five leaf jiaogulan plant

Gynostemma Tea (Jiaogulan) Benefits For AMPK & Weight Loss

[toc]The Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) name of jiaogulan – also written as jiao gu lan – is hard to say and spell for an American, no doubt.

What’s easy to understand is the potential advantage for anti-aging this herb might have, if you follow the science.

What is it?

Known as the “herb of immortality” in China, the species Gynostemma pentaphyllum is a climbing perennial vine in the same family as cucumbers. It’s native to southeast China, the Korean peninsula, and Japan.

What does gynostemma mean? In Chinese it translates as “stranded blue plant” because it can grow where others can’t. In its botanical name, you will notice “penta” within the second word, pentaphyllum. Its bluish-green leaves grow in groups of five, which is the meaning behind five leaf gynostemma tea. That’s what some herbalists call it.

Similar to clover, there are other types that have groups of three or seven leaves, but those are not widely used in TCM and similar practices.

Some call it southern ginseng but it’s not related to Panax ginseng, which is the species that provides Asian, Chinese, and Korean ginseng.

What is gynostemma used for?

It has been prized for food and medicinal uses since the Ming dynasty, if not earlier.

In 1406, the Ming prince Zhu Xiao wrote Materia Medica for Famine. The Chinese title literally translates as “Famine Relief Herbal.” Inside, he depicts good plants to eat during famine, including jiaogulan.

In 1578, towards the end of the Ming dynasty, a famous Chinese herbal guide was published. In Compendium of Materia Medica, the herb was used for the treatment of bloody urine (hematuria), throat pain, neck edema, trauma, and tumors.

Throughout history, its use has been more prevalent in regional folk medicine versus the formalized TCM practices. This is because gynostemma grows in the southern mountainous regions, a long ways from the “ancient domain of China” where TCM has its roots.

You can read more about its history in China’s Immortality Herb by Dr. Jialiu Liu.

Today, jiaogulan tea and decoction dosages are used by herbalists for a wide range of ailments such as diabetes, insomnia, hypertension, obesity, and liver disease. More generally, it’s recommended for the kidneys, spleen, lungs, cardiovascular health, adaptogenic qualities, and as a longevity supplement. There is not sufficient clinical evidence to validate any of those uses.

Health benefits

What follows are only preliminary scientific findings. There is not enough research to prove any benefit. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

1. Anti-aging through AMPK activation

Technically known as 5′ adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase, but commonly abbreviated AMPK, this is an enzyme found within every cell of your body.

Higher activity of AMPK is seen during youth. The amount declines as we get older.

Within your age group (whatever that may be) those who are thin, healthy, and exercise generally have much higher activation of AMPK, compared to those who are overweight, have type 2 diabetes or who don’t exercise. (1)

Because every cell contains AMPK, this enzyme has been called a “master regulating switch” and likely influences body fat composition and lifespan. This is because AMPK is believed to:

  • Boost production of mitochondria, which are the power generators of your cells (through ATP production). (2)
  • Make use of stored energy from fats and sugar (glucose) in the blood. (3)
  • Promote the clearing of cellular waste, such as worn-out cells and damaged proteins (autophagy). (4)

There are over 13,000 pieces of medical literature relating to AMPK research in the U.S. government’s PubMed database. However, this is largely lab-based using cultured cells and animals. There isn’t enough clinical data to prove the benefits of AMPK in humans and what advantages may result from boosting its activity.

Not that they’re similar to mammals, but fruit flies are often used in research because their lifespans are short. Scientists can monitor them from birth to death with precision.

graphs showing life extension

By using a genetic mutation to increase the AMPK activity in fruit flies, the lifespans for both genders were increased by around 20%. (5)

What does any of this have to do with jiaogulan tea?

It turns out that in the mountainous Guizhou province of southwest China, the people living there drink this tea regularly. When the Chinese government did a national census in 1970, the data showed that this small region had the highest percentage of centenarians and lower rates of cancer and certain age-related diseases. (6)

Is that just a coincidence? Maybe not.

