Is Black Lovage (Alexanders) a Useful Medicine?
Answered by: Robert Newman, L.Ac.
Question from: Marion Toffan
Posted on: February 02, 2005

I lost my husband to Multiple Myeloma in 2002 -- and have been watching therapies for blood cancer since. Medical treatments and hospital nutrition killed the poor guy. Recently I came across a chinese herbalist writing in Clinical Hemorheol Microcirc. 2000/23 (2-4) 127-31 on how the first stage attack in blood hyperviscosity would be activating circulation - affect the blood stasis syndrome .... inhibition on shear-induced platelet aggregation with Levisticum: Chuangxiong Lovage. Active chemical: Ligustrazine. I’m fascinated. My yard has a profusion of Alexanders (Black Lovage) with an odour reminiscent of myrrh coming from the fresh black seed heads. Ancient Romans used Lovage in their baths (male dominated). Older men suffer circulatory congestion more frequently than women. Were Romans more adroit addressing this? There appears to be a peculiar robust vigor inherent in members of the lovage family. I have spoken to Fran Nahanee (Sechelt First Nations) about approaches to cancer as I had another friend who was dying this spring. Fran encouraged me to pick young alder leaves and send them off for tea - she made the point that growth vigour boosts the system. I’m wondering if there aren’t several qualities in Lovage that act similarly. Can you speak to this? What parts of the plant and preparation would you use for a soak? In the neighbourhood we have a young woman who has undergone bone marrow transplant and now is battling bone vs. graft disease. Perhaps she can soak.

Well, you’ve presented a few different issues in your paragraph and I’ll try to address most of them. I’m sorry to hear about the relatively recent loss of your husband from cancer -- that is always such a difficult thing to go through for both you and him. You first mentioned, in connection with that, about blood cancers and the use of blood invigorating herbs for hyperviscous blood. Generally speaking, in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) cancer is said to be caused by three factors. Tumors and masses are said to be from accumulations of blood (known as "blood stagnation") and phlegm (which comes about from the congealment of the pathogen, damp). The addition of tissue necrosis (tissue death/destruction) which is present in cancer (as opposed to benign masses) is said to be due to toxic heat or heat with toxicity. To address the blood stagnation, herbs that invigorate the blood are employed. In regards to hyperviscous blood, the usefulness of this category of herbs would make sense since many of these blood moving herbs have the effect of thinning the blood, from a western physiology standpoint. Chuan Xiong ("choo-ahn shee-ohng"), Radix Ligusticum sinensis cv. Chuanxiong (syn.= L. wallichii, L. Chuanxiong), which you mentioned above, is a well-known herb in TCM used to invigorate the blood. To address the phlegm issue, herbs are used that transform phlegm, dissipate nodules, dry dampness and possibly soften hardness. Many of these herbs are in the category of herbs which specifically are for transforming phlegm. To treat the toxic heat aspect, herbs which are in the category of clearing heat and relieving toxins are often used: some of these have been confirmed to be of specific benefit for treatment of cancers through western-based research in China and Japan -- research which was done hundreds or even thousands of years after the Chinese began using these herbs to treat cancer based on this TCM approach of clearing heat and relieving toxins. For additional discussion on the TCM idea of treating cancer, you can also take a look at my reply to the question, "Is Japanese Knotweed, Hu Zhang, Used in the Treatment of Cancer?," also in the Q&A section for Chinese herbs on the Richters website.

