Salvia miltiorrhiza is highly prized in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), especially for promoting blood flow and heart health. This herb may also help lower cholesterol, reduce acne, protect the brain, and more. One formulation with it is the only TCM remedy that currently stands a chance of FDA approval. Read on to learn when it might offer you solid health benefits, when there’s just not enough good science to say for sure, and when it can be dangerous.
What is Salvia Miltiorrhiza?
Salvia miltiorrhiza, also known as Red Sage, is a flowering plant native to China and Japan. It is part of the mint family. The plant’s roots are called Danshen and have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for over 2000 years [R, R+].
It is often included as part of other traditional medicines. For example, salvia miltiorrhiza, notoginseng, and borneol can be combined to make Danshen dripping pills. These pills are the first Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that has successfully completed a Phase 2 clinical trial under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means that it may become the first TCM remedy approved by the FDA in the future [R, R, R+].
This FDA-monitored study involved 15 centers across the US and 125 patients with angina pectoris–chest pain from heart disease. Due to poor heart function, people with angina have lower exercise tolerance and quality of life. In this study, they discontinued most other heart medications. And after 8 weeks, the pills effectively improved their heart symptoms and exercise capacity [R+].
Danshen dripping pills are still under rigorous trials in the US. They are a great example of a TCM remedy undergoing proper scientific testing–and the results are encouraging.
However, we have yet to see if their use is safe and these pills are not regulated outside of China. They fall in the grey area and you should be wary of any products that claim to be Danshen dripping pills.
The evidence to back up other benefits of Danshen is weaker but still holds a lot of promise. In most instances, the use of high-quality, regulated supplements from this herb is safe. We carefully break down the research so you know what to expect and what dangers to watch out for.
- May help prevent and/or improve heart and circulatory problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke
- May help with diabetes
- May protect the liver and kidneys
- Might help fight cancer and lower chemotherapy side effects
- May help wounds heal and resolve acne
- Generally safe, including use in pregnant women and children
- May cause mild side effects, including nausea and dizziness
- May interact with medications
- Many available studies are poor in quality and show signs of bias
- Potentially dangerous Chinese formulations may enter the market
This plant contains over 200 active compounds [R].
Salvia miltiorrhiza produces tanshinones, special kinds of molecules first found in this herb. Over 40 tanshinones have been identified in Danshen, and they are thought to be responsible for many of the herb’s properties, such as its effects on the heart [R, R, R, R].
There are some small differences in the content of these components among plants from different places. However, the amounts of important molecules like tanshinones are comparable among plants from different areas [R, R].
Mechanism of Action
Salvia miltiorrhiza may help the heart and decrease blood pressure by:
- Activating ion channels that help widen blood vessels [R].
- Decreasing the levels of stress-related proteins in blood vessel cells [R, R].
- Helping blood vessel cells survive when they are injured [R].
The herb’s benefits for people with diabetes are likely related to its ability to boost blood flow, lower inflammation, and quench cellular stress. Its protective effects on the kidney also probably contribute to preventing diabetes-associated kidney disease [R, R+, R].
What’s more, it may aid in wound healing by promoting the formation of blood vessels and decreasing inflammation and cell death [R+].
This herb might help the brain and nervous system by:
- Helping brain cells survive when there isn’t enough oxygen, which happens during a stroke [R].
- Preserving myelin sheaths–coatings around brain cells that help them send electric signals more efficiently [R].
- Decreasing the formation of Alzheimer’s disease-related plaques [R].
Many of the compounds in salvia miltiorrhiza increased the activities of neurotransmitters, like acetylcholine, in the brain, which may be related to the herb’s usefulness for insomnia, anxiety, and depression [R+].
It might kill cancer cells by:
- Generating reactive oxygen species selectively in cancer cells, which can damage their DNA [R].
- Activating molecular signals in cancer cells that lead the cells to die, stop growing, or even turn into non-cancerous cells [R, R, R+].
- Cutting of the tumor’s blood supply, effectively causing the tumor cells to starve [R].
Danshen might improve acne thanks to its bacteria-killing and anti-inflammatory effects. Components of the plant might also block male sex hormones, which can otherwise trigger or worsen acne [R+].
1) Protecting the Heart
One analysis examined 39 clinical trials including 2431 people treated for heart disease with salvia miltiorrhiza alone or combined with other herbs. Herbal treatment was beneficial in 63.4% to 99.2% of people studied, though the quality of the studies was low [R+].
Another analysis examined the well-known Danshen dripping pill, which contains salvia miltiorrhiza for heart disease and chest pain. A total of about 34k people were included, and it was generally effective, though again, study quality was low [R].
