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Jiaogulan (botanical name Gynostemma pentaphyllum) is a perennially growing plant belonging to genus Gynostemma. This genus is a member of the family Cucurbitaceae, which also includes melons, gourds and cucumbers. Gynostemma, however, does not bear the characteristic fruit produced by other members of this plant family. This is a climbing plant that attaches itself to neighbouring plants or posts for support by means of its tendrils. The plant usually grows up to a length of 8 meters.
Gynostemma produces serrated leaves that usually grow in clusters of five. However, some species of this genus may even produce clusters comprising three or seven leaves. Plants of this genus are in bloom during July and August. The blossoms are dioecious in nature (each flower only carrying either male or female part). This is the main reason why both male and female flowers need to be cultivated close to each other to obtain seeds. Plants belonging to this genus cannot fertilize by themselves, but are pollinated by insects.
In China, this plant was extensively employed by the common people. In fact, the herb called ginseng was expensive and, hence, used by their emperor, aristocracy and the affluent. As gynostemma has all the therapeutic attributes possessed by ginseng and is relatively very cheap owing to its easy availability, it was mostly used by the common people.
“Jiaogulan” or gynostemma is believed to be an adaptogenic herb, which helps to restore the normal balance of one’s entire body.
In addition, this adaptogen is also useful in augmenting the strength as well as the stamina of the body. It also helps to protect the body as well as the mind from all types of stress, including physical and mental. This adaptogen is particularly useful for our digestive, nervous, immune, cardiovascular and reproductive systems. It works as an extremely powerful health tonic.
Gynostemma encloses saponins, which are said to be responsible for the herb’s adaptogenic properties. In fact, among all natural plants, the saponin content of gynostemma is the highest. Precisely speaking, compared to ginseng, gynostemma contains four times more saponins, which are known as “gypenosides”. These saponins are similar to those contained by ginseng and called “ginsenosides”. When ingested some amount of the saponins contained by gynostemma convert to ginsenosides.
Therefore, consuming gynostemma not only provides you with the useful gypenosides, but also ginsenosides, which are usually found in ginseng. As gynostemma is comparatively very inexpensive, it is an extremely popular and widely used health supplement, especially in China.
In Asia, gynostemma has become very popular, especially as a supplement in weight control programs. As far as the body weight is concerned, gynostemma is effective in two ways. While this herb helps overweight or obese people to shed some extra flab, it helps slender people as well as athletes to put on weight. At the same time, this herb also facilitates in regulating the blood sugar levels and decreases hyperlipidemia (body fat). All these actions of gynostemma are crucial for optimizing the metabolic functioning of the body. Gynostemma is also effective in maintaining healthy bowel movements. In addition, this herb also works to cleanse the stomach and intestines by getting rid of the toxins and waste materials from the body.
Gynostemma is also helpful for sustaining the stand levels of blood sugar and eliminating harmful fats from the bloodstream. Ensuring normal blood sugar levels and getting rid of damaging fats from the bloodstream it enhances the functioning of the metabolic system.
Studies undertaken with this herb to treat people with type 2 diabetes have demonstrated that it results in quick improvement of insulin and glycemia sensitivity. In this way, gynostemma provides a basis for an effectual as well as safe means to treat type 2 diabetic patients.
Gynostemma is a potent antioxidant and helps to reinforce the immune system by means of augmenting the number as well as intensifying the functioning of white blood cells. In addition, this herb is also helpful in alleviating stress, as consuming gynostemma soothes and also unwinds the central nervous system. This herb also has calming effect, especially when it is used by an overexcited person. On the other hand, it also stimulates a person when a person is depressed. Recent studies have revealed that gynostemma is also effective for treating neurological problems, for instance stress, anxiety and depression.
People in China use gynostemma to lessen exhaustion, cure bronchitis and also enhance sexual function. In addition, this herb also works as a tonic for the entire body. In fact, gynostemma is considered to be a potent tonic for health.
Use of this herb also helps to lower the level of serum cholesterol, bad cholesterol (low density lipoprotein or LDL) and triglycerides. It also works to improve the good cholesterol (high density lipoprotein or HDL). Gynostemma is also effectual in bringing down high blood pressure (hypertension) and augments the functioning of the cardiovascular system by means of improving blood circulation through the coronary system and lessening vascular resistance. It is also capable of discharging nitric oxide, thereby relaxing the blood vessels.