There is another idea which is quite interesting to consider as well. An old treatment idea in Chinese medicine is linked to the phrase, "yi du gong du": use a toxin to treat a toxin. And one can see that a number of Chinese herbs that are toxic are commonly recommended for use in treating toxic sores and ulcers on the skin -- in fact, some of the herbs that are in the category of clearing heat and relieving toxins are toxic. Along this line of thought, there was even an account in the May 6, 2001 issue of the New York Times Magazine about the use of a toxic substance to treat cancer (you should be able to find this on microfiche in libraries, or you can pay for the article on the N.Y. Times website -- see this link to the abstract: 04482&incamp=archive:search ). The article was titled, "The Cure Hunters," and told the true story of a western-trained doctor at Haerbin Medical University in northeastern China during the Cultural Revolution who, like many such doctors at the time, was ordered to learn from traditional Chinese medicine doctors. In this instance, this doctor -- Dr. Zhang Tingdong -- was told to go into an agricultural commune in a remote countryside area of Heilongjiang Province to check out an informally-taught local herbalist. This herbalist had developed a reputation for an effective, local homemade remedy taught to him by his father which he used to treat a number of different internal and external illnesses, including cancer. The remedy was a decoction made from two different types of local mineral stones and venom taken from the toad, Bufo. After analysis in a lab, it turned out that one of the stones was primarily made of mercury (probably "Zhu Sha"["joo shah"] in TCM) and the other contained high levels of Arsenic trioxide. Dr. Zhang did some studies with animals using an injectible form of the mixture and he eventually decided on using just the Arsenic trioxide as an injectible on some patients with leukemia -- patients which had no other useful treatment available to them at that time (I will mention here that Dr. Zhang chose to use just the Arsenic, because he had noticed that the original mixture caused some major side effects; however, this may have been partly due to the fact that he altered the traditional form of preparation and administration by using an injectible version). After they found the most effective dose to use for many patients, they began to get very good results with it, particularly for acute promyelocytic leukemia. And it began to be used with very good results in the U.S. in 1997 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering for this type of leukemia; now it is also showing usefulness in treating various tumors, liver cancer, cervical cancer, multiple myeloma and prostate cancer.

This idea of using a toxin to treat a toxin is present in homeopathy through its main precept of the law of similars, or "like to treat like" -- Chinese medicine actually employs this law of similars through several treatment methods, even though they don’t label it or even acknowledge it as a specific law or rule. One can also see this idea of "like to treat like" being employed, unconsciously mind you, in conventional western medicine when radiation and chemotherapy are used to treat cancer (they can both obviously cause cancer -- and this is also an example of using a toxin to treat a toxic condition), or when Ritalin (a stimulant) is used to treat hyperactivity, or when coffee is used to treat headaches, or allergy shots (which contain a small amount of the allergen) are used to treat allergies. Speaking of Arsenic, interestingly, in homeopathy, Arsenicum album is often used to treat, among other problems, cancers. Additionally, the homeopathic remedies that are made from toxic substances/sources are often considered to be some of the most powerful and deep-acting remedies and therefore particularly useful in treating very serious illnesses such as cancer.

You also mentioned above about how you are growing Black Lovage (Alexanders), Smyrnium olusatrum, and you asked about how useful it might be to help with circulatory problems. Lovage is in the Umbelliferae family, and most -- if not all of the Lovages -- are especially acrid/pungent. In TCM, the roots of a number of Umbelliferae family plants are used as major herbs in the pharmacopeia: Bai Zhi ("buy jih"): Angelica dahurica or A. dahurica var. Hangbaizhi; Gao Ben ("goww ben"): Ligusticum sinensis or L. jeholense; Qiang Huo ("chee-ahng hwoh"): Notopterygium forbesii or N. incisum; Chai Hu ("chai hoo"): Bupleurum chinense; Du Huo ("doo hwoh"): Angelica pubescens f. biserrata, Heracleum hemsleyanum, or A. pubescens; Chuan Xiong ("choo-ahn shee-ohng"): Ligusticum sinensis cv. Chuanxiong; Dang Gui ("dawng gway"): Angelica sinensis; and Xiao Hui Xiang ("shee-oww hway shee-ahng"): Foeniculum vulgare. All of these herbs are very acrid/pungent herbs and they all have some moderate to strong dispersing properties. According to TCM, one of the main properties associated with the acrid taste is that of dispersing and circulating: herbs that are acrid/pungent typically are used to disperse and circulate stagnant/blocked Blood and "Qi," disperse pathogenic "wind (a pathogenic factor that can attack the surface of the body, thus leading to the creation of colds and flus)," and clear out obstructions in the acupuncture meridians. For more information about what Qi is, see my replies to the questions, "Clematis and Stephania Formula for Pain?" and "Is There An Herb That Can Help Acid Reflux?," also on the Q&A section of the Richters website. So when you ask about Black Lovage and its abilities to possibly help circulation, it is very understandable that it might be useful for dispersing blockage and stasis and moving the Blood and/or Qi. I would think the roots would probably be more powerful than the above-ground parts, but it’s certainly possible that the above-ground parts would have some activity in that way: what I would look for is that acrid/pungent smell and taste. If that is present, then the function will most likely be there too. As far as a soak is concerned, I would probably make a decoction of the roots, but again, the stems and leaves could also have some fair benefit. And I would usually prefer to use it in combination with some other herbs that had complementary properties for increasing circulation and opening blockages -- even as an external soak, formulas can be more effective than just single herbs. Down below, I copied the following information about Black Lovage’s historical medicinal usage from a website: You might notice in this description that Dioscorides stated the seeds of Black Lovage were useful as an emmenagogue: an emmenagogue stimulates or promotes menstruation and clears blood congestion. In TCM terms, this would probably involve the ability of an herb to move or invigorate the Blood circulation. The article below also mentions that its fruit was considered, similar to Fennel (Xiao Hui Xiang mentioned above, which is another Umbelliferae), a carminative and stomachic. This too would involve dispersing and circulating properties, according to TCM.