Among the herbs and foods that activate AMPK in research, the best evidence to date is for gynostemma, rose hips, green and black tea, sources of quercetin and resveratrol. (7)

Resveratrol is found in red wine, peanuts, blueberries, and many other foods. It’s believed to work by activating the SIRT1 protein, which is regulated by the SIRT1 gene.

In turn, SIRT1 activates AMPK.

What’s so exciting about this plant is that it appears to activate AMPK directly, which may be more effective than doing so indirectly through SIRT1. (8) (9)

2. Antioxidants

ORAC values for jiaogulan tea, powder, raw leaves, and other forms of the plant have not been published. Although not quantified in ORAC scoring, there are nearly a hundred pieces of research which report that extracts, including jiaogulan seeds, demonstrate “direct and potent antioxidant activities” based on other metrics. (10)

The plant’s aerial parts (leaves and stems) contain gypenosides, polysaccharides, and saponins which have all shown pronounced antioxidant activity in animal models and cultured cells. (11) (12) (13)

Most intriguing is the research suggesting that gynostemma might boost internal production of superoxide dismutase (SOD).

SOD is a natural antioxidant our body makes. Internally created antioxidants like SOD are far superior to dietary forms, since absorption and bioavailability are a non-issue.

In a mouse model of kidney injury, the gypenosides had anti-inflammatory effects and boosted superoxide dismutase activity in their renal tissue. (14)

Similar was seen in rats with high cholesterol. (15)

In a study looking at the skeletal muscle of mice who were exercised to the point of exhaustion, there was higher SOD activity when they were pre-treated with polysaccharides derived from the plant. Results like these are why some people recommend it as an exercise and bodybuilding supplement. (16)

Based on hippocampus slices taken from rats with brain injuries, it was said that:

“Our results demonstrate that the prophylactic administration of the ethanolic extract from Gynostemma pentaphyllum has a high potential to protect from ischemia/reperfusion injury.”

Take note of the “ethanolic extract” verbiage. They did not say the water-based extract helped. This is important, because gynostemma tea – which is basically a water extract – may not be the most bioavailable way of consuming the plant. (17)

3. May lower blood sugar

When it comes to human clinical research, some of the best support is for the lowering of blood glucose levels in type 2 diabetics. There have been two double-blinded trials to date on this.

The first came in 2010 out of Swedish university hospital. Among the 24 patients with type 2 diabetes, the group drinking gynostemma tea everyday for 12 weeks experienced a 3 point drop in fasting blood glucose. The tea dosage used was 6g, which is about 1.5 teaspoons of gynostemma powder. (18) (19)

The same group of researchers published a similar study, this one with 25 patients, a couple years later. The design was similar, except the anti-diabetic drug gliclazide (Diamicron) was added during the first 4 weeks.

graphs showing gynostemma's blood sugar lowering effect over 9 day period

The lower blood sugar that correlated with using gynostemma was similar to what was seen in the first study. (20)

4. Weight loss

There are two randomized, double-blinded, and placebo-controlled human trials that focus on body weight and fat composition.

The first is from 2006 and it was done at a university hospital in Taiwan. All 56 participants had non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). All were placed on a diet plan. In addition, one group got 80 mL of gynostemma extract daily. The other got a placebo. Those on the gynostemma supplement experienced a statistically significant reduction in BMI from months 2 through 6 of treatment. (21)

The next study came out in 2014 and it was from an obesity research center at a South Korean university. Here’s how it worked:

  • 80 obese men and women participated, as defined by having a BMI of 25 or greater.
  • 40 people were given a 450 mg daily dosage of Actiponin for weight loss. This is a patented natural branded extract of G. pentaphyllum which has been standardized to have a 1.2% concentration of Damulin A, which is believed to be the active saponin component.
  • 40 people were placed on a placebo version.
  • Each group had an average age of 40 years, with comparable heights, weights, and BMIs to begin with.
  • Each group used their treatment for 12 weeks.
  • During treatment, their daily intake of calories, carbs, protein, fat, and other nutrition variables were not modified.

Unlike many studies which just have people stand on scales and have their waist measured, this one was much more sophisticated; CT scans were used to measure exact body composition before and after.

