Awarded the title as The First Herb of Invigorating Qi and Strengthening Spleen, no doubt Bai Zhu (Atractylodes Macrocephala) lives up to that reputation thanks for its consistent performance. As one of eight well-known medicinal specialties in Zhejiang province, this Chinese herb is produced mainly in Shao Xing.
Given its special effect in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is treated as an equal to Ren Shen (Ginseng). Thus an old saying goes: “Ren Shen in the north and Bai Zhu in the south.” Through the famous classic formula of Si Jun Zi Tang, Four Gentleman Decoction, a quick glance will be given to their significance. Just a quick footnote here, it is the fundamental formula for deficiency of spleen and stomach Qi, which is the inspiration source of numerous subsequent formulas aiming to tonify spleen and benefit vital energy.
What is Bai Zhu?
Also known as White Atractylodes Rhizome or Atractylodes Macrocephala Rhizome, it refers to the root of Atractylodes macrocephala Koidz., which is a perennial herb, 30 to 60 in height. Rhizome is fleshy and clenched like a fist. Stem is erect and branching in upper part. Leaves grow alternatively, 3-parted or undivided in upper stem, elliptic lobes, and margined with spinescents. This perennial flowering plant is with terminal capitulum, bell-shaped involucre, purple-red corolla, and slightly flattened ellipsoid achene. Flowering period is July to September and fruit-bearing stage is August to October.
The medicinal part is the root, which is collected in winter, dirt removed, dried over a fire or in the sun, and fibril removed. It clenches like a fist, 3 to 13cm long, and 1.5 to 7cm in diameter. The surface is grayish yellow or grayish brown in color, with tubercule and intermittent lengthwise wrinkles and fibril scars, and remnant stem base and bud scars on top. The texture is hard and difficult to break. Traverse cross section is uneven, yellowish white to light brown, and scattered with brownish yellow oil spots. It has a delicate fragrance and sweet but pungent taste. But it is sticky when chewing.
What is it used for?
Now modern researches show that it can adjust gastrointestinal motility, fight ulcer, protect liver, improve immune system, relieve stress, enhance hematopoietic function, induce diuresis, fight oxidation, slow down aging, regulate blood sugar level, and fight cancer. Compared with the traditional applications, above-mentioned findings is perfectly in line with them, which to some extent gives more scientific proof to this amazing herb.
Property and indications
From the TCM’s perspective, it is bitter, sweet, and warm in nature and goes to meridians of spleen and stomach. Main functions are to invigorate Qi and strengthen the spleen, eliminate dampness and promote diuresis, stop sweat, and prevent miscarriage. Main clinical usage and indications are lack of appetite due to spleen deficiency, abdominal distension and diarrhea, dizziness and palpitation caused by phlegm and retained fluid, edema, spontaneous sweating, and fetal irritability. Regular dosage is 6 to 12 grams.
Related Chinese herbal formulas
This herb is widely used in TCM practice. Only in Shang Han Lun (Treatise on Febrile Diseases) and Jin Gui Yao Lue (Synopsis of Golden Chamber), it has been enlisted in 35 formulas. The list can be much longer if taking all later formulas into consideration. However, just a few of them are shared here just for your reference.
(1). Li Zhong Tang or Wan, from Shang Han Lun, has four ingredient herbs. The other three are Ren Shen (Ginseng), Gan Cao (Licorice), and Gan Jiang (Dried Ginger). It is mainly used for epigastric distention and pain and difficulty in urination.
(2). Si Jun Zi Tang, from Tai Ping Hui Min He Ji Ju Fang (Formulas of the Bureau of People’s Welfare Pharmacy), exchanges Fu Ling (Poria) for Gan Jiang on the basis of Li Zhong Tang or Wan. Its indications are pale complexion, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, fatigue, light-colored tongue with white coating, and weak pulse. This formula is derived from the famous Li Zhong Wan. It is well known that Gan Jiang rescues devastated yang for its warm nature while Fu Ling is much mild. Thus the whole formula has changed its nature and they turn into four gentleman.
(3). Shen Ling Bai Zhu San, from Tai Ping Hui Min He Ji Ju Fang (Formulas of the Bureau of People’s Welfare Pharmacy), is the formula that add Shan Yao (Chinese Yam), Lian Zi (Lotus Seed), Bai Bian Dou (Hyacinth Bean), Yi Yi Ren (Seeds of Job’s Tears), Sha Ren (Cardamon), and Jie Geng (Balloon Flower Rhizome) on the basis of Si Jun Zi Tang. It is typically used for excessive damp due to spleen deficiency. According to interpromotion of Five Elements, it is a typical application of reinforcing earth to generate metal. By the way, its other forms like Pian (tablet) and Wan (teapills) are popular over-the-counter drugs in China up to this day.
(4). Ban Xia Bai Zhu Tian Ma Tang, from Yi Xue Xin Wu (Medical Revelations), is mainly used for abnormal ascending of phlegm and retained fluid, palpitation caused by excessive phlegm, dizziness and headache. Besides the mentioned three herbs, others are Chen Pi (Tangerine Peel), Fu Ling (Poria), Gan Cao, Sheng Jiang (Fresh Ginger Rhizome), Da Zao (Chinese Date, Jujube), and Man Jing Zi (Vitex Fruit Seed).
Possible side effects and contraindications
TCM believes that it should be avoided by those suffering from dryness and thirst due to Yin deficiency and stomach bloating and abdominal distension caused by stagnation of the circulation of vital energy. This lesson have been confirmed by many cases in TCM remedies in history so care should be taken when encountering such situation.