Shi Zhen is considered one of the greatest contributors to the development of Chinese herbal pharmacy and educated others about the healing effects of he shou wu — especially its ability to stimulate sex drive, help father children and promote happiness.
Risks and Side Effects
While fo-ti has been used for hundreds of years and has been shown to have many healing abilities, it’s also been linked with certain side effects and even more serious risks.
In a number of cases of hepatitis, patients have been reported to have taken fo-ti before developing the illness. Some research has also linked this herb to potential liver-related problems, including liver damage and making liver disease worse. A system review that included a total of 450 cases in 76 articles found that fo-ti can cause liver toxicity and may cause liver damage in different degrees and even lead to death. Most of the reported incidence were related to long-term use and overdose of fo-ti. Liver damage associated with fo-ti was also found to be reversible in most cases after active treatment, with the majority of cases being cured. (14)
Potential side effects associated with fo-ti root include dehydration, loose stools, stomach pains, hypoglycemia and changes in blood sugar, changes in blood pressure, and dizziness. Fo-ti can also interact with a number of prescription medications, including those used to manage diabetes, hepatotoxic drugs, Warfarin, diuretics, stimulant laxatives, such as digoxin, and many different medications that can change how the liver processes substances, including Elavil, Haldol, Inderal, theophylline, Prilosec, Prevacid and Valium. You should also stop using fo-ti at least two weeks before any scheduled surgery.
There have not been studies showing that infants, young children 5 years old or younger, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding can safely take this herb, so it’s best to avoid using it in these situations. If you have any concerns about starting to use fo-ti or other Chinese herbs, consider working with a doctor who has training in Traditional Chinese Medicine to ensure the product is safe for you.
- Fo-ti (Fallopia multiflora or Polygonum multiflorum) is a Chinese herbal medicine that’s derived from a plant that primarily grows in China, Japan, Tibet and Taiwan. It is called he shou wu in China and other parts of the world.
- Fo-ti benefits include fighting inflammation, promoting skin and hair health, improving sleep quality, protecting the brain, relieving constipation, reducing memory loss, increasing estrogen levels, and more.
- It is considered an adaptogen in TCM and is also used to improve qi and yin energies. It’s considered a natural liver and kidney tonic that promotes well-being and boosts energy without having stimulant effects.
- Roots, leaves and stems of the fo-ti plant can be used in tinctures, teas and capsules.
- Use with precaution, since at high doses it’s been linked with certain side effects (like diarrhea and hypoglycemia) and even serious conditions like liver damage and hepatitis.