As a top-grade medicinal herb, atractylodes rhizome was first recorded in Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (Agriculture God’s Canon of Materia Medica). Apparently it didn’t draw a distinction between the white atractylodes macrocephala (Bai Zhu) and the red atractylodes lancea (Cang Zhu) yet. According to the delicate difference in healing properties, later they were subdivided by Zhang Zhongjing, one of the most regarded ancient herbal doctors in China.
What is red atractylodes?
This plant, a perennial erect herb found mostly in Korea, Russia, and China, is a member of the Asteraceae (Compositae). Medicinally there are three different species commonly used – Atractylis lancea (Thunb.). DC., Atractylodes chinesis (DC.) koidz., and Atractylodes japonica Koidz.ez Kitam. And the medicinal part is the rhizome.
Rhizoma Atractylis lancea Thunb.
It is irregularly nodular or slightly cylindrical beaded, crooked sometimes, typically branched once, 3 to 10cm long, and 1 to 2cm in diameter. The surface is from yellowish brown to gray brown, with fine lengthwise wrinkles and few residue fibrous roots, often with shallow transverse grooves at node, round stem scars between nodes, residue caudex at one end, occasionally with stem scars, and some with white flocculent crystalloid. The texture is hard but fragile. The cross section is slightly uneven, almost white or yellowish white, and sporadically with many orange-yellow or brownish red oil spots. And it has a very rich and nice fragrance and slightly sweet but bitter and pungent taste.
Rhizoma atractylis chinensis DC.
Most of them are knobbly bulk, or some nodular cylinder, often crooked and with short branches, 4 to 10cm long, and 0.7 to 4cm in diameter. The surface is dark brown and with oil spots, but no crystallization even placing for a long time. And it has a light aroma and bitter and pungent taste.
Rhizoma atractylodes japonica
Most are nodular cylinders, 4 to 12cm long, 1 to 2.5cm in diameter, and with dark brown surface. The texture is light and with fibroid cross section. And it has a stronger sweet smell and pungent and slightly bitter taste.
What is it used for?
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is acrid, bitter, and warm in nature and covers meridians of spleen, stomach, and liver.
Main functions are to dry damp and strengthen spleen, expel pathogenic wind and cold, and improve eye sight. Main uses and indications are abdominal fullness and distention, diarrhea, edema, beriberi, atrophy and flaccidity, arthralgia due to wind and dampness, common cold due to wind-cold, night blindness, dampness obstructing spleen-stomach, lassitude, loss of appetite, vomiting, and phlegm and retained fluid, etc.
Usual dosage is 3 to 9 grams in decoction.
Related Chinese herbal formulas
It is one of the most used Chinese herbs in herbal treatments. The followings are some of them, to name but a few.
(1). In Qu Zhu Wan from Imperial Grace Formulary of the Tai Ping (Tai Ping Hui Min He Ji Ju Fang), it combines with Shen Qu (Medicated Leaven) to treat a sudden onset of diarrhea during summer, dyspepsia caused by excessive eating or improper diet, and fullness and tightness in chest and diaphragm;
(2). In Bai Hu Jia Cang Zhu Tang from Lei Zheng Huo Ren Shu (Book to Safeguard Life Arranged According to Pattern), it works with Zhi Mu (Anemarrhena Rhizome), Gan Cao (Licorice Root), Shi Gao (Gypsum), and Jing Mi (japonica rice) in herbal remedies for dampness prevalent diseases with excessive sweating;
(3). In Ping Wei San from Ju Fang (Prescription of peaceful benevolent dispensary), it joins Hou Po (Magnolia Bark), Chen Pi (Tangerine Peel), licorice, Sheng Jiang (Fresh Ginger Rhizome), and Da Zao (Chinese Date) for treatments of incoordination between the spleen and the stomach, no appetite, full and stabbing pain in abdomen, flanks and chest, bitter taste in mouth, nausea and vomiting, and often accompanied with spontaneous diarrhea;
(4). In Shen Zhu San from Tai Ping Hui Min He Ji Ju Fang, it unites with Gao Ben (Chinese Lovage Root), Bai Zhi (Angelica Root), Xi Xin (Chinese Wild Ginger), Qiang Huo (Notopterygium Root), Chuan Xiong (Szechuan Lovage Root), and Gan Cao for cures of plague in four seasons, headache, rigid neck, fever and aversion to cold, common cold, stuffy nose, low voice speaking, coughing, and dizziness.
(1). Effect on blood sugar levels. It is reported that its extract could lower blood glucose in rabbit at a dose of 6g/kg;
(2). Sterilizing effect. Smudging with equal amount of atractylodes and moxa, 200g/6 cubic metres for 2 hours, could kill mycobacterium tuberculosis, staphylococcus aureus, escherichia coli, bacillus subtilis, and pseudomonas aeruginosa, etc. It works like formaldehyde, superior to ultraviolet rays and lactic acid;
(3). Sedation. Large dose has central depressant effect.
Potential side effects and contraindications
Overdose of essential oil, the main effective components in atractylodes root, has obvious side effects, which is considered as dryness TCM wise. So this herb tends to be processed with rice water and wheat bran to remove this bias. In addition, it should be avoided by those with internal heat due to yin deficiency and excessive sweating caused by qi deficiency.