By Steven Horne and Paula Perretty
The Chinese herb bupleurum (boo-PLUR-rum) is one of the most important ingredients used in traditional Chinese formulas. It is said to create harmony between the liver and spleen (digestive functions) and raise the Qi (vital energy) in the digestive system. This herb is anti-inflammatory, hepato-protective, mildly sedative, antipyretic (fever reducing), analgesic, adaptogenic and anti-tussive.
Bupleurum contains molecules called saponins that are a type of polysaccharide, a long chain sugar (saccharide) that is attached to a steroid hormone. These polysaccharides, or saponins are found in many plants, especially those with a waxy coat. The name saponin comes from its surfactant properties that give it a soapy characteristic. Saponins have been shown to have an anti-inflammatoty and immune-stimulating activity as well as antimicrobial properties (fungi, bacteria and protozo).
These saponins or polysaccharides are glyconutrients that have been found to be important to cellular communication as they stimulate the immune system, which helps explain bupleurum’s traditional use as a harmonizing remedy.
In clinical trials, saponins have been found to be effective against influenza, the common cold and feverish conditions. In other studies, the isolated saponins have been shown to effectively address chronic inflammatoty disorders, especiallyautoimmune disease involving the liver or kidneys.
Bupleurum is used to treat acute or chronic liver disease, chemical liver damage, poor liver function, liver enlargement, hepatitis, gastric ulceration and reactive hypoglycemia. Its traditional uses include epigastric pain, nausea and indigestion. Its ability to protect the liver, stomach and kidneys from toxic damage is attributed to the saponins nourishing the Peyer’s patches, which are lymphatic nodules found throughout the lumen of the digestive tract. It is the role of these lymph nodes to defend the body against bacteria and other substances that enter the body with ingested food or water.
Recent research suggests a particular saponin polysaccharide in bupleurum improved the release and potency of cortisol from the adrenal cortex. This means bupleurum acts to enhance the body’s own anti-inflammatoty processes.
Bupleurum is effective in increasing cellular communication in other ways. It increases the production of cytokines, biochemicals the immune cells use to signal one another. It activates macrophages and lysosomal enzymes that kill yeasts and bacteria. It also reduces the production of prostaglandins that cause inflammation.
Bupleurum reduces inflammation and urinary proteins in the kidneys by stimulating the activity of free radical scavengers. It stimulates protein synthesis in the liver increasing the liver’s ability to deal with toxins. It improves the integrity of the stomach, or gastric mucosa, decreasing the development of gastric ulcers. Bupleurum has also been found to lower cholesterol levels. It does this by forming a bond with cholesterol in bile acids preventing its reabsorption in the intestines. The cholesterol is then excreted. This is the same mechanism by which cholesterollowering drugs, such as cholestyramine, works.
In Chinese medicine, bupleurum is used as a diaphoretic in treating alternating chills and fevers and as a detoxifier and antimicrobial, especially with infections of the liver. Bupleurum has the ability, when combined with other herbs, to clear stagnation virtually anywhere in the body. It can also be helpful for irregular menstruation and prolapse of the uterus and rectum.