At the end of the 12 weeks, the differences in the Actiponin group versus placebo were immense when it came to total abdominal fat (AKA belly fat), visceral fat, and subcutaneous fat.

Actiponin (Gynostemma) Group Placebo Group
Parameter 0 weeks (before) 12 weeks (after) Difference 0 weeks (before) 12 weeks (after) Difference
Total abdominal fat (cm²) 332.24 311.35 -20.90 335.36 333.05 -2.87
Visceral fat (cm²) 106.84 95.97 -11.70 98.78 96.68 -2.92
Subcutaneous fat (cm²) 225.40 215.38 -8.70 236.57 236.37 +0.05
Visceral subcutaneous ratio (VSR) 0.51 0.47 -0.04 0.47 0.47 0.00

Below is what the typical before and after CT scans looked like. You can see he reduction in body fat throughout the abdomen:

CT scan showing less belly fat with jiaogulan diet pills

Since gynostemma AMPK enhancement is suspected, this outcome is not surprising. Preliminary, but promising. It might actually be a legit belly fat blaster, unlike those diet pill banner ads you always see. (22)

5. Liver support

Two human trials involve this organ.

The first was the one mentioned above about anti-obesity benefits in patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). In addition to losing weight, the jiaogulan extract was associated with improvements in:

  • aspartate aminotransferase (AST)
  • alkaline phosphatase (ALP)
  • insulin
  • insulin resistance index (HOMA-IR)

These biomarkers suggest it had a health promoting effect on their livers. (21)

The other trial isn’t useful. It involved 84 patients with liver cirrhosis from chronic hepatitis B. The treatment used was a mixture, which contained the jiaogulan plant among other herbs. If you want to read it, it’s published in Chinese. (18)

There are over a dozen lab and animal studies which support the theory that gynostemma is good for liver health.

Triterpenes derived from the plant have been shown to protect against hydrogen peroxided induced injury to cultured liver cells. (23)

Other research using mice found that the gypenosides protected against liver fibrosis by blocking TGF beta signaling, which in turn, helps prevent liver progenitor cells from turning into myofibroblasts (scar tissue). (24)

6. May lower HbA1c (glycated blood)

HbA1c is a test well known to type 1 and 2 diabetics, but it’s merely an alphabet soup to most other people.

In short, it measures glycated blood, which paints a better picture of average blood sugar over the long term, versus a test strip, which only measures the level in real time.

But there’s more to it than that.

Whether you’re diabetic or not, this glycation of blood occurs in all of us. Over time, it has damaging side effects on our cells.

The more that takes place, the higher the risk for cardiovascular disease. There’s even greater risk for diabetics when it comes to things like nerve damage (diabetic neuropathy), degenerative eye disease which can cause blindness, and more. Even the formation of skin wrinkles can be accelerated.

Both of the aforementioned trials for diabetes observed lower HbA1c with this so-called southern ginseng.

In the first trial, it lowered HbA1c more than the placebo, which was green tea. In the second trial, it was reduced by 2%.

That may not sound like much, but it’s hard to move the needle much on this.

The difference between normal HbA1c (below 6%), prediabetes (6.0-6.4%), and diabetes (6.5% or higher) is a tight range regardless. The jiaogulan dosage was considered to have a “potent” effect on the lowering of HbA1c in the study. (18) (20)

7. Used in cancer research

No research has been done on humans, though a few dozen lab studies have taken place using cultured human cancer cells as well as animals.

Several involve specialized mice with xenografted human cancer cells. In plain English, those are mice with an immune system that has been designed to not reject these foreign implanted cells.

