Can Dong Quai Help with Menopause?
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Why Is Dong Quai Called the ‘Female Ginseng’?

Dong Quai

What is dong quai?

Key points

  1. Dong quai, also known as the “female ginseng,” is believed by many to offer health benefits for women, specifically related to menstruation, menopause, and fertility.
  2. People with conditions like inflammation, heart disease, and cancer may also find relief from their symptoms with this herb.
  3. There’s aren’t many well-designed studies to support the claimed benefits of dong quai.

Angelica sinensis, also known as dong quai, is a fragrant plant with a cluster of small white flowers. The flower belongs to the same botanical family as carrots and celery. People in China, Korea, and Japan dry its root for medicinal use. Dong quai has been used as an herbal medication for more than 2,000 years. It’s used to:

  • build blood health
  • boost or activate blood circulation
  • treat blood deficiency
  • regulate the immune system
  • relieve pain
  • relax bowels

Herbalists prescribe dong quai to women who need to “enrich” their blood. Enriching, or nourishing, your blood means to increase the quality of your blood. Women may find the most benefits from dong quai after having a baby or during and after menstruation for issues like premenstrual syndrome (PMS), menopause, and cramps. This is why dong quai is also known as the “female ginseng.”

Use in the western world
Between 1899 and 1946, Europeans used a liquid extract of dong quai to stimulate blood flood in the pelvic area. This product was called Eumenol. The instructions called for 1 coffee spoon three times a day for your period regulation or menstrual cramps. In 1946, companies stopped distributing Eumenol due to lack of scientific evidence about its effects.

Dong quai is also called:

  • Radix Angelica Sinensis
  • tang-kui
  • dang gui
  • Chinese angelica root

There’s little scientific evidence about the direct benefits of dong quai. The herb is more of a therapeutic remedy and should not be used as first-line treatment. Ask your doctor about any concerns or potential side effects, especially if you’re taking medication.

What are the proposed benefits of dong quai?

Increasing research shows that there may be scientific connections between dong quai’s uses and its claims. But there aren’t many well-designed Western-style trials to form a clinical conclusion. The proposed effects may be due to dong quai’s trans-ferulic acid and ability to dissolve in fats and oils as an essential oil. These components may have anti-inflammatory effects and decrease blood clotting.

People who may find benefits in dong quai are people with:

  • heart conditions
  • high blood pressure
  • inflammation
  • headaches
  • infections
  • nerve pain
  • liver or kidney problems

In Chinese medicine theory, different parts of the root may have different effects.

Dong Quai
Root partIndicated uses
Quan dong quai (whole root)enrich the blood and promote blood flow
Dong quai tou (root head)promote blood flow and stop bleeding
Dong quai shen (main root body, no head or tails)enrich the blood without promoting blood flow
Dong quai wei (extended roots)promote blood flow and slow blood clots
Dong quai xu (finer hair-like roots)promote blood flow and relieve pain

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Promoting healthy blood circulation

The available data on how your body absorbs and excretes dong quai suggest that dong quai may improve blood circulation and relieve pain. Research has also found that water and ethanol extracts from dong quai effectively decreased fat accumulation. Excess fatty tissue can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

One 2005 study reported an increase of blood flow and drop in blood pressure in a dog, cat, and rabbit after injecting dong quai root oil, according to the European Medicines Agency.

Potential role in cancer treatment

Dong quai extracts have the potential to stop the cell cycle and cause cell death in cancerous cells. Research suggests that dong quai can potentially kill cancer cells for brain tumors, leukemia, and colon cancer. But others studies note that there isn’t significant impact against cancer cells, especially in humans.

A 2011 study found that taking dong quai can be effective in reducing the incidence of anemia — low red blood cell count — in people with cancer.

The near-universal uses for the herb mean that men and women take it for many reasons. Always talk to your doctor before taking the herb. It may cause side effects with other medications you may be taking.

Why do women take dong quai?

As the “female ginseng,” dong quai is popular for many women who have:

  • pale and dull complexion
  • dry skin and eyes
  • blurry vision
  • ridges in their nail beds
  • frail body
  • rapid heart beat

Soothing menstrual cramps

Women who experience abdominal cramps due to their period may find dong quai soothing. Ligustilide, a component of dong quai, is shown to promote nonspecific antispasmodic activity, especially for uterine muscles. Dong quai may also help regulate your menstrual cycle, although there’s little evidence for this.

