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Salvia: An ancient herb for modern diseases

by Todd Luger, L.Ac.

Abnormal and excessive platelet aggregation is beginning to emerge as a common factor in the initiation, progression and complications of many common chronic illnesses. Long recognized as a factor in atherosclerosis, the role of platelets now appears central to the pathogenesis of this disorder. In addition, a recent medline search yielded hundreds of peer-reviewed articles linking abnormal platelet aggregation with various cancers, endogenous depression, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders. This article will focus on cancer.

It is clear from recent abstracts that abnormal platelet aggregation plays a central role in the metastasis of many cancers to remote sites. This is often the most devastating and hard to control factor in cancer treatment strategies. In addition, abnormal platelets play a role in cancer initiation, proliferation and recurrence, as well. Many tumors actually affect platelet function to serve their own needs. Thus, a “successful surgery” may have left a few undetectable “seed” cells, perhaps enough to derange local platelet metabolism, take root and recur en masse. The abnormal platelet aggregation provides a “sticky” site for new tumors to grow.

In modern China since the fifties, much scientific research has been done in the area of chronic illness, including cancer. While several traditional Chinese concepts have inspired modern therapies, none has been so pervasive as that of “blood stagnation”. The Chinese attribute diverse serious illnesses to this somewhat nebulous category, which was a traditionally understood to refer to a thickening, congealing and possible stoppage of the blood. Of course, modern work with platelets reveals that many cancer patients have what is essentially thick, clotted, viscous, i.e. stagnant blood. The traditional view of cancer in Chinese medicine is that tumors only arise when the flow of blood becomes stagnant. The congruency of both the modern and traditional views suggests a central role to platelets in tumorigenesis.

Chinese work on platelets initially focused on cardiovascular and Autoimmune diseases, both with great success. One herb, used since ancient times, has emerged as the key player in the treatment of disorders involving platelet aggregation. That herb is salvia miltiorrhiza. While Chinese clinical research has emphasized several approaches in cancer treatment, one of the most important is the use of blood activators like salvia. The focus in cancer has often been on the fibrinolytic properties of such herbs. Many tumors possess a fibrin coat that prevents normal cell regulation, immune attack and chemotherapeutic penetration.

Modern Chinese research on the traditional concept of “blood stagnation” has also paid considerable attention to what is called microcirculation. Microscopic damage to capillary beds is a common factor in many chronic diseases noted by the Chinese in the past half century, occurring in 90% of cancer patients. Damaged microcirculation also seems to correlate well clinically with the traditional concept of blood stagnation. It is likely that a variety of elements lead to microcirculation damage. This includes abnormal platelet aggregation, but also increased blood lipids and blood viscosity. Interestingly, recent Chinese research has correlated elevated blood lipids and viscosity to another traditional Chinese concept: phlegm. Phlegm is also traditionally associated with both cardiovascular disease and certain types of tumors. Salvia not only restores normal microcirculation, but normalizes blood viscosity from other factors, as well.

Salvia is also cheap, extremely safe, easy to extract and standardize. Biochemically, it is complex. It’s main components, called danshinones, are structurally similar to the substance called coenzyme q, which is an important mitochondrial antioxidant. Coincidentally, coenzyme q has found widespread use in cardiovascular disorders by its ability to decrease platelet aggregation, among others. However, crude complex extracts of salvia are more effective than any of the single isolates, thus drug development is not warranted. The goal is effective delivery of a convenient, potent dosage of the whole natural substance in all its complexity.

The “side-effects” of salvia include pain relief, normalized blood pressure, liver protection, cardiovascular benefits and improved sleep. Traditionally, salvia was thought to confer long life. It is at the center of modern Chinese geriatric research. Like many Chinese therapies, the use of salvia is inherently adjunct or complementary. The central tenet of Chinese medicine is the multifactorial nature of disease. So while platelets may be a critical link in the chain of cancer causation, this does not diminish the role of natural killer cells, etc. However, the nice thing about platelets from a clinical point of view is how widespread the histopathology is. So the treatment of this factor may have far reaching benefits. Unlike so many promising therapies, which cause dangerous side-effects, salvia reduces platelet aggregation without causing the bleeding diatheses seen in coumarin and heparin use. The safety and widespread applicability of salvia, including its role as an antioxidant, give it ideal mass market potential.

Finally, it should be mentioned that since the Chinese view disease as having multifactorial causation, they consider ideal treament to address multiple factors, as well. Salvia safely addresses several components typical of diverse chronic diseases. Hoewever, in cancer, it would typically be combined with what are called tonic herbs. Three common examples are Ginseng, Licorice and Astragalus. These herbs and numerous others also contribute to cancer recovery and tumor inhibition in a nontoxic fashion. However, they work by mechanisms that are completely different and yet complementary to the use of salvia. An ideal approach from a Chinese Medicine perspective would be to provide a more complex formula incorporating a few different treatment strategies or multiple products designed to be used at different stages (salvia to prevent metastasis; astragalus for recovery from treatment, etc.)


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