Schisandrais a family of woody, twining shrub species that sprout vines from the central stem. The entire plant is used in herbal medicine, but the fruit contains numerous bioactive compounds that may provide medicinal support to the liver and the immune system, and may help promote a healthy inflammation response, cellular health, brain health, athletic performance, cardiovascular health, and healthy-looking skin.
Schisandra has been prized by practitioners of Ancient Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years. The plant most common in China and found in many supplements is known by the botanical name Schisandra chinensis. The fruit from this variety of plant is sought after because it is said to hold all five flavors (salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and bitter), and it is believed to provide desirable medicinal effects when eaten.
Species of Schisandra are found in Asia, eastern Russia, and have been cultivated in North America. There are more than 20 named species of schisandra; however, specific information about genetic differences is not readily available. (1) Schisandra is dioecious, meaning it is male or female, but only the female plant will produce a berry-like fruit, known as Chisandrae fructus. In some instances, Schisandra is also monoecious, meaning it has both sex organs and will reproduce asexually. Each fruit is reddish purple and grows from a flower that is white, pink, or red.
Schisandra and its different variations are frequently referred to by the same name despite being botanically different. Common names include magnolia-vine, magnolia berry, gomishi, hoku-gomishi, kita-gomishi, wu-wei-zu, ji-chu, hoy tsi, omiza, Maximowich's red grape, and Limonnik.
The popular Schisandra chinensis variety is best known for the name “five taste fruit,” which is given for its complex taste. In some systems of medicine, foods have attributes that are said to help balance out the body. According to texts in Ancient Chinese medicine, the chinensis species is “respected as a health-providing tonic in the same class with ginseng and Ganoderma.” (2) While the whole fruit is revered for its medicinal uses, harvesters claim that eating the fruit is somewhat uncommon because it is less palatable when compared to other common grocery store fruits. (3) The fruit can be eaten whole, ground into a powder and mixed into any recipe, used to make tea, or made into a juice.
The redevelopment of forests has resulted in the destruction of natural habitats throughout Asia. (4) Schisandra takes around three years to mature and bear fruit, which has limited the availability of the plant for culinary and medicinal purposes. More farmers are starting to grow the plant, but cultivation of these species only began recently, and the available breeds do not always respond well to modern agricultural techniques. New breeds are being developed in the hopes of providing a stable plant with a larger yield of fruit and less disease.
Schisandra is often found in broadleaf forests, beside small waterways, and areas where other plants grow. It prefers moist, acidic, sandy soil, but can’t be submerged. Soil should be loose and well drained. The roots normally stay near the surface of the soil. It will survive frosts and can live in direct sunlight, but the seeds require around 50% shade. When in the fruiting stage, complete sunlight is recommended as shade will slow fruit growth.
Schisandra seeds are planted in early May, and the first sprouts appear sometime in the following 20 days. By early Fall, the stem will reach a height of up to 20 inches and the roots have taken a conical shape. During the third to fourth year of life, Schisandra will have sprouted several rapidly growing vines, blossoms, and fruit.
Male and female plants are different, with the female plants producing flowers on the upper part of the plant and males on the lower part. The flowers and fruit appear between May and June and ripen in late August to early September. By the fifth year, the roots start growing horizontally and the central stem is no longer upright. At this stage, the Schisandra is known to begin asexual reproduction.
Pen-Tsao first classified Schisandra in the herbal encyclopedia The Yellow Emperor’s Study of Inner Medicine, written in 2697 B.C. (5) The 1596 A.D. book, Beng cao Cang Mu, provides the first modern medicinal description of Schisandra chinensis, stating that the plant has uses for the “gastrointestinal tract, respiratory failure, cardiovascular diseases, in the states of body fatigue and weakness, excessive sweating and insomnia.” (6) In Russian medicine, the plant was given to Siberian hunters who were expected to survive in the wilderness during extreme variations of hot and cold, hunger, and fatigue. (7)
Since its adoption into medicine, the Schisandra fruit has been used for numerous purposes. Royalty and Daoists are said to have used the herb because it contains “all three treasures.” Each treasure is made into a tonic that includes support for skin that is soft, moist, and radiant; support for the brain and improved memory; and increased sexual endurance and strength. Schisandra was also used throughout Asia and Russia to support respiratory problems, gastrointestinal challenges, poor sleep, sexual health, and kidney health. Athletes have also been known use the herb to support endurance and recovery after physical stress.
