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Relieves menstrual discomfort, minimizes symptoms of menopause, treats colds and other respiratory problems, prevents arthritis and combats certain cancers

Regaining popularity as dang-qui in the West, Chinese angelica's time came and largely went. But now, after more than a century as a minor healer, this eight-foot plant, once called wild celery, has returned to popularity, thanks to its place of honor in Chinese medicine.

Chinese angelica, also known as dang-qui or tang-kuei, "is the leading Chinese herb for gynecological health," says Pi-Kwang Tsung, Ph.D., former assistant professor of pathology at the University of Connecticut Medical School in Farmington and currently editor of The East-West Medical Digest.

Treatment of gynecological problems is a far cry from angelica's uses in medieval Europe, where peasants made necklaces from the leaves of European angelica (Angelica archangelica) to protect their children from illness and witchcraft.

The herb became medically prominent because of an epidemic of bubonic plague in 1665. Legend has it that a monk dreamed an angel told him that wild celery could cure the dread disease. The monk renamed the plant "angelica" in honor of his dream-visitor, and not long afterward, the British Royal College of Physicians incorporated the herb into its official plague treatment, The King's Excellent Plague Recipe. Despite the recipe's supposed excellence, plague killed tens of thousands, and faith in angelica's healing abilities plummeted.

By the 18th century, European herbalists had relegated angelica to the relatively insignificant role of treating minor respiratory complaints, cold symptoms and coughs. These uses appear to be scientifically based. "In German animal studies, the oil in angelica has shown a relaxing effect on the trachea (windpipe)," says Bernie Olin, Pharm.D., editor of The Lawrence Review of Natural Products, a St. Louis-based newsletter that summarizes scientific research on medicinal herbs.

Women's healer from China

Asian physicians maintain that Chinese angelica (A. sinensis) is considerably more valuable than the European variety. For thousands of years, Chinese and traditional Indian Ayurvedic physicians have prescribed it as the tonic for gynecological problems. "Studies show that dang-qui increases red blood cell counts," Dr. Tsung explains. "That's why Chinese physicians give it to women who have just given birth. Childbirth involves blood loss, and dang-qui helps the body replace lost red blood cells."

Angelica also helps relax the uterus, and combined with other Chinese herbs it can stimulate secretion of the female sex hormone estrogen. Low estrogen levels can cause menstrual problems and are responsible for many menopausal complaints. Dang-qui helps minimize them.

But Chinese angelica is not just for women, according to Dr. Tsung. Dang-qui's ability to boost the production of red blood cells explains why it is used for treating weakness and fatigue in both men and women. Red blood cells carry oxygen to the tissues. As red blood cells proliferate, oxygenation of the blood increases, enabling the body to function more efficiently.

Also, "an immune-stimulating substance has been identified in dang-qui," Dr. Tsung says, "which can help both men and women stay healthy." In particular, he says, it may help prevent chronic diseases such as cancer and arthritis.

On the other hand, Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., professor of pharmacognosy at Purdue University School of Pharmacy in West Lafayette, Indiana, and author of The Honest Herbal, remains skeptical of claims for dang-qui: "Chinese research is not always as rigorous as it ought to be, so I don't consider this herb to have proven benefit."

Putting the herb to work

Herbal experts recommend using European angelica for respiratory complaints and dang-qui for gynecological health and stimulating the immune system. To make a medicinal tea, use one teaspoon of crushed root per cup of boiling water. Steep for 10 to 20 minutes. Angelica has a fragrant aroma and a warm, vaguely sweet taste reminiscent of juniper, followed by a bitter aftertaste. When using a commercial preparation, follow package directions.

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