Dan Shen: Its Power is in Its Bright Red Roots

Dan Shen: Its Power is in Its Bright Red Roots

Dan Shen, also known by its Latin name, Salvia Miltorrhiza, or its common name, red sage, is a perennial herb in the sage family. In traditional Chinese medicine, Dan Shen is the single most important herb for treating angina and unstable angina and for preventing heart attacks. I have been aware of this important herb for more than a decade, and have followed closely the various studies done on its effects. The range of effects is nothing short of remarkable.

In one study with patients with angina, 80 percent had improvement of their symptoms, and 50 percent had improvement on the EKG. It was judged more effective and better tolerated than the conventional treatment of angina with nitroglycerine.

A second study showed that Dan Shen, taken as a single herb, improved all the risk factors conventional cardiology considers for the development of heart disease. These include LDL, lowering Lp(a) (a lipid associated with the development of atherosclerosis), platelet aggregation (similar to Plavix or aspirin), and CRP, a marker for inflammation. In yet other studies, Dan Shen was shown to prevent strokes and protect the brain in the event of a stroke, and raise dopamine levels, thereby aiding mood disorders. It also has anti-fungal effects. Finally, the active ingredient in Dan Shen, called tanshinone, stimulates osteogenesis, or new-bone formation, which is particularly important for post-menopausal women looking to prevent osteoporosis.

For many Western, allopathic physicians, it is hard to understand how one plant or one substance could positively affect all these conditions. But plants are different from drugs. They are not simple chemical compounds that have one direct effect. Plants are living beings, with complex physiology and strategies for survival. Dan Shen puts much of its energy into the formation of its bright red roots, which are the part of the plant that is used medicinally.

Unable to find a pure, organic source of Dan Shen powder to use with my patients, I decided to grow Dan Shen this year in our Napa garden. It is a beautiful plant that is extremely vigorous and easy to grow. The leaves and flowers don’t have much smell or taste, unlike some sage members, as apparently all the active chemicals that go into producing smell and taste have been “sucked” down into the roots. But the roots are a bold red, are aromatic and have a bitter, woody taste. It is easy to see that this is where the life of this plant resides.

Although I am still interested in growing and perhaps processing Dan Shen ourselves, I recently came across the product Dan Shen Supreme, which is produced by a small company that is able to obtain high-quality, organic Dan Shen powder. They encapsulate the powder without any excipients, do extensive testing for contaminants and active ingredients, and put the powder into non-gelatin capsules.

Dan Shen has been used for decades, if not centuries, with virtually no side effects or toxicity reported. The only situation in which I would not use Dan Shen is with people on prescription blood thinners, as Dan Shen also has a gentle blood-thinning effect.

The usual dose is one to two capsules, three times a day. It is compatible with most other herbs or natural treatments and is a valuable support for anyone dealing with heart disease, hypertension, stroke prevention, osteoporosis and some forms of depression.

As with all new medicines, please consult your primary-care physician to make sure Dan Shen is compatible with your current medicines.

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