Gastrodia elata, also known as Tian Ma in Pinyin, can be traditionally used as a Chinese herb for the treatment of headaches, dizziness, numbness, convulsions in children, epilepsy, tetanus, hemiplegia, neurasthenia, angioneurotic headache, cerebral arteriosclerosis, senile dementia, sudden deafness, central retinitis, cervical spondylosis, Meniere’s syndrome, and so on. The main medicinal part is its root. Because of the huge demand clinically, the overexploitation has led to the decline of gastrodia populations in the wild. For that reason, it has been rated as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and included in the Appendix II of The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In the past the supply of gastrodia tuber was mainly from the wild resource. But things have changed since it was successfully cultivated in the 1970s and home-grown species gradually become the main source of goods.
What is gastrodia elata?
Medicinally it mainly refers to the dried tubers of Gastrodia elata blume, which is an herb in orchid family, Orchidaceae. This species have 5 variants, including Gastrodia elataf.elata, Gastrodia elataf.glaucaS.Chow (1983), Gastrodia elataf.viridis (Makino) Makino (1940), Gastrodia elataf.flavidaS.Chow (1993), and Gastrodia elataf.albaS.Chow (1983). These variations were mainly determined by Professor Zhou Xuan, the China’s most famous Tianma expert. Hence, other common names of this herb include Gastrodia Root, Rhizoma Castrodiae, Ming Tian Ma, Tianma, Rhizoma Gastrodiae Elatae, gastrodia rhizome, and the like. In China it is mainly produced in provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou. Based on the different harvesting time, there are two types of gastrodia herbs – Dong Ma (winter) and Chun Ma (spring). In general the one dug up in winter when the stem perishes is considered better in medicinal properties than the one dug in spring when they germinate. And the following steps are to clean, steam thoroughly, and dry in the air at low temperatures. Medicinally it is used moistened or steamed and sliced. By the way, the plant’s stems, leaves, and fruits are also used for medicinal purposes.
Gastrodia elata is a parasitic perennial herb, 60 to 100cm in height. The whole body is free of chlorophyll. Tubers are thick, fleshy, oblong, about 10 cm long, in diameter of 3 to 4.5cm, and with less obvious links. Erect stems are cylindrical and yellowish red. Scaly leaves are membranous, 1 to 2cm long, and with fine veins and the short-sheath lower part. Inflorescence is spicate racemes, 10 to 30cm long, and with yellowish red flowers; peduncle is short and 2 to 3mm long; Bracts are membranous and narrowly lanceolate or linear-oblong; perianth tube is in the shape of a slanting pot and with 7-8mm oblique mouth, base with slightly swollen lower part, and small triangular lobes; lip is higher than 2/3 of perianth tube; ovary is inferior, 5 to 6mm long, smooth, and with a few edges. Capsule is from oblong to oblong-obovate, about 15mm, and with short stems. Seeds are many, tiny, and powdery. Bloom time is from June to July and fruiting time is from July to August. Habitat is the wet place with a lot of humus, especially under the wood with an elevation of 1200-1800 meters, since this is a saprophytic perennial herb.
Main chemical constituents of gastrodia rhizome are gastrodin (p-hydroxymethylphenyl-β-D-glucopyranoside), 4-Hydroxybenzaldehyde, gastrodigenin, 2,4-Bis(4-hydroxybenzyl) phenol, and the like.
The medicinal uses of gastrodia elata are characterized by calming liver wind agitation by suppressing hyperactive liver and calming hyperactivity of liver-yang by tranquilizing liver and yang. However, other herbs like Cat’s Claw (Gou Teng) and Antelope Horns (Ling Yang Jiao) are also capable of what it does. So, what are the distinct health benefits of gastrodia? Actually, Cat’s Claw is of cool, light, and penetrating nature, which makes more sense in treating mild convulsions and fever in children since it is good at clearing heat for calming endogenous wind; Antelope Horns have a more powerful heat-clearing properties since it is of cold nature. In addition to be used in treating extreme heat causing wind, it cures also coma due to high fever, spots caused by heat toxicity, etc. since it is able to clear away the heart-fire and detoxify; gastrodia is of sweet, neutral, and moist nature. It has less ability on clearing heat than Cat’s Claw and Antelope Horns. Its strength is the versatility of any types of up-stirring of the liver and epileptic seizures, regardless of the patterns are of cold, heat, deficiency or excess nature. What’s more, it can relieve mind to bring headache relief.
Now it is time to talk about luminous fungi called Armillaria mellea Fr., which is the nutrient source of gastrodia seeds and tubers. Studies have shown that the solid culture of Armillaria has similar pharmacological effects and clinical efficacy of gastrodia. For the reason, now the medicinal preparations of Armillaria mellea Fr. are mostly replaced Tianma to treat dizziness, headache, insomnia, hemiplegia, numbness, and so on.
Modern pharmacological actions of gastrodia
1) Its extracts of water and alcohol and different preparations can significantly reduce the spontaneous activity in mice, prolong pentobarbital sodium or hexobarbital sodium induced sleep time in mice, and inhibit or reduce the onset time of experimental epilepsy;
2) It can reduce the resistance of peripheral vessels, cerebral vessels and coronary artery, lower blood pressure, slow down heart rate, relieve pain, and reduce inflammation;
3) Its polysaccharide has immune activity.