Research suggests that the potential medicinal benefits of Schisandra are the result of some unique and common compounds found in the plant parts. (8) In research conducted by the World Health Organization, and presented in the WHO Monographs on Selected Medicinal Plants, Schisandra contains a unique chemical structure known as schizandrin, which is comprised for schisandrin, schisandrol A, and wuweizichun. Other major chemical constituents include more than 30 lignans, gomisin A (schisandrol B, wuweizichun B, wuweizi alcohol B), deoxyschizandrin, and gomisin N and A. Studies show these compounds may support several areas of the body, including:
- Liver health
- Inflammatory response
- Cellular health
- Brain health
- Athletic performance
- Blood pressure
- Healthy-looking skin
A study found that the extracts of Schisandra in combination with Rubus idaeus, also known as red raspberry, had a protective effect on the liver in chronic alcohol-induced mice. (9) In the study, researchers measured livers for antioxidant status, serum transaminases levels, hyperlipidemia, and hepatic fat deposition and found that the extracts helped to protect liver tissue. Additionally, Rubus idaeus helped to “strengthen the liver protection effect of Schisandra without negative side effects." Researchers suggest that this combination of ingredients could be beneficial in a beverage to help “alleviate the adverse effects of long-term alcohol consumption.”
Another study found that Schisandra chinensis helped to metabolize drugs given to rats with carbon tetrachloride-induced hepatotoxicity (CCI4) in the liver. (10) Hepatotoxicity is a condition that prevents the liver from properly metabolizing drugs. If the liver becomes damaged, drugs designed to help alleviate this problem may not work. (11) In the study, Schisandra chinensis was given to rats 30 min and 6 hours before they were fed antipyrine, a common anti-inflammatory drug, and the study found that the livers were better able to metabolize the drug with the extract.
A study found that Schisandra chinensis helps to regulate inflammation factors in the immune system. (12) Schisandra chinensis inhibited the expression of certain proteins and transmission of signals that can result in the activation of inflammation in cells. The study writes that the plant “may be useful for the treatment of various inflammatory diseases.” However, the researchers used cell cultures and not human or animal subjects, which may warrant further research to clarify its medicinal potential.
A study evaluating the effect of Schisandra on depression found that the dried fruit extract produced an effect similar to antidepressants. (13) Researchers stimulated depressive effects in rats then treated them with 600 mg/kg of the extract. Researchers write that these positive effects are the result of “rectifying stress-based hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysfunction paradigm and upregulation of BDNF/TrkB/CREB signaling pathway.” Additionally, these tests show that the extract did not have a significant effect on locomotor activity, an issue sometimes associated with antidepressants. (14)
Anothing study found that the lignans in Schisandra had an antioxidant effect in rats injected with neurotoxic compounds. Rats injected with the fruit extract of Schisandra performed better on the Morris water maze and Step-down type passive avoidance test. The research showed that lignans helped to maintain normal levels of antioxidants in the prefrontal cortex, striatum, and hippocampus of the brain. This may demonstrate a “potential source of medicine for the treatment of the aging-associated neurodegenerative diseases.” (15)
A mixture of Schisandra chinensis and Chaenomeles sinensis extracts were found to suppress lactate production and accumulation during exercise. (16) This is thought to be the result of how this combination of extracts supports skeletal muscle tissue health.
Gomisin A, a compound found in Schisandra, is linked to antihypertensive effects in the cardiovascular system. (17) According to the study, these results are believed to be linked to the regulation of nitric oxide, which supports the structure and flexibility of cardiovascular tissue.
Several studies indicate that extracts of Schisandra may be beneficial to skin health, including acne and dermatitis. (18, 19, 20) These studies suggest that the potential benefits of the plant come from the extracts that help to mediate the inflammatory response and the immune system.
In a study of the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of Schisandra and Paeonia extracts in the treatment of asthma, researchers measured bronchoalveolar lavage fluids, lung tissue, and tracheal tissue and found that the extracts exhibited antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. (21) Future research may help to clarify if these extracts are “beneficial in alleviating the asthmatic condition.”
Warning, Dosage, and Interactions
There is no established safe dosage of Schisandra. Supplements can contain dosage amounts ranging from under 100 mg to over 1,000 mg. Schisandra can also be found in herbal blends that do not disclose the precise ratio of each herb. Supplements may contain whole parts of the root, leaves, or fruit, and extracts from each of the plant parts.
Schisandra is considered safe and well tolerated by most individuals. There is insufficient data about side effects and possible drug interactions. Schisandra may interact with other drugs or therapies, so if changes to health occur immediately contact a primary care physician. Pregnant women should not use Schisandra.
Schisandra is available in capsules, tinctures, liquids, tablets, herbal blends, and tea. Each supplement may contain one or more of the varieties of the Schisandra species, which could affect the potential medicinal benefits an individual will experience. For best results, consult with a primary care physician before starting any supplement regimen, and follow the manufacturer dosing guidelines and warnings.
A popular variety of Schisandra tea is called "five flavor tea." (22) To make the tea, soak whole dried berries in water overnight until plump. Sightly press each to remove excess moisture and plant compounds that can affect the taste of the tea. Simmer the berries in a quart of water at low heat for 15 to 20 minutes. Discard the berries as they will have taken on a less palatable taste. This tea can be stored for up to 4 days in the fridge. Use as many berries as desired, but be aware that the taste may be overwhelming.
Tea bags containing Schisandra and other herbs are also available. Steep these in hot water like any other tea or follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer. Drinking Schisandra is believed to be an ideal way to enjoy the many potential benefits of the plant.
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