A 2004 study showed that 39 percent of the women who took a concentrated dose of dong quai twice daily reported an improvement in their abdominal pain (such that they didn’t need painkillers) and a normalizing of their menstrual cycle. The majority (54 percent) thought that the pain was less severe but still needed painkillers to do day-to-day tasks.

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But the study wasn’t balanced, and the results were too similar to the control group to conclude that dong quai directly affects menstrual pain. It’s possible that dong quai simply has a placebo effect.

Menopause

Some people take dong quai to treat hot flashes. However, a 2006 study published in the journal American Family Physician also concludes that more research needs to be done on dong quai’s effectiveness in treating hot flashes. In one randomized controlled trial, which lasted for over a year, there was no significant difference in women who took a hot flash management product with dong quai as an ingredient.

Side effects in women

The American Pregnancy Association considers dong quai unsafe because it stimulates the muscles of the uterus, which could possibly lead to miscarriage. This herb also has some sedative and sleep-inducing effects, so it’s not recommended to use it during breastfeeding. Not using it during pregnancy and breastfeeding is the safest way to know it won’t affect your baby.

Dong quai may also act like estrogen in your body and affect hormone-sensitive conditions that worsen when exposed to estrogen, such as breast cancer.

There’s also no scientific evidence about dong quai’s potential to boost your fertility. Studies show that dong quai can thicken the lining of the uterus, although this was only tested in rats.

What are the side effects of dong quai?

Because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate dong quai, its side effects aren’t as well known as those of prescription medicines. However, there are some confirmed side effects and interactions based on its 2,000-year history as a supplement. These include:

  • difficulty breathing
  • drop in blood pressure
  • drowsiness
  • fever
  • headaches
  • increased bleeding risk
  • low blood sugar
  • stomach upset 
  • sweating
  • trouble sleeping
  • vision loss 

People who are allergic to plants in the carrot family, which includes anise, caraway, celery, dill, and parsley, shouldn’t take dong quai. Dong quai is in the same family as these plants and could cause a reaction.

Other medications dong quai may potentially react with include:

  • birth control pills
  • disulfiram, or Antabuse
  • hormone replacement therapy
  • ibuprofen, or Motrin and Advil
  • lorazepam, or Ativan
  • naproxen, or Naprosyn and Aleve
  • topical tretinoin

Blood thinners like warfarin, or Coumadin in particular, can be dangerous with dong quai.

This list isn’t comprehensive. Always talk to your doctor before starting to take it, and read the manufacturer’s recommendations carefully about how much to take.

How do you take dong quai?

You can find most Chinese herbs in:

  • bulk or raw form, including roots, twigs, leaves, and berries
  • granular forms, which can be mixed with boiling water
  • pill form, to be mixed with other herbs or sold solely as dong quai
  • injection form, typically in China and Japan
  • dried form, to be boiled and strained as tea or soup

Dong quai is rarely taken on its own. The idea behind traditional Chinese herbal medicine is that herbs work together, as one herb can counteract the side effects of the other. As such, herbalists usually prescribe a combination of herbs to target unique and individualized health needs. Buy from a trustworthy source. The FDA doesn’t monitor quality and some herbs can be impure or contaminated.

An herb commonly utilized with dong quai is black cohosh. This herb is also used to reduce symptoms associated with menstruation and menopause.

A trained practitioner can monitor your signs and symptoms and tell you if dong quai is right for you. Read labels carefully as this could impact the dosage you commonly take.

The takeaway

Dong quai is a supplement that has proposed benefits for blood health and may have an effect on slowing cancer growth. While it’s been used in Chinese medicine for over 2,000 years, there aren’t many scientific studies to show that dong quai can significantly improve your blood health. Talk to your doctor before taking dong quai, especially if you’re taking other medications. Discontinue dong quai and visit a doctor if you experience any type of easy bleeding, such as bleeding gums or blood in your urine or stool. Avoid using dong quai if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to conceive. 

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