Codonopsis is the fresh or dried root of the plant Codonopsis pilosula. Codonopsis is a small perennial native to Asia. It is especially abundant in the Shanxi and Szechuan provinces of China. Codonopsis grows to a height of about 5 ft (1.5 m) in dense brushy thickets and at the edges of woods where the soil remains moist. Codonopsis is well known in Chinese herbalism. Its Chinese name is tang shen. The plant is also cultivated in many other parts of the world, including the United States, because of its distinctive bell-shaped greenish-purple flowers. Other names for codonopsis include bastard ginseng and bonnet bellflower.
Codonopsis, or tang shen, has been used in China for more than 2,000 years. It is one of the best-known and most widely used herbs in Chinese medicine. In the Chinese system of health, the yin aspects of nature, which have to do with cold, moisture, dark, and passivity, must be kept in balance with the yang aspects, which have to do with heat, dryness, light, and activity. Ill health occurs when the energies and elements of the body are out of balance with nature or in interior disharmony. Health is restored by taking herbs and treatments that restore this balance. In traditional Chinese medicine, codonopsis is said to have a neutral nature and a sweet taste. It is used as a tonic for the lungs and spleen and to strengthen and nourish the blood and balance metabolic function.
Like ginseng, codonopsis is an adaptogen. Adaptogens are substances that non-specifically enhance and regulate the body's ability to withstand stress. They increase the body's general performance in ways that help the whole body resist disease. Codonopsis is thought to benefit the entire body by boosting strength, increasing stamina and alertness, rejuvenating the body, strengthening the immune system, aiding recovery from chronic illness, reducing stress, and stimulating the appetite. It belongs to a class of herbs called stomachics, which means that they tonify the stomach to improve digestive functions.
Codonopsis is sometimes called the "poor man's ginseng." It is often substituted in Chinese herbal formulas for ginseng, although it has a milder action that lasts for a shorter time. Scientists have shown that the actions of ginseng and codonopsis, although similar, are caused by very different chemical compounds. This type of substitution based on function rather than chemical structure, however, is considered acceptable in Chinese medicine.
In addition to the whole-body effects of codonopsis, the herb is used for a number of other specific conditions. It can be taken internally, in various combinations with other herbs, for anemia; asthma; cancer; diarrhea; headaches, especially tension headaches; hemorrhoids; high blood pressure; mucus in the lungs and shortness of
University and medical researchers became interested in codonopsis only in the 1980s. Most of the research work has been done in China. Overall research findings suggest that codonopsis is relatively effective and safe. Most of this work has been done in test tubes and on small laboratory animals. Large-scale controlled human studies have yet to be done.
In many studies, scientists have found that extract of codonopsis root helps mice withstand stress, whether that stress comes from swimming, high temperatures, or oxygen deprivation. Other studies show that codonopsis boosts the immune system. In research done in China in 1997, codonopsis was shown to protect laboratory animals against gastric ulcers.
Other research has shown that codonopsis can increase the number of red blood cells and hemoglobin in animals. It also improves the production of antibodies. Studies are being done to determine if codonopsis would be useful in treating HIV infection; such autoimmune diseases as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), or immune systems that have been weakened by chemotherapy. Although the results are promising, definitive answers cannot be obtained until controlled studies on humans are performed.
Codonopsis root comes in different grades. Roots at least three years old are harvested in the autumn after the leaves of the plant have died back. The best quality roots are large, clean, and dry on the surface, but moist inside when chewed. Codonopsis has a pleasant taste when eaten raw. Poor quality codonopsis is almost tasteless and may be dry and dirty.
Although codonopsis is sometimes eaten raw, the dried root is usually made into a decoction, which is an extract of the plant made by boiling. Tinctures, which are solutions of alcohol and water-containing plant matter, are used in the West but not in traditional Chinese medicine. Commercially produced tablets, capsules, and tinctures of codonopsis are available. Dosage varies with the condition being treated. Codonopsis is often used in Chinese preparations, and may replace ginseng in almost any formula.
Years of use in China suggest that codonopsis is not toxic and can be used by almost everyone. In China, babies are sometimes given pieces of codonopsis root to teethe on. It is given to children to help them grow strong, and breast-feeding women use it as a tonic to increase the quantity of milk they produce.
No unwanted side effects are reported with the use of codonopsis.
There are few, if any, studies of how codonopsis interacts with traditional Western medicines. It has been used for many years in combination with other Chinese herbs without incident.
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Molony, David. Complete Guide to Chinese Herbal Medicine. New York: Berkeley Books, 1998.
Teegaurden, Ron. The Ancient Wisdom of the Chinese Tonic Herbs. New York: Warner Books, 1998.
American Association of Oriental Medicine (AAOM). 433 Front Street, Catasauqua, PA 18032. (610) 266-2433.