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Traditional Chinese Medicine Decongestants

Traditional Chinese medicine represents a type of complementary and alternative medicine that can be categorized as a complete traditional alternative medical system that evolved independently to conventional Western medicine. With an history extending back more than 2,000 years and underpinned by ancient Taoist philosophy, it utilizes a broad array of practices and herbal medicines.

As a introduction to traditional Chinese medicine decongestants, the series on Natural Decongestants and Allergies will look at 3 representative examples used to treat congestion, namely Ephedra, Pinellia and Siberian Cocklebur.


Ephedra or Ma huang (syn. Ephedra sinica or Ephedra sinensis) is a well known traditional Chinese medicine ingredient for treating congestion and contains the decongestant and stimulant compounds ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. It opens the airways, helps clear congestion and makes breathing easier which is beneficial for asthma and respiratory conditions that can include allergies.

Ephedra (ephedrine) can also be found in various other species of Ephedra, and brews or products derived from this genus are known by a variety of names such as Indian tea, Mexican tea, Mormon tea, natural or herbal ecstasy (e.g. Cloud 9, Rave Energy, Ultimate Xphoria) and yellow horse.

However, as noted in Risks of Using Natural Decongestants, although Ephedra-containing dietary supplements have been banned in the US since 2004, traditional Chinese herbal remedies, herbal teas (regulated as conventional foods) and regulated drugs containing synthesized ephedrine are not currently affected by the relevant FDA ruling. The issue arose following various studies that implicated serious health risks from using dietary supplements that contained ephedrine alkaloids e.g. heart attacks, strokes, seizures and even death.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Decongestants


The toxic raw rhizome (a.k.a. a rootstock or creeping rootstalk – typically a horizontal underground food storing stem capable or bearing shoots and roots) of Pinellia (Pinellia ternata) is termed Sheng Ban Xia but when prepared properly (Ban Xia or Zhi Ban Xia), it has many uses in traditional Chinese medicine e.g. birth control, morning sickness, nausea and vomiting. However, its ability to help combat inflammation and swelling is of particular relevance to treating congestion. It is said to help dispel mucus, clear congestion, stop coughing and improve lung function and is also used to treat influenza.

Various names exist for Pinellia and many include, or are related to, the actual term Pinellia, e.g. Pinellia Tuber, Pinellie Ternée, Rhizoma Pinelliae but it is also known as Arisaema cochinchinense, Arum dracontium, Arum ternatum, Banha Ban Xia or Green Dragons.

However, as with Ephedra, due to Pinellia containing ephedrine alkaloids, it is subject to the same 2004 FDA ruling in the US. Therefore, it is prohibited to be used as a supplement ingredient for weight loss or energy but not banned when subject to regulation as a conventional food product (i.e. traditional Chinese herbal remedies and herbal teas) or drug containing synthesized ephedrine.

Siberian Cocklebur

The Siberian cocklebur (Xanthium sibiricum), is a member of the Asteraceae family and has traditionally been used to relieve both chest and nasal congestion, as well as treat chronic sinusitis and its related symptoms such as headaches. In addition, it is said to exhibit both antibacterial (e.g. against Staphylococcus aureus) and anti-inflammatory properties, with the latter providing symptomatic relief caused by allergies, arthritis and urticaria. Other uses suggested include relieving constipation, lowering blood sugar and nourishing the heart.

Siberian cocklebur has the potential to be highly toxic and must be prepared properly i.e. stir-baked for oral administration. Moreover, the slightly bitter preparation should only be given at the correct dose, never taken for more than a short period and the person must be monitored carefully. With reference to the Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China (Edition 2000) concerning correct preparation the herb Siberian cocklebur (a.k.a Fructus Xanthii) , the Chinese Medicine Council of Hong Kong (CMCHK) state:

  • “Chinese medicine practitioners should indicate “Stir-baked Fructus Xanthii” when it is prescribed for oral administration. Non-stir-baked Fructus Xanthii should only be prescribed for external use.”
  • “When Fructus Xanthii is to be taken orally, they should not be pounded or ground into powder.”

Bearing the above warnings in mind, it is essential to note that a variety of suppliers of Siberian cocklebur (example) sell it in the form of a fine powder! Symptoms of toxicity range from dizziness, vomiting through to jaundice, edema and in severe cases, heart and liver damage or even death.

The Siberian cocklebur is known by various names including cang er cao, cang er zi, Xanthium and variations of these such as caulis Xanthii sibirici or fructus Xanthii siberici, Siberian cocklebur fruit (cangerzi Fructus Xanthii) or fruit of Siberian cocklebur and Siberian cocklour fruit.

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