Sample gastrodia formulas on herbal remedies
The Chinese Materia Medica says that it is sweet, acrid in flavor and neutral, non-toxic in nature. It goes to meridians of liver, spleen, kidney, gall, heart, and bladder. Essential functions are calming liver wind to relieve convulsion, tranquilizing liver-yang, and dispelling wind and removing obstruction in the meridians. Basic gastrodia elata uses and indications include acute and chronic infantile convulsions, muscle twitches and muscle spasms, dizziness, headache, hemiplegia, limb numbness, arthralgia due to wind and dampness. Recommended dosage is from 3 to 10 grams in decoction or 1 to 1.5 grams in pills or powder. In addition, it is still used in forms of gastrodia elata tea, extract, capsules, herbal supplement, soup, gastrodia complex, and more.
1) Gou Teng Yin from Yi Zong Jin Jian (Golden Mirror of Orthodox Medicine). It is formulated with Antelope Horn, Cat’s Claw, Quan Xie (Scorpion), etc. to settle seizures in children;
2) Xing Pi Wan from Pu Ji Ben Shi Fang (Prescriptions for Universal Relief). It is combined with Ren Shen (Ginseng), Bai Zhu (White Atractylodes), Bai Jiang Can (Bombyx Mori), etc. to cure chronic infantile convulsion due to spleen deficiency;
3) Tian Ma Wan from Wei Shi Jia Cang Fang (Formulas of Dr. Wei’s Family Treasure). It works with scorpion, Dan Nan Xing (Jack in the Pulpit Rhizome and Bile), and Bombyx Mori to heal all convulsions in kids;
4) Yu Zhen San from Wai Ke Zheng Zong (True Lineage of External Medicine). It is joined with Tian Nan Xing (Arisaema), Bai Fu Zi (Typhonium Rhizome), Fang Feng (Radix Saposhnikoviae), etc. to treat tetanic convulsions and opisthotonos;
5) Tian Ma Gou Teng Yin (gastrodia and uncaria combination) from Za Bing Zheng Zhi Xin Yi (New Concepts for Diagnosis and Treatment in Miscellaneous Diseases). It is formulated with uncaria, Shi Jue Ming (Abalone Shell), Niu Xi (Achyranthes), etc., to bring relief to vertigo and migraine sufferers due to excessive rising of liver-yang;
6) Ban Xia Bu Zhu Tian Ma Tang from Yi Xue Xin Wu (Medical Revelations). It is equipped with Ban Xia (Pinellia), Chen Pi (Citrus Peel), Fu Ling (Poria), Bai Zhu (White Atractylodes), etc. to cure dizziness, headache, and chest tightness due to wind-phlegm harassing the upper body;
7) Tian Ma Wan from Pu Ji Fang (Prescriptions of Universal Relief). It is coupled with the same amount of Chuan Xiong (lovage) to make pills for the treatment of aching all over the head, migraine, and dizziness;
8) Tian Ma Wan from Sheng Ji Zong Lu (Complete Record of Holy Benevolence). It is matched with Mo Yao (myrrh), Wu Tou (Radix Aconiti Carmichaeli), She Xiang (deer musk), etc. to heal apoplectic paralysis of the limbs, aching pain, and more;
9) Tian Ma Jiu from Shi Bian Liang Fang (Convenient and Effective Prescriptions that Contain few Herbs). It is joined with Achyranthes, Du Zhong (Eucommia Bark), and Fu Zi (Aconite) to soak wine to treat wandering arthritis and paralysis of the limbs in women;
10) Qin Jiao Tian Ma Tang from the “Medical Revelations”. It is used along with Qin Jiao (Gentiana Macrophylla Root), Qiang Huo (Notopterygium), Sang Zhi (Mulberry Twig), etc. to heal rheumatism and joint pain.
Clinical gastrodia research
Clinically gastrodia elata is reported to treat a number of different disorders, such as Post Traumatic Brain Injury Syndrome (PTBIS), tetanus, vertigo, neurasthenia, neuralgia, hemifacial spasm, hyperlipidemia, vascular dementia, and more.
a) 66 cases of brain trauma syndrome featuring headache, dizziness, and sleep disorders have been treated with its intramuscular injection. And the total effective rate was 97%;
b) Its injection could be used to treat light tetanus. It began to work 15 to 120 minutes after the administration. And the patients became quiet and the times of seizures were reduced. All these showed that it has sedation;
c) 90 cases of vertigo have been treated with the combination of gastrodia, lovage, and Pinellia. And the total effective rate was 94.4%.
Gastrodia elata side effects and contraindications
Gastrodia elata and its preparations could occasionally lead to poisoning and allergic reactions. Its oral powder may cause urticarial allergic eruption; its pills may cause allergic purpura; its intramuscular injection may lead to anaphylactic shock; large dose of its stew may induce acute renal failure and coma. The remedies for gastrodia poisoning are emesis in the beginning, gastric lavage, or symptomatic treatment in occurring allergic reaction occurs and renal failure.
a) Xin Yao Yu Lin Chuang (New Drugs and Clinical Applications), 1985; 2:8;
b) Shan Xi Xin Yi Yao (Shaanxi New Medical Journal), 1981; 1:45;
c) Shi Yong Yi Xue Za Zhi (Journal of Practical Medicine), 1994; 1:50.