"Its use as a medicinal plant is very old. The Greek botanist Theophrastus (fourth century BC) made reference to the plant. Dioscorides (first century) also included it in his Materia medica, commenting that its roots and leaves were edible. According to this author, its seed, taken with wine, is an emmenagogue. However, Galen said that it was less active than celery. In the Cordoba of the caliphs, Maimonides also spoke of its powers. During the Middle Ages, it was constantly considered as a plant with diuretic, depurative and aperient properties, particularly through its root. However, its most outstanding quality was perhaps as an antiscorbutic because of its high vitamin C content. The fruit has carminative and stomachic properties. In the eighteenth century, it continued to maintain its reputation as a medicinal plant. as the Flore economique des plantes qui croissent aux environs de Paris described it in 1799. The plant, and especially the leaves, have a smell and flavour similar to myrrh. Hence the origin of the word smyrnion, its generic name. Columela (first century) refers to the plant as "myrrh of Achaea", because it was grown in Greece. which the Romans called Achaica or Achaea. It is also because of its characteristic flavour and smell that it is used as a condiment; it is used to season food in a similar way to parsley, giving flavour to soups and stews, and to prepare sauces accompanying meat and fish. However, its commonest use has been as a fresh vegetable, with a preference being shown for its leaves, young shoots and leaf stalks, which impart a pleasant flavour similar to celery, although somewhat sharper. It has also been eaten cooked. The Latin word olusatrum, which means "black vegetable," reflects these uses. The roots were used preserved in a sweet-and-sour pickle. The fruit contains an essential oil, cuminal, which is reminiscent of cumin."

You also mentioned that a friend of yours suggested using young Alder leaves and the idea that "growth vigour boosts the system." There is a short but interesting article on the Internet at I’ve copied some excerpted paragraphs from the article below. In connection with your question about growth vigor, the article describes some research that scientists did in Panama on plant material from local wild species and one of the interesting conclusions was that younger leaves were more likely to have greater chemical/medicinal potential and activity than older leaves. Also, shade plants tended to have more medicinal activity than plants that normally grew in the sun:

"The scientists collected leaves throughout Panama’s protected wild lands, prepared extracts and tested the extracts on breast, lung and nervous system cancer cells; on the AIDS virus; and on organisms that cause three tropical diseases: malaria, leishmaniasis, and Chagas’ disease, a parasitic infection that kills 50,000 people each year. Plant extracts were considered highly active if they killed or inhibited the growth of the cancerous or infected cells without killing other cells.

The study found: -- Chemical activity was much greater in young leaves than in older leaves because young leaves lack the toughness that older leaves use as a defense against insects. So young leaves are more likely to contain potential medicines. -- Young leaves contain more active chemicals than older leaves, even from the same plant. The researchers tested 18 woody plant species, and found 10 of the species contained toxic chemicals called alkaloids that were present only in young leaves, not old leaves. Only three species had alkaloids in old leaves and not young leaves. -- Plants that live in the shade are more likely to contain active chemicals than sun-loving plants. It takes longer for a shade-tolerant plant to grow new leaves to replace those eaten by insects, so the shade-tolerant plants develop stronger chemical defenses than plants that live in sunlight and can replace leaves more quickly.

The drug-hunting principles tested by Coley and Kursar in Panama were developed during years of earlier work in Africa, Southeast Asia and Panama, "and therefore should be applicable to tropical forests worldwide," they wrote."

I hope the above information gives you some useful answers to your questions.

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