fo-ti

Could a root eliminate the need to touch up your roots? It's certainly possible according to advocates of fo-ti, an herb used as a longevity tonic in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Native to China but also grown in Japan and Taiwan, fo-ti—polygonum multiflorum—is a climbing plant with red stems and heart-shaped leaves. Fo-ti is also known as Chinese climbing knotweed and he shou wu, or "the black-haired Mr. He."

Did You Know?
Legend has it that famine struck the village of a poor man named Mr. He. While most people left to find food and temporary work, Mr. He was too sick to leave. He gathered and ate wild plants and roots to keep from starving. One of those was the bitter fo-ti root, which the villagers hadn't previously eaten.
Gradually, Mr. He regained his health. His complexion brightened, he fathered a son, and his graying hair turned black again. He went on to live a long, vital life thanks to the herb.

Different Versions, Different Benefits

Unlike other Chinese medicinal herbs, which are taken in complex formulas, fo-ti is often taken by itself. There are two versions:

  • white (unprocessed)
  • red (cooked with a mixture of yellow rice wine and black soybean juice)

White fo-ti is generally used for constipation. Applied to the skin, it's also thought to treat acne, athlete's foot, and scrapes. Red fo-ti is considered an energy tonic. It's used to restore the color of graying hair, combat weakness and premature aging, and offset erectile dysfunction.

In TCM, red fo-ti is used to treat:

  • headaches
  • tuberculosis
  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • infertility
  • muscle soreness
  • cancer

However, a federal study of the effects of this herb on rats and mice indicated it might have actually caused cancer in some of the rodents.

Did You Know?
Fo-ti extracts are used in creams and ointments for skin conditions. Shampoos containing the herb are available to help combat hair loss and graying. It's also brewed into teas and made into pills.

Fo-ti contains emodin and other anthraquinones, substances in plants that have a laxative effect on the body (this is why it can be used to treat constipation). However, anthraquinones may also contribute to liver damage. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, several people who take fo-ti have reported liver damage, though most recovered quickly after stopping use of the herb.

One study found "surprisingly high estrogen activity" in fo-ti, meaning it could be a potential estrogen replacement source for menopausal women. Because of its estrogen activity, people with estrogen-related breast, ovarian, uterine and prostate cancers should be very cautious taking fo-ti.

Common side effects include diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, and vomiting. It may also lower the body’s potassium level, leading to symptoms such as muscle weakness. People can sometimes develop an allergic rash after taking fo-ti.

There are no proven safe or effective doses of fo-ti for adults or children. Pregnant women are advised not to use products containing it.

Caution Is the Name of the Game

While TCM practices have evolved over thousands of years and are used by millions of people, they haven't been subjected to the same types of studies and regulations that other treatments have. Fo-ti and other herbal medicines often are marketed in the United States as dietary supplements. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations for supplements are less stringent than those for prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there have been reports of Chinese herbal products containing drugs, toxins, and materials not listed in the ingredients. This can pose a number of problems, due to allergies and unexpected reactions with other drugs.

TCM stresses that harmony between the opposing but complementary forces of yin and yang is what supports good health, and that disease results from an imbalance in those forces. Without scientific study, most non-TCM doctors say there's not enough evidence to prove that Chinese herbal products work.

Talk to your doctor before trying fo-ti as a complementary health approach. It's better to use herbal medicines under the supervision of your doctor or someone trained in herbal medications. Information on the credentials and licensing of herbalists is available on the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website.