One analysis compared Danshen dripping pill to a drug called isosorbide dinitrate for treating heart disease-related chest pain. Sixty studies including almost 7k people were analyzed. The herbal treatment was more effective than the drug, but study quality was again poor [R].
In an analysis of 56 studies including over 5.5k people, salvia miltiorrhiza was generally effective for reducing chest pain–however, study quality was poor [R].
Blood Pressure Effects
Whether salvia miltiorrhiza effects blood pressure in a meaningful way isn’t entirely clear, as studies have obtained conflicting results.
In one study, of 90 people with disease-related high blood pressure, herbal combination remedies including salvia miltiorrhiza didn’t affect blood pressure after 12 months. It did have other circulation-related benefits, like widening and relaxing blood vessels [R].
Contrastingly, in a study of 55 people with high blood pressure, Danshen reduced blood pressure in about half of those who received it. However, people given the placebo also had a fairly high response rate [R].
In another study, an injection containing salvia miltiorrhiza decreased blood pressure-related markers in 30 pregnant women, although this study did not include a control group [R].
A study of 72 healthy smokers also found that Danshen reduced blood pressure and artery hardening relative to placebo [R].
Studies in mice and rats were conflicting. On the one hand, compounds in the plant decreased blood pressure. On the other hand, the herbal treatment alone didn’t prevent high blood pressure in rats [R, R, R].
Blood Vessel Health
In rats, an extract from Salvia miltiorrhiza prevented aneurysms–bulges in blood vessels that can cause problems or even lead the vessel to burst [R].
Studies in both rodents and cells also suggest that extracts from the herb prevent hardening of the arteries, which may lower the risk of health problems like high blood pressure and heart disease [R, R, R, R].
2) Lowering Cholesterol
An herbal combination including Danshen lowered cholesterol in a trial of 165 menopausal women with high cholesterol [R].
Additionally, the antioxidants in the herb lowered levels of oxidized LDL–a type of cholesterol that is highly associated with heart problems–in rabbits [R].
An analysis of 6 clinical trials including 494 people found that, although the trials all reported vague improvements in people treated with the herb, the quality of the studies was so poor that, “There was no evidence that [Danshen] did more good than harm” [R].
A larger analysis of clinical trials found a similar lack of high-quality evidence when Traditional Chinese Medicines, including Danshen, were given to people with stroke [R+].
On the other hand, in a more recent trial that included 106 people, those taking Danshen dripping pill were less likely to have another stroke. People taking the pill also had lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation [R].
Overall, there is some evidence that this herb could be useful for preventing strokes or enhancing recovery, but because of the lack of high-quality studies, the jury is still out.
4) Protecting the Brain and Spinal Cord
In mice with Alzheimer’s disease, extracts from salvia miltiorrhiza prevented a loss of brain function [R].
5) Cancer and Chemotherapy Side Effects
One study reviewed the data of people who had been treated for prostate cancer in the Taiwanese health system, and they found that those who were taking Danshen during their treatment tended to live longer. This was also true in lung cancer patients [R+, R+].
Use of Chinese medicines, including Danshen, was also linked to a lower likelihood of developing cervical cancer after a Pap smear diagnosis of cervical dysplasia— cancer-like cells that aren’t quite cancer yet [R+].
A study of 313 people with multiple myeloma found that herbal remedies could reduce the risk of blood clots that can be a serious problem with certain cancer treatments (thalidomide) [R]
Importantly, salvia miltiorrhiza may also kill cancer cells that are resistant to traditional therapies. Extracts from the plant also reduced inflammation of the mouth, a chemotherapy side effect, in hamsters [R].
Danshen is often used to reduce acne, although proper clinical studies are scarce. In one study of 93 people, a pill containing a Danshen extract reduced the lesions by around half after 4 weeks [R+, R].
7) Helping Wounds Heal
In a trial of 90 people recovering from breast cancer surgery, an injection with salvia miltiorrhiza led to better wound healing and less tissue death around the wound. People who received this injection also had fewer side effects than those who received a different experimental drug [R].
8) Pain from Shingles
Postherpetic neuralgia is a painful condition that can occur as a result of shingles. A study of 80 people with this condition found that a combination of pain medication and an acupuncture technique that included salvia miltiorrhiza reduced pain more than either technique alone [R].
9) Insomnia and Anxiety
In a trial of 100 people with insomnia, an herbal treatment including salvia miltiorrhiza was effective for 80% of people after two months. However, the control group also had a high efficacy rate (50%), suggesting a powerful placebo effect [R].