When the mice were implanted with human oral cancer, there was a 66% reduction in tumor size. The dosage received was 20 mg per kg of body weight of purfied gypenosides, extracted from gynostemma. It was used for 28 days. (25)

When fostering human leukemia, with dosage of 2-4 mg per kg of body weight, survival rates over a 2 week period went up 150-175%. (26)

In a sarcoma model, tumor size was nearly 40% lower. (27)

For colorectal (colon) cancer, reductions of 26-75% in tumor size were observed after 19 days with various dosages, as seen below:

graphs and photos of gynostemma for cancer of the colon experiment

Control = untreated
5-Fu = 5-Fluorouracil, a first-line drug for colorectal cancer
Gyp Low = Low dose of gypenosides extracted from gynostemma
Gyp High = High dose of gypenosides
5-Fu+Gyp Low = 5-Fluorouracil and low dose gypenosides used together
5-Fu+Gyp High = 5-Fluorouracil and high dose gypenosides used together

These results led the researchers to conclude the plant’s gypenosides might be a “potential chemo-sensitizer” that work syngerstically with chemotherapy, by making the cancer cells more susceptible to the it. (28)

Neoplasia is pre-cancerous growth. It can be benign or malignant. Using an intestinal model of neoplasia, the mice had around a 60% drop in the number of polyps that developed:

number of pre-cancerous lesions with and without G. pentaphyllum

The dosing for that ranged from 500-750 mg per kg of body weight. It was given for 4 weeks. (29) (30)

All of the above involve gynostemma gypenosides. Another group of compounds, polysaccharide have also been tested in mice.

In mice xenografted with sarcoma cells, there was around a 60% reduction in tumor size over a 14 day period when dosed with the polysaccharudes. Dosing was up to 200 mg per kg of body weight. (31)

In the mice with liver cancer, the results were comparable over a 10 day period when similar dosing was used. (32)

8. May lower blood pressure

Jiaogulan and high blood pressure is a purported folk medicine remedy used throughout Asian countries, yet it has almost no formal research. (33)

There is one double-blinded clinical trial that took place in the 90’s. Gypenosides extracted from gynostemma were pitted against regular Panax ginseng and indapamide, which is a hypertensive drug. In the study, the gynostemma worked nearly 2x better than ginseng for high blood pressure and almost as well as indapamide. These results was published in Guizhou Medical Journal (1996; 20:1, not online).

The two human diabetic studies cast doubt on that outcome. Neither reported a change in systolic or diastolic blood pressure among the patients supplementing with it.

9. May lower cholesterol

Traditional medicine practices of Southern China often recommend jiaogulan tea for high cholesterol.

In rodents and cultured human endothelial cells, the herb has been confirmed to be an activator of the PPAR-alpha gene.

PPAR-alpha regulates bile acid production and cholesterol metabolism. When activated, more cholesterol is discarded by the body.

The active compound in gynostemma reported to be responsible for this benefit is gypenoside XLIX. (34) (35)

Rats and cells in a Petri dish are one thing. Is there evidence of this happening in actual humans?

Yes, but only two trials have taken place.

The 2017 study out of Thailand pitted jiaogulan tea against hibiscus tea, which is another herbal beverage that has been found to do this.

The hibiscus adversely affected levels of HDL cholesterol (the good kind) in people with certain genotypes. Gynostemma didn’t do this. It had favorable effects on total cholesterol and fasting blood glucose. (36)

The other trial was from 2014. It was the one for weight loss mentioned above. Here were the results:

Actiponin (Gynostemma) Group Placebo Group
Parameter 0 weeks (start) 8 weeks 0 weeks (start) 8 weeks
Total cholesterol 195.50 185.97 190.40 190.42
Triglycerides 134.35 117.28 136.40 143.03
HDL cholesterol 44.43 41.64 47.35 44.37
LDL cholesterol 119.75 111.61 113.03 107.97

According to the clinical trial, after 8 weeks of using a gynostemma supplement, there was a 10 point drop in total cholesterol and an 8 point drop in LDL cholesterol, which is the bad kind. Triglycerides also decreased considerably.

The people in the placebo group had total cholesterol levels that were virtually unchanged at 190.4 throughout the trial. (22)

Side effects

The possible side effects of gynostemma capsules and jiaogulan tea are identical and may include:

Loose stools

Similar to amla powder, triphala, and many other medicinal herbs, the high amount of saponins in gynostemma are believed to be responsible for many benefits, but they also may cause loose stools. Especially in a high dosage.

If taking on a daily basis, this effect generally subsides and goes away within a couple weeks. With low dosages it’s uncommon, as it hasn’t been reported in the clinical trials to date.

