Dong Quai An Ancient Mystery

Traditional Chinese herbalists believe that dong quai can assist in helping women have more comfortable menstrual cycles. They also say it can help them recover from childbirth. Women who experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or discomfort during their period also sometimes used this herb as a treatment.

Dong quai — also known as dang gui, tang kuei and Chinese angelica root — belongs to the same botanical family as carrots and celery. While its small flowers are known for their fragrance, it is the root that has been used in Chinese medicine for over 2,000 years. Women who need their blood “nourished” after having a baby, or from losing blood during menstruation, can find relief from dong quai, says herbalist Vel Natarajan. It also can regulate flow during menstruation.

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Who Needs Dong Quai?

When an herbalist refers to nourishing blood, they don’t mean with vitamins and nutrients. Those things had not yet been discovered when Chinese herbal medicine became established, explains Natarajan. As such, herbalists make diagnoses based on sight, not science. They use “nourish” in terms of adding vitality in a general and unspecific way. They decide whether a woman may be a candidate for dong quai treatment based on her visual appearance. Women who look “dried out” — dry skin and eyes, blurry vision, ridges in the nail bed, or frail — may benefit from having their blood nourished.

According to Natarajan, dong quai can “get the blood moving,” which might make it useful to women who have no period at all — a condition known as amenorrhea. However, there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of dong quai for any conditions whatsoever, despite its frequent use in helping with poor blood circulation, high blood pressure, and menstrual cramps and headache.

There is even less evidence to support its most famous use — namely, treating symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes. Most research on over-the-counter herbal and alternative supplements for this use is inconclusive. In addition, there is no data available on how safe these are in the long-term.

Conflicting Claims

Elizabeth Walker, a Chinese herbalist in Canada, says that some research does exist to show the herb can be useful in treating cancer patients with anemia. However, Yanyan Li, a nutrition professor at Husson University in Bangor, Maine, notes that there is also a small amount of research showing that it can stimulate breast cancer growth. She recommends that women with breast cancer avoid dong quai.

She stressed that many studies where dong quai was used also included giving subjects formulas that included other herbs. Results could have come from a synergetic effect, which is what herbalists actually strive for.

The Best Way to Take Dong Quai

Chinese herbs are rarely used individually, says Natarajan. The idea behind traditional Chinese herbal medicine is that herbs work together in concert. One may counteract the side effects of the other, for instance. As such, herbal combinations are usually created to target unique and individualized health needs.

Natarajan strongly advises against anyone diagnosing and treating themselves with Chinese herbs. Signs and symptoms need to be monitored by a trained practitioner.

You can find most Chinese herbs in bulk or raw form, including roots, twigs, leaves, and berries. There are also granule forms of herbs available that can be mixed with boiling water. While pill supplements are available, Natarajan notes that the advantage of raw and granule forms is the ability to customize formulas.

As with most herbal remedies and supplements, dong quai is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Dr. Morton Tavel, an Indianapolis cardiologist and the author of “Snake Oil is Alive and Well,” warns against the use of herbs.

“Since we lack the tools for adequate reporting and analysis, we are really in the dark about the toxicity of any of them,” he says.