Schisandra Berries

By Kimberly Kalfas, ND


I was walking by our dispensary, when the most fragrant fruity smell passed my nose. I asked Dr. Sedmak what was that glorious smell. She replied "Schisandra". This flooded my memory with wonderful memories of making medicine at Bastyr, and the five wonderful quarters of Botanical Medicine that we endured in our program. I decided to revisit this herb and to take a moment to tell others what this beautiful plant has to offer.

Schisandra is the common name for Schinsandra chinensis. The family it belongs to in classification is also known by its name: Schisandraceae. The plant is native to East Asia. It is also known as Magnolia Vine, and is a common shrub in many East Asian Gardens. It is one of those hardy climbing vines that thrive in many types of soil. This plant part used to make medicine is the red berries or fruit. These berries are known in Chinese Medicine as the "five flavor fruit", because they possess all of the five basic flavors relevant in Traditional Chinese Medicine; Salty, Sweet, Sour, Pungent or Spicy, and Bitter.

A plant that possesses all of the flavors (in Chinese medicine, East Indian medicine, Tibeten Medicine, and even Western Herbalism) are usually used in the culture for their tonifying properties on many systems. In Chinese Medicine, for instance, the five flavors relate to the five elements that are core to that system of medicine: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. This addresses the five major systems of the body, encompassing the whole person in Chinese Medicine. Commonly known for its healing properties to many, this herb is known as Wu Wei Zi.

According to the taste and smell of this berry, the properties are astringent (like witch hazel), pungent (like garlic or hot peppers), sour (like cranberries), bitter (like mustard greens), salty (like celery), and sweet (like all berries are). The tendency to the body is warming (as opposed to something like peppermint).

According to Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth by Sharol Tilgner, ND, this plant is used in the following ways: Antibacterial (as many herbs are); anti-ulcer; adaptogen (one of my favorite uses); liver protective; modulates the immune system; antioxidant (like many berries); and stimulates the gallbladder to release bile. Self-made herbalist Christopher Gussa, founder of Plant Cures, wrote an article for Natural News from his research into Schisandra berries. He reminds us that in addition to the use in Chinese Medicine as a tonic for all systems, it is also used for skin health and beauty, as an aphrodisiac, cleansing (which is part of its tonifying quality), longevity (aka anti-aging), and more.

Scientific studies are often limited to research on different biochemical properties of each constituent of the plant (say, the study of Vitamin C in the plant, or the beta-sitosterol) as for most herbs, although the natural health doctors know that plants often contain thousands of biochemical molecules making each signature as unique as your fingerprint and too costly for any research facility to ever ascertain with the great diversity creation has offered up to us on earth. Current studies, however, have found this plant to produce interferon in humans, known to be anti-viral in the body. It has been shown to provide a balancing to the nervous system which I believe explains the action it has on our adrenal glands as adaptogen, herbs known to balance our stress response with less energy expenditure by our own cells. Other actions known for this herb are increasing sensory power; ease of cough and increased expectoration; and promote the regeneration of liver tissue.

Herbs work on the mind and the body in interesting ways, and thus herbalist often find a "mental" picture of the herb. Dr. Tilgner acknowledges this herb as indicative for weak lungs, digestion, liver and immune system with night sweats (like, when you have the flu), prolonged diarrhea (like when you have a bug), productive cough, amnesia, and general weakness overall (sounds like an herbal Robitussin…and tastes better too). It is also known to increase brain efficiency, mental alertness, work capacity and builds strength. Christopher Gussa states "It increases the resistance of body and mind against non-specific stimuli and protects the body from damage due to extreme or chronic stress". Sound familiar?

The very smell of the tincture (after the alcohol had evaporated), reminded me of why I love herbal medicine. I have had a few people ask me in the last month "do herbs really work", and my heart hurts for how far we have gotten away from our knowing. To remind people, I ask in return "Is a hot pepper hot?"