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An Ancient Herb Finds New Applications
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In the Southeastern United States, Magnolia trees are in bloom, forming large white blossoms that eventually turn brown and drop off, revealing an emergent central seed pod as big as your fist. These beautiful trees (Magnolia grandiflora) are part of the family Magnoliaceae that includes the Tulip Tree, the Cucumber Tree and about 220 other species. Among these species is Magnolia officinalis, the bark of which has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for almost 2,000 years. In Jingning County in the Zhejiang Province of China, Magnolia officinalis is cultivated on a large scale, specifically for its use in TCM. The bark from the trunk, branches and even roots is harvested for the valuable herbal remedy known as Hou Po.
Hou Po is used traditionally for treating digestive problems like abdominal distention and diarrhea, and respiratory problems like cough and asthma. It is a pungent, bitter, warm herb that helps the digestive qi to move downward. It is one of the best herbs in the Chinese Pharmacopoeia for treating digestive gas, bloating, colic, and diarrhea; and because it dries and resolves "dampness", it is great for lung problems associated with excess mucus, wheezing and cough.
While it is used as a single herb, it is often prescribed as part of a therapeutic formula, because its effects are specific and can be broadened or tailored to particular applications with the use of helper herbs. For example, Hou Po is featured in a popular formula Ban Xia Hou Po Tang, in which it is combined with Pinella. It is effectively used to treat "plumpit qi", a condition in which the patient feels a lump like a plum pit stuck in the throat, along with intestinal weakness associated with anxiety and fear. Combining Hou Po with warming Ginger or antispasmodic Peony Root enhances its digestive properties for particular conditions. A Hou Po / Phellodendron combination has been patented and is being promoted as a weight loss product because the two herbs offset each other in the body, helping to balance stress hormones.
Hou Po contains several active constituents that are considered to be important. Research on the herb has focused on two isomeric biphenol compounds magnolol and honokiol, as well as a triterpene essential oil called eudesmol. There is also a small amount of alkaloids, among which are magnocurarine, magnoflorine, anonaine, and salicifoline. While these alkaloids contribute to the herb's effects, their contributions are considered minor.
In modern times, Hou Po has been the subject of many scientific investigations. In pharmacological studies, the herb was found to have anxiolytic (anxiety reducing) effects, to enhance steroid production by the adrenal cortex, to inhibit fungal and bacterial growth, to reduce pain and inflammation, and to increase acetylcholine levels in the brain.
Of particular interest are the herb's anxiolytic effects. In mouse studies, Hou Po was found to have strong anxiolytic effects due to its honokiol content. In human clinical trials, an anxiolytic effect was observed with Hou Po in a Kampo medicine formula, an effect not achieved when honokiol was removed from the formula.
In other studies, honokiol was compared with diazepam (Valium), a well known pharmaceutical anxiolytic. Honokiol was found to be five times stronger than diazepam in reducing anxiety without the side effects of diazepam. While Diazepam does reduce anxiety, it also induces muscle relaxation, an effect not shared by honokiol. Mice treated with Diazepam, but not those treated with Honokiol exhibited withdrawal symptoms characterized by hyperactivity after a 12 day treatment period. In another study, the prolongation by diazepam of hexobarbital-incduced sleep was not modified by honokiol. These results suggest that honokiol is less likely than diazepam to induce physical dependence, central nervous system depression, motor nerve disruption, or amnesia at doses eliciting the anxiolytic effect. Because honokiol reduces anxiety without disruption of motor activity, it is postulated that the mechanism of the anxiolytic effect of honokiol is at least partially different from that of diazepam.
Magnolia has several powerful effects on acetylcholine levels in the brain, offering potential benefits for victims of Alzheimer's Disease. Alzeimer's Disease is characterized by insufficient levels of acetylcholine accompanied by the buildup of amyloid plaque in the brain, disrupting normal brain functioning. Honokiol and magnolol, the biphenolic compounds in Hou Po, have demonstrated to increase choline acetyltransferase activity, inhibit acetylcholinesterase, promote potassium-induced acetylcholine release and exhibit neurotrophic function in in vitro studies. Choline acetyltransferase is an enzyme involved in the cellular synthesis of acetylcholine, an increase of which can up-regulate the production of acetylcholine necessary for proper brain function. Acetylcholinesterase is an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine, the inhibition of which preserves available acetylcholine. Honokiol and Magnolol also exhibited neurotropic effects in vitro, which could translate into enhanced brain cell growth and reduced brain cell death in vivo.
Magnolol was found in studies to support the body's natural production of adrenal steroids (corticosteroids) which suppress inflammation. This anti-inflammatory effect is thought responsible for alleviating the allergic inflammatory response in cases of asthma. Increases in corticosteroids may be a concern for those wishing to use Magnolia as a weight loss product, but in a patented product combining the herb with Phellodendron this effect was reversed, resulting in corticosteroid reduction, and reduced cortisol-induced food cravings.
Magnolia bark really shows its versatility as a topical agent. Product developers should be aware of its significant potential in such topical applications as dental care products and analgesic muscle rubs.
The compounds in Magnolia, possibly the biphenols and/or the eudesmol, have been shown to have antimicrobial effects stronger than even berberine against Streptococcus mutans, the bacteria that causes dental caries. Studies demonstrated that at concentrations as low as 6.3 micrograms per ml, constituents magnolol and honokiol were effective against S. mutans and other strains of bacteria. This suggests that Magnolia could be a key ingredient in anti-cavity toothpastes, mouth rinses or even dental floss.
For analgesic muscle rub type products, Magnolia is a promising ingredient, as constituent honokiol is an effective muscle relaxing compound. Properly combined with an effective transdermal delivery agent , safe, natural Magnolia extract could augment topical rubs by soothing and relaxing tired, aching muscles. In its carrier free extract form, the herb integrates well into topical formulas.
In TCM, it is normal to prescribe dried whole Magnolia bark in a dosage of 3 to 9 grams. For a 2% honokiol extract, the recommended dosage is closer to the 400mg - 800mg per day range. While the herb is safe at recommended dosages, there is some toxicity at very high doses, principally due to small amounts of its alkaloid constituent magnocurarine. Consequently, Hou Po is recommended for women (as well as men), but is contraindicated during pregnancy. Even so, the LD50 of the decoction is about 6g/kg which would be over a pound of extract for the average adult.