Is Jiaogulan the New Ginseng?

Imagine mountains and valleys where an herbal tea has the power to give you near-immortality. For some believers in the power of jiaogulan, such a place exists.

Also known as sweet tea vine, fairy herb, and southern ginseng, jiaogulan is a climbing vine native to the mountainous regions of southern China and other parts of Asia. It’s a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes cucumbers and melons.

The vine’s leaves were first used as a food, and could be eaten by themselves or used in a salad. They're also used as a sweetener. Tea made from the leaves is caffeine-free and has a slightly bittersweet taste.

Immortality Herb?

The Chinese call jiaogulan an "immortality" herb because of its rejuvenating properties and its ability to help the body resist stress as well as boost cardiovascular health. Practitioners of herbal medicine classify it as an “adaptogen” because it’s believed to help the body without causing harm or imbalance.

It was first described in traditional Chinese medicine during the Ming Dynasty, as a folk treatment for conditions such as peptic ulcers. Jiaogulan tea is also thought to help relieve coughing, colds, and other respiratory issues like chronic bronchitis.

While it wasn't used widely in the traditional Chinese medicine system, in the Guizhou Province, teas made from jiaogulan were believed to contribute to longevity. However, there is no scientific proof of its benefits as an anti-aging herb. If there was, you’d have probably heard about the key to immortality by now!

A Top Tonic Herb

Advocates of jiaogulan claim that it can improve your circulation and lower your blood sugar. Studies show that it can also lower cholesterol by causing the liver to convert more sugar and carbohydrates into energy, rather than triglycerides, which the body stores as fat.

A 2006 study, meanwhile, found that taking jiaogulan helped people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. The extract lowered their body mass indexes as well as their triglycerides levels, insulin resistance, and liver fat. Research is extremely limited and ongoing.

Other researchers are testing jiaogulan's cancer fighting abilities. A 2014 study found that it can help block some of the cell changes needed for tumors to grow.

Ginseng Substitute?

Jiaogulan contains saponins, which are natural detergents, experts say. Saponins can bind with bile acids, helping reduce cholesterol. They also may help lower the risk of colon cancer.

While the saponins in jiaogulan are chemically very similar to those in ginseng, jiaogulan contains more of them — more than double, by some estimates.

Ginseng is used in Chinese medicine to treat stress, insomnia, colds, and flu. It's also said to improve concentration and memory, and physical stamina and endurance. In Western medicine, it's used as a stimulant.

Jiaogulan advocates note that it's used for many of the same benefits as ginseng, and say that it can be a substitute for ginseng. Jiaogulan doesn't contain many of the other chemical compounds found in ginseng, though, and can't be considered identical.

If You Want to Try Jiaogulan

Talk to your healthcare provider first if you want to try jiaogulan as a complementary health approach. It's better to use herbal medicines under their supervision or that of someone trained in herbal medications. Information on the credentials and licensing of herbalists is available from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

There are no proven effective doses of the herb for adults or children. Herbalists usually recommend two to four cups of jiaogulan tea per day. Other than causing nausea and increased bowel movements in some people, it's not known to have many negative side effects. Besides tea, it's also available as an extract and in pill form.