Living in Hong Kong it’s impossible not to notice the many shops selling ingredients and remedies based on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). These small and mysterious outlets are packed full of wonderful and weird concoctions, dried fungus and fish bits, and all manner of ancient cures and preventative herbs. It can be quite baffling for the uninitiated, but given a chance, the majority of friendly TCM practitioners are willing to explain the benefits of their craft.
Today, I want to take a look at some of the more exotic ingredients found in TCM and examine their claims of youth preservation benefits. These strange delicacies might not be for everyone, but with a history stretching back thousands of years, their anti-oxidizing and anti-inflammatory properties could be useful to anybody looking to increase their healthy lifespan. Keep in mind that some herbs can interact with medication with serious side effects and may be unsafe for some people with certain medical conditions. It is always recommended to check with your doctor before you use any herbal products.
Cordyceps – Caterpillar Fungus
There are many names for Cordyceps sinensis or caterpillar fungus. In Tibetan, ‘yartsa gunbu’ translates to “summer grass, winter worm,” while in Chinese, ‘dong chong xia cao’ means “worm grass.” So, what is it exactly?
Cordyceps is a fungus that lives on certain caterpillars in mountainous regions of Tibet and China. Like many ingredients in TCM, the appearance and origins of cordyceps are rather odd! Starting life as a spore, it lands on a particular moth caterpillar and enters the host. Once the caterpillar has buried underground and died, the fungus then grows from the hosts’ body, appearing above ground, like a strange, orange, alien finger! Cordyceps species infect insects, but can’t infect humans.
I believe in these benefits, but prefer to take my cordyceps in powder or capsule form. I’m not sure I can deal popping a caterpillar every day.
Potential Health Benefits:
- Animal studies have shown that cordyceps improves the metabolic function of organs like the liver and heart, helping to boost the immune system; especially in people with disorders like hepatitis B. Scientists found that cordyceps have a positive influence on oxidative stress, protein and energy metabolism.
- Cordycepin is a drug found in the cordyceps fungus and research at The University of Nottingham indicates that it may have anti-inflammatory properties, with the potential to help sufferers of renal failure, stroke damage and asthma.
- The School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Peking University in Beijing found that cordycep extract supplements had anti-aging effects on mice, lowering the level of lipid peroxidation and monoamine oxidase activity.
Black Mountain Ants
How to put this delicately? As a Westerner exploring the ancient and rich heritage of TCM, one thing becomes clear: It is claimed a lot of things can help with erectile dysfunction! Potent herbs, insect derivatives and even, ahem.. eating the private parts of various animals are all supposed to cure impotence.
While most claims for restoring male vigor may be wishful thinking, could the use of Polyrhachis vicina, or black mountain ants, actually hold some scientific value? These ants are found in remote mountainous areas of certain parts of Asia, and when dried, they become a functional ingredient in various traditional tonics and extracts. They are also made into wine and Chinese beer. The things people do to improve their sex lives!
Potential Health Benefits:
- The most famous use of black mountain ant extract is to treat impotence. However, a search on the internet reveals that most sources for this claim are websites actively promoting or selling the supplement.
- There is scientific evidence of these ants having an effect on the immune system comparable to ginseng and Vitamin E. Dr. John Wilkinson, the former senior lecturer in Pharmacognosy at Middlesex University, says, “These ants contain a lot of zinc and zinc has been identified for some time as an immune stimulant and an antioxidant.”
- A nutritional breakdown of the components of the ants found they are rich in nutrients, especially essential amino acids, unsaturated fatty acids and minerals, and should meet the need of people who require high protein and lower fat in their diet.
Edible Bird’s Nests
Swiftlets are small birds that live in limestone caves around the Indian Ocean, North Australia and South East Asia. Instead of using twigs or other materials to build their nests, the males use saliva to construct hardened shells attached to the walls. These are the edible bird’s nests, prized by TCM and restaurant owners. Although the price per pound has dropped in the last few years, it is still one of the most expensive foods on the planet.
According to TCM specialists, the pre-digested proteins found in the nests may help speed up recovery from illness, but outside the world of traditional medicines, the scientific evidence for such claims isn’t exactly overwhelming. That’s ok, I wasn’t exactly excited about the idea of eating bird spit anyway.
Potential Health Benefits:
- Edible bird’s nest extract was used in a study investigating its potential healing benefits for eye wounds. The results showed it stimulated cell proliferative activity of corneal keratocytes – which play a major role in keeping the eye transparent and healing its wounds.
- While not exactly a benefit to ‘general health’, a study supported by the Natural Science Foundation of China concluded that edible bird’s nest extract significantly reduces the intestinal immune injury induced by chemotherapy.
Fish maw is the commercial term for the dried swim bladders of large fish. For the Chinese, it is considered one of the big four delicacies of the sea, along with abalone, sea cucumber and shark fin. Fish maw has no fishy taste and absorbs the flavor of other ingredients. According to TCM, fish maw contains rich proteins and nutrients such as phosphor and calcium, replenishing the kidneys and boosting stamina.
Like many TCM ingredients, prices can be astronomical for certain varieties, especially when international laws prohibit their sale. The promise of a big payday causes the illegal poaching of certain types of fish, such as the totoaba. Called ‘aquatic cocaine’ due to prices that can reach $8000USD, swim bladders from this large fish are openly sold online as well as in Guangzhou and Hong Kong.
Potential Health Benefits:
- Importantly for traditional medicine practitioners, the high viscosity gel protein and mucopolysaccharide in fish maw are useful for skin care and blood circulation. Collagen helps your skin maintain elasticity, and is a key component of youth preservation. Regardless, I prefer to take the more economical (and legally safer) method of boosting collagen with traditional skincare products.
- The dried, powdered form of fish maw is known as isinglass and is used to treat wounds. Clinical nurse specialist, Gaby de Luca at the plastic surgery department in St Thomas’ Hospital, has experienced the value of using fish-collagen dressings on wounds that don’t respond to conventional treatment. “We’ve found a quicker healing rate than other, more basic wound dressings,” she says.
While not all of TCM’s various claims of healing properties and youth preservation have been verified, it’s hard not to be impressed by the heritage of these treatments. It’s important to do thorough research if you’re thinking of trying any traditional remedies. This is especially true if you are using other medications, as the properties of certain ingredients can have adverse effects when taken in conjunction with other products.
Do you swear by traditional cures? Please get in touch, and share your success stories in the comments section!