Fo-ti is also known as Chinese climbing knotweed or “he shou wu,” which means “the black-haired Mr. He.” Its scientific name is Polygonum multiflorum. It’s a climbing plant that’s native to China and is also grown in Taiwan and Japan.
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), fo-ti has been used in longevity tonics to ward off aging. It’s also been used to treat a variety of other conditions, such as constipation and skin problems. But more research is needed to test the purported benefits of fo-ti. While it might help treat certain health conditions, it’s also been linked to side effects and serious risks.
Always talk to your doctor before trying a new dietary supplement or complementary treatment, including fo-ti.
In TCM, medicinal herbs are often combined in complex formulas. But fo-ti is often taken by itself. There are two versions:
- white fo-ti, which is unprocessed
- red fo-ti, which is typically cooked with a mixture of yellow rice wine and black soybean juice
In TCM, white fo-ti is generally used to relieve constipation. It’s also used to treat acne, athlete’s foot, and scrapes. Red fo-ti is considered an energy tonic. TCM practitioners believe it can help restore the color of graying hair, combat premature aging, and offset erectile dysfunction. It’s also used to treat:
- muscle soreness
- high blood pressure
TCM stresses the importance of harmony between opposing but complementary forces in your body: yin and yang. Practitioners of TCM believe that disease results from an imbalance in those forces. But most non-TCM doctors say there’s not enough evidence to support the use of many traditional Chinese remedies. More research is needed to test the purported health benefits of fo-ti.
Fo-ti’s anti-aging reputation has gained some scientific support. According to a review published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, some research suggests that a compound found in fo-ti may help treat Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Investigators have found that it may have neuroprotective properties and antioxidant effects. It’s also been linked to improvements in learning and memory in research on mice. According to the same review, some studies also suggest that fo-ti may contain compounds that can help treat inflammation, high cholesterol, and cancer.
Another study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found “surprisingly high estrogen activity” in fo-ti. This suggests it might provide a potential estrogen replacement source for menopausal women.
When it comes to using fo-ti for constipation, certain compounds in the herb have a laxative effect. Those compounds are called anthraquinones. They may also cause liver damage. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, several people have experienced acute liver damage after taking fo-ti. Most of them have recovered quickly after they stop taking the herb. But some people have died.
While some of the early research findings are promising, more research is needed on the potential benefits and risks of fo-ti. The herb has been linked to side effects.
There are no proven safe or effective doses of fo-ti for adults or children. If you’re pregnant, you should avoid taking products that contain it. Because of its estrogen-like effects, you should also be cautious about taking fo-ti if you have a history of estrogen-related breast, ovarian, uterine, or prostate cancer.
Common side effects of taking fo-ti include diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain, and vomiting. It may also lower your body’s potassium level, leading to symptoms such as muscle weakness. It can also cause an allergic rash in some people. In some cases, it has been linked to acute liver damage.
Fo-ti and other herbal medicines are often marketed in the United States as dietary supplements. It’s important to note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate supplements as strictly as prescription and over-the-counter drugs. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, there have been reports of Chinese herbal products containing drugs, toxins, or heavy metals that aren’t listed on the package. Some herbal products can also interact with other medications.
While TCM practices have evolved over thousands of years and been used by millions of people, they haven’t been subjected to the same types of studies and regulations that other treatments have. Early research findings suggest that fo-ti might have some potential health benefits. But the herb has also been linked to side effects, including the risk of acute liver damage.
Talk to your doctor before trying fo-ti or other complementary treatments. Your doctor can help you understand the potential benefits and risks.