History of Jiaogulan – The Immortality Herb

Even though Jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum) grows in a number of Asian countries, the earliest historical documentation of the herb comes from China, at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty.

In 1406, the physician Zhu Xiao described and sketched Jiaogulan (pronounced “gee-ow-goo-lan”) in his book Materia Medica for Famine. 

At the time however, he did not recognize Jiaogulan as a medicinal plant, only as a food and dietary supplement during times of food shortage or famine.

The earliest reference of using Jiaogulan as a medicine is found almost 2 centuries later, in 1578, in the classical book Compendium of Materia Medica by Li Shi-Zhen.

The renowned herbalist was able to identify some of Jiaogulan’s medicinal properties and stated that the plant could be applied in the treatment of tumors, trauma, edema and pain of the pharynx and neck, and hematuria.

Unfortunately, at the time Li Shi-Zen had mixed up Jiaogulan with an analogous herb called Wulianmei.

It wasn’t until 1848 that the two plants were clearly separated by Wu Qi-Jun in his book Textual Investigation of Herbal Plants, which also included additional information on Jiaogulan’s medicinal applications.

Although Jiaogulan had been used for hundreds of years as a folk herb and health tonic in the mountainous regions of southern China where it grows wild, it remained virtually unknown in the rest of the country and indeed to the world until the end of the 20th century.

Jiaogulan was not included in the standard pharmacopoeia of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), because the classical system had evolved in central China – far from the herb’s native south. Subsequently, TCM practitioners remained unfamiliar with the plant until relatively recent times.

The people of southern China were reported to have used Jiaogulan as an energizing tonic, drinking the tea in the morning to increase their strength and endurance, and in the evening to relieve fatigue and promote relaxation and quality sleep.

They recognized Jiaogulan as a rejuvenating general health elixir and took it to treat numerous conditions but especially common colds and other infectious diseases.

The folklore of the region spoke of inhabitants of villages in the Fanjing Mountain (Guizhou province) who were living to 100 years of age as a result of drinking ‘Xiancao’ or The Immortality Herb daily.

The locals are reported to have described Xiancao as being “like ginseng, but better than ginseng”.

In modern times, Jiaogulan was more or less independently ‘discovered’ in the early 1970’s, in both Japan and China.

Modern Discovery in Japan

In Japan, Jiaogulan (Gynostemma pentaphyllum) is called Amachazuru, which translates as “sweet tea vine” due to a component in the leaves that give it a mildly sweet taste.

It was precisely the herb’s sweetness that led to research in Japan by Dr. Masahiro Nagai, a professor of Pharmacognosy at Hoshi Pharmaceutical University, where he was attempting to find alternative sweeteners to sugar in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

Dr. Nagai analyzed the chemical compounds of Gynostemma (Jiaogulan) in an effort to isolate the component responsible for its sweetness.

He discovered chemicals that were identical to some of the compounds found in Panax ginseng – an unrelated plant.

He announced his findings in 1976 at the 23rd Meeting of the Japanese Society of Pharmacognosy in Hiroshima, Japan.

This event turned out to mark the end of the investigation of the herb’s sweetness and the start of research into its health properties.

The Immortal’s Fruit

Later, Dr. Tsunematsu Takemoto, a Japanese scientist and herbal medicine research specialist was investigating natural treatments for cancer and stress-induced diseases, in addition to a sugar alternative.

Dr Takemoto had been concentrating his research on Momordica grosvenori a melon fruit of the cucumber/gourd family known for both its sweetness and medicinal qualities.

Dr Takemoto became interested in the fruit because of its popularity in Chinese medicine and reputation as ‘The Immortal’s Fruit”.

Momordica is in the same family (gourd/Cucurbitaceae) as Jiaogulan, which curiously enough is known as ‘The Immortality Herb’.

His research into one ‘led him to the other and as fortune would have it Jiaogulan (Gynostemma) was growing wild in the fields and mountains of Japan.

In further examining Gynostemma, he noted the similarity of the herb’s compounds to those found in Panax ginseng. In fact, several saponins were identical.

In a seemingly insignificant perennial weed growing in his home country, Dr. Takemoto believed he might have found an inexpensive and readily available general health panacea.

His initial research found that Gynostemma contained four kinds of saponins - the major beneficial chemical compounds - exactly like those in Panax ginseng.

Over the next decade, Dr. Takemoto and his researchers identified and named 82 saponins in Gynostemma, while similar research of Panax ginseng had been found to contain up to 28 saponins.

*As of 2015 scientists have identified Gynostemma as having at least 174 different saponins.

Clinical Studies

In 1984, Dr. Takemoto conducted several experiments in a bid to demonstrate Gynostemma’s many health-supporting and medicinal benefits.

He reported that the herb increased the activity, strength and endurance of mice in an exhaustive swimming test.

He also demonstrated Jiaogulan’s efficacy as a neoplasm or tumor inhibitor, and demonstrated the herb’s adaptogenic ability in preventing the negative side effects of dexamethasone in hormone treatment therapy.

Although these findings were hugely significant, they marked only the beginning of the research that would later take place on Gynostemma.

Unfortunately, Dr. Takemoto, a driving force behind Jiaogulan research for over a decade, passed away in 1989. Japan’s research into Gynostemma slowed down considerably following his death.

Modern Discovery in China

The results of the first Chinese nationwide population census in 1970 revealed an anomaly in certain villages of the Guizhou, Guangxi and Sichuan provinces in south China.

There the census found an unusually high percentage of people living beyond 100 years of age and an extremely low incidence of cancer, senility and other serious diseases.

Curious about the reason for these intriguing results, the Chinese government assembled a team from the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences to conduct a preliminary investigation into the apparent irregularity.

In their preliminary research, the Chinese scientists considered genetics, climate, diet and various other potential factors.

Eventually they concluded the only common thread between the many centenarians in these villages and their incredible agelessness was their routine consumption of a tea made from a wild vine they called as ‘Xiancao’. In other parts of China, traditional green tea was far more commonly consumed.

The name given to the herb by the local villagers - The Immortality Herb - further intrigued the scientists.

Encouraged by the impressive Japanese data, the Chinese government appointed Dr. Jialiu Liu to lead a team of 16 scientists to further investigate the properties of the plants growing in the Mt. Fanjing Nature Reserve.

After lengthy and extensive study, the team singled out Jiaogulan as the most promising plant for continued research.

Jiaogulan [is] an herb from my native southern China that I believe possesses the most wide-ranging benefits for human health and wellness of any plant yet discovered. This may seem like a bold statement, but having studied this remarkable tonic herb for more than twenty years, I can assure you that there is strong scientific support to back up my passion for Jiaogulan
My own experience with Jiaogulan began in 1987, when I was asked by the Guizhou government to lead a team of 16 scientists to investigate the properties of plants from the Mt. Fanjing rainforest in southern China. After many years studying hundreds of herbs, we ultimately came to the realization that Jiaogulan was not only the rainforest’s most precious gift, but was in fact nature’s greatest treasure. We began to use Jiaogulan in our medical university hospital with great success for a wide variety of conditions, and before long, it was also being used at numerous other hospitals throughout China. This attracted the excited attention of scientists around the world, and today there are more than 300 studies and research papers on Jiaogulan from China, Japan, Ireland, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, and even the United States.Dr. Jialiu Liu