Gynostemma is also useful for arresting the aging process and it also possesses attributes that offer a longer and healthier life. The anti-aging effects of this herb are attributed to its aptitude to augment the antioxidant called superoxide dismutase (SOD). In fact, superoxide dismutase is also extremely useful in putting off oxidation damage caused by detrimental free radicals. Consumption of this herb on a regular basis may enable a person to be in sound health till they are very old. Gynostemma is very popular among bodybuilders and athletes, as it helps to augment strength and stamina. It is useful in building the lean muscles and diminishing tiredness.
In addition to the above mentioned therapeutic properties, jiaogulan also encloses several trace minerals, vital minerals, amino acids as well as vitamins that are generally useful for our body. This is known to be an extremely potent herb.
A number of studies have been undertaken to examine the anti-cancer actions of gynostemma. Findings of these studies have revealed that this herb has the ability to inhibit carcinogenic cells of various forms of cancer. Currently, scientists are engaged in exhaustive studies into the herb’s anti-cancer activity as well as its potential in the form of a prophylactic/ protective agent for patients infected with HIV. Some of the findings suggest that gynostemma may work to prevent healthy cells from turning out to be carcinogenic and, at the same time, interrupt with the rapid proliferation of the existing carcinogenic cells.
Findings of many studies undertaken to examine the adaptogenic effects of gynostemma have shown that the herb is useful for lowering hypertension, while raising hypotension – thereby sustaining the normal range of blood pressure. Studies undertaken in vitro (laboratories) also suggest that in isolated heart cells, this herb encourages nitric oxide release. Scientists are of the view that it is possibly one means by which jiaogulan or gynostemma normalizes the blood pressure, reducing hypertension.
During a double-blind study, scientists administered gypenosides (saponins present in gynostemma) to people enduring a condition known as Grade II hypertension. The findings showed that the herb is 82 percent effectual in lowering hypertension. On the other hand, ginseng has been found to be 46 percent effective, while a hypertension medication called indapamide is 93 percent effective in lowering high blood pressure.
Many people often consume jiaogulan or gynostemma in the form of an herbal tea. In addition, the herb is also available in pill and capsule forms. Gynostemma is also sold in the form of an alcohol extract.
The leaves and tender stems of gynostemma are edible when they are cooked. The flavour of the leaves of this herb is somewhat sweet and they are also used to prepare a tea.
Habitat and cultivation
In most places having temperate climatic conditions, it is possible to grow gynostemma in the form of an annual plant, provided the soil is well-drained and the plants receive full sunlight. However, it is worth noting that this herb does not thrive in cold climatic conditions, especially when the temperature is lower than freezing point.
This herb needs a fertile, well-drained soil that can retain moisture. It grows best in a protected position and in semi-shaded places. Gynostemma is a climbing plant, which attaches itself for support through its tendrils. The species is dioecious and it is essential to grow both the male and female plants in close vicinity if you require its seeds. However, it has been found that some plants of this species are also monoecious.
Gynostemma is generally propagated from its seeds, which need to be soaked in warm water for about 24 hours prior to sowing. Ideally, the pre-soaked seeds should be sown in rich compost inside a greenhouse during spring. You should sow not more than two to three seeds in each pot. Pick the most robust seedlings from each pot and continue growing them in the same pot and in similar conditions to enable rapid and healthy growth. Plant them outdoor after the last anticipated frost is over. These plants require to be protected using a cloche or a frame till they are well established.
Chemical analysis of gynostemma has revealed that it contains triterpenoid saponins gypenosides that are closely associated with ginsenosides, which are also found in ginseng. In fact, most of the studies undertaken on ginsenosides were undertaken on gynostemma after the 1960s when the Chinese came to the conclusion that this herb may be a relatively reasonably priced resource of adaptogenic compound, which would take the pressure off the stock of original ginseng. This herb possesses adaptogenic effects, which include controlling the immune system, blood pressure and also enhancing endurance as well as stamina.
Side effects and cautions
It is important to note that you should never take gynostemma along with herbs or medications that help to control blood clots or suppress the immune system. As studies undertaken on animals have shown that gynostemma has resulted in birth defects, women should stay away from it during pregnancy. It is advisable that even children and nursing mothers should not take it, as not much is known about the potential effects of gynostemma in the long run.