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Schisandra Chinensis: Unveiling Its Medicinal Wonders

Schisandra chinensis is native to northern China and Manchuria in northeastern China. In Japan it is called gomishi, and in China wuzweizi (five flavours fruit). Schisandra has been said to have the perfect blend of the five main flavours: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and pungent or spicy. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, schisandra is one of the most important herbs to improve the function of the liver, kidneys and heart, and is indexed in the Chinese and Japanese pharmacopoeias.

Schisandra, also called Chinese magnolia vine, belongs to the magnolia family and often grows in coniferous forests where it is a perennial, deciduous climbing vine up to 9 metres tall, found at high altitudes in cool climates. Medicinally the part that is used is the dried, ripe fruit which contains polysaccharides and therapeutic lignans specific to the genus, including schisandrins, schisandrols, schisantherins and gomisins, along with essential oils, organic acids, antioxidant flavonoids and phenolics as well as minerals such as iron, manganese, copper, potassium and magnesium.

Therapeutic uses

Central nervous system

The lignan compounds in schisandra have particular activity in protecting against neurodegenerative diseases such as strokes, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and significantly enhance cognitive performance. This neuroprotective activity is due to its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and mitochondrial repair mechanisms that prevent neuronal cell damage from both trauma and age-related degenerative conditions.

Schisandra also improves symptoms of anxiety, depression and motor dysfunction. It acts as a tonic and sedative herb and has been shown to improve vision, including night vision, and hearing.
Studies have been conducted showing that schisandra’s ability to improve neurological activity, including depression, is through its anti-inflammatory activity regulating the microbiota–gut–brain axis.

Anti-inflammatory

Schisandra has been shown in research to be a potent COX-2 and iNOS inhibitor, thus reducing inflammation in macrophages due to bacterial or endotoxin agents.

Schisandra also reduces platelet-activating factor (PAF), a major inflammatory trigger that is involved in a range of conditions such as asthma, vascular permeability, cardiac anaphylaxis, thrombosis, gastric ulceration and allergic skin disease to name a few.

Schisandra’s activity in inhibiting the NLRP3 inflammasome reduces symptoms of ulcerative colitis, acne, diabetic neuropathy and asthma.

Cardiovascular

In Chinese medicine schisandra was traditionally used for prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases. In rat studies, schisandra reduced aortic plaques by between 74 and 90 per cent, regulating cholesterol levels and enhancing antioxidant enzyme systems.

It also reduced the levels of oxidised LDLs and had measurable anti-inflammatory activity, reducing platelet aggregation, and had a relaxing effect on the blood vessel walls. Schisandra lowers high blood pressure and vascular fibrosis by reducing stress fibre formation from vascular injury.

Schisandra has been widely used in the treatment of acute myocardial infarction in China, research showing it reduces damage to the heart muscle cells by preserving myocardial contractility, increasing vasodilation and improving clotting time during acute heart attacks.

Liver

Schisandra has significant hepatoprotective effects against a range of chemicals. As a liver remedy it is prescribed for acute and chronic liver diseases, including viral hepatitis and liver damage from chemicals, alcohol and paracetamol. Schisandra inhibits lipid peroxidation, enhances glutathione, vitamin C and vitamin E levels and significantly improves phase 1 and phase 2 liver detoxification.

Adaptogenic

Schisandra is an important adaptogen, improving mental, physical and sensory performance and resistance to stress. Research has shown it to increase physical working capacity, protecting the human body against a range of significant stressors, including heat shock, burns, frostbite, immobilisation, decreased air pressure, inflammation, irradiation and heavy metal intoxication.

Schisandra plays a role in non-specific immunity and has been used as a marker for the level of adaptation to heavy exercise, possibly through stimulation of nitric oxide.

Endocrine

Animal research has shown that schisandra can play a significant role in managing abnormal blood sugar levels as it improves pancreatic function, stimulates insulin secretion and reduces peripheral neuropathies, as well as managing obesity by reducing lipid accumulation.

Respiratory

A traditional use for schisandra has been to treat upper respiratory tract infections and inflammation, from sepsis, trauma, pneumonia and inhalation of toxins that play a key role in triggering the development of an inflammatory response. An in vitro study on human lung cells and mouse studies showed that schisandra extracts significantly reduced lung inflammation and had the potential for treatment of this debilitating condition. It is also effective in reducing persistent coughing.

Digestive

Schisandra regulates the coordination of smooth muscle contraction and relaxation in the gut, reducing spasms and pain, stopping diarrhoea by slowing small bowel activity and reducing colon transit time.

Cancer

Overall schisandra has been shown to inhibit tumour progression through cell cycle arrest, suppression of proliferation, invasion and metastases as well as reducing angiogenesis through its antioxidant activity against many cancer cell lines.

Schisandra berries play a role as an adjuvant for chemotherapy.

Adverse reactions

While rare, schisandra can cause mild gastrointestinal symptoms including heartburn, indigestion and nausea and occasional headaches in sensitive individuals. In Chinese medicine, schisandra is contraindicated in the early stages of a cough or rash due to excess heat patterns. It is also contraindicated in pregnancy.

In animal studies few or no adverse reactions were observed.

With the ability of schisandra to improve liver detoxification, taking it in conjunction with other pharmaceuticals needs to be monitored.

Article Featured in WellBeing Magzine 206

Dr Karen Bridgman

Dr Karen Bridgman

Karen Bridgman is a holistic practitioner at Lotus Health and Lotus Dental in Neutral Bay.

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