Nausea

As with the bowel movement change, this adverse reaction usually lessens over time. The best way to take gynostemma and avoid nasuea is by not consuming it on an empty stomach.

Low blood sugar

Since there is preliminary evidence of it lowering blood sugar, gynostemma may be dangerous for diabetics. It might cause it to drop too much, if the effects are cumlative with prescription treatments.

Increased risk of bleeding

One impact of lowering blood lipid levels is that it can cause increased bleeding. Theoretically, the risk may be greater when taking potential cholesterol lowering herbs, such as jiaogulan. It should be counted among supplements and vitamins to not take before surgery.

Undesired weight loss

While most would consider this a benefit, it won’t be for those trying to gain weight.

Unknown pregnancy safety

Gynostemma tea during pregnancy should be avoided until more data is available. Pregnant women and animals have not been studied while taking this herb in any form.

A 2014 study reported the gypenosides from the plant appeared to help reduce brain damage in neonatal rats when caused by ethanol (alcohol). The Chinese scientists proposed this finding might be relevant to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

On the flip side, it’s unknown if compounds in gynostemma might cause birth defects directly, so any protective effect against alcohol may be a moot point. (37)

Unknown breastfeeding safety

Women who are breastfeeding should avoid drinking jiaogulan tea or taking supplements made with it until safety data is available.

How to make gynostemma tea

Please keep in mind that all health benefits for this plant remain unproven. Its intended use is only as a dietary supplement and food/beverage. You should not use it for any disease.

The traditional way to make tea is by infusing a small handful of fresh jiaogulan leaf, or one teaspoon of dry loose leaf. Bring 8 oz (240 mL) of water to boil, remove, and pour over the leaf. Let steep for at least 10 minutes before drinking.

It’s an easy recipe but based on modern science, you still may want to take a shortcut.

Based on studies which have compared water and ethanolic extracts of gynostemma, the latter is better at extracting certain compounds for bioavailability. Though it’s possible the water extract may be better for some other compounds.

gynostemma tea made with jiaogulan powder

For these reasons, the healthiest way may be to use a supplement powder that has a fuller spectrum, versus fresh or dry whole leaf. Ideally you should use a leaf powder that’s made with both alcohol and water extraction. Primal Herb is one brand that does this and here’s how we use it to make tea:

Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon of dry powder
  • 6 oz (180 mL) of purified water

Instructions

Place leaf powder in bottom of tea cup. Bring water to boil, remove from heat, and pour into cup. Stir until the powder is fully dissolved.

If made with unprocessed leaf, jiogulan tea tastes like green tea but naturally sweeter. When made with an ethanol-based extracted powder, the flavor will be salty and reminiscent of cooked mushrooms. It’s not bad on its own, though it doesn’t mesh well with sweeteners or milk. You will probably want to drink it plain.

We buy Primal Herb gynostemma powder on Amazon.

If you want tea bags of unprocessed leaves, it’s the main ingredient in Spring Dragon Longevity Tea by Dragon Herbs.

Extract and supplement reviews

Aside from tea, gynostemma pentaphyllum supplements come in many forms; gelatin and vegan capsules, dried loose leaf, ground leaf powder, and as a combination, such as Life Extension’s AMPK Metabolic Activator.

Since research has proven that methanolic extracts are needed to derive certain phytonutrients in the leaf, this is a food/supplement where the best forms are actually more processed. They’re unlikely to use organic jiaogulan, but enhanced bioavailability is a more valuable benefit.

Finding where to buy gynostemma tea or supplements is not easy in western nations. In the US and Canada, it’s not something you see at a Walmart, Costco or CVS. In the UK, don’t even bother trying Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Boots. It’s only the vitamin shops and stores like Whole Foods that tend to carry it.

On Amazon, here are some of our favorites:

Primal Herb powder – You don’t have to use the above tea recipe. Taking it with a little water is fast and efficient.

aSquared Nutrition High Potency Gypenosides – These are capsules with root and rhizome extract.

Aum Tea Company organic leaves – If you insist on organic jiaogulan, this is plain unprocessed dry leaf.


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Main photo by Maja Dumat via Flickr [CC by 2.0]