10) Promoting Kidney Health
In an analysis of 200 people treated for kidney stones, those who took Danshen were less likely to have additional stones in the five years following treatment. Importantly, the herbal treatment didn’t seem to increase the likelihood of problematic bleeding during surgery [R].
In a study of 80 people with kidney failure, an herbal treatment including salvia miltiorrhiza improved kidney function when combined with standard treatment [R].
A study of 70 children with kidney inflammation also showed that adding this herb to standard treatments improved kidney health [R].
11) Protecting the Liver
An analysis of 8 studies including 800 patients found that Danshen might be helpful for treating nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. However, the included studies weren’t great–for example, none were blinded, making it almost impossible to rule out placebo effect [R+].
12) Diabetes Complications
In an analysis of 13 trials including 874 people, Danshen dripping pill helped to prevent diabetic retinopathy–a complication of diabetes that affects the eyes. However, the quality of the analyzed studies was low [R+].
In a study of 102 people with diabetes, an injection containing components of the plant led to smaller foot ulcers when combined with standard treatment [R].
13) Menstruation and Fertility
Although salvia miltiorrhiza is commonly taken for menstrual problems like irregular bleeding, there isn’t actually much hard evidence that it has an effect. It just hasn’t really been studied, so most of the evidence relies on clinical use in traditional medicine and not on rigorous trials [R, R].
One study of 400 patients found that an herbal injection containing Danshen might improve outcomes for surgeries to unblock the fallopian tubes–blocked tubes can cause female infertility [R].
14) Promoting Bone Health
15) Antibacterial and Anti-Pest Applications
Salvia miltiorrhiza is known to be able to kill bacteria, including bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, in dishes. Additionally, it was used to make a silver-based compound that can kill both bacteria and the mosquitoes that spread the Zika virus [R, R, R].
Side Effects & Precautions
Because of its long history of traditional use, Salvia miltiorrhiza is generally considered safe. It has also been used safely in both pregnant people and children. However, you should consult your doctor if you are pregnant and plan to supplement with this herb to avoid any potential risks [R, R, R+].
Otherwise, commonly reported side effects of Danshen include upset stomach, diarrhea, low blood cell count, dizziness, shortness of breath, and rash. However, it should be noted that many studies did not report what, if any, side effects occurred [R+, R+, R+, R+, R].
The use of approved, quality-tested Danshen extracts and formulations probably don’t pose serious risks. However, some restrictions apply Danshen Dripping Pills, especially if you are in the US or in Canada. These pills are mostly produced in China and their use in Western countries is a still grey zone.
In 2013, Health Canada reported that Compound Danshen Dripping Pills were brought into the country without authorization. Their use was associated with a case of methemoglobinemia, a rare but serious condition which may result in coma or death. The product was manufactured in China.
Additionally, one study of 24 middle-aged people found that a combination of herbs including salvia miltiorrhiza prevented muscle gain during exercise. It might be wise for anyone looking to increase muscle mass to avoid this herb–although this one study with small sample size is hardly conclusive [R].
Components in the plant can also decrease the activity of enzymes made by the liver. Since many of these enzymes break down drugs, salvia miltiorrhiza might make it harder for the body to remove drugs, including sedatives and antihistamines [R+, R, R, R].
If you are currently taking medication, it’s always best to ask a healthcare professional before self-medicating with herbal supplements to avoid possibly dangerous interactions.
Limitations and Caveats
First, many of the available studies in humans were poorly designed. This includes lacking control groups, not reporting side effects, not reporting exact dosages/compositions of treatments, etc. It’s therefore difficult to give too much credence to most of them [R+, R+, R+].
Many studies used combinations of herbs including salvia miltiorrhiza. It’s hard to tease out what the exact role of this specific plant might be in these studies. The highest-quality evidence does give credibility to Danshen dripping pills, which have been rigorously and properly studied [R+, R+, R].
Lastly, some studies reported very high success rates in placebo groups. Even though these studies show that Danshen treatment was generally more effective than nothing, they also suggest that a lot of the herb’s effectiveness might just be a placebo effect [R, R].
Supplementation & Dosage
Danshen is sold in a variety of forms, including the dried root itself, as a cream, and as a tea or tincture. Extracts of the plant can also be found, and Danshen is the main ingredient in various multi-herbal supplements [R+, R].
Additionally, supplements are not standardized, and different products may have different amounts of the herb or its active components.
Danshen dripping pills are still being investigated in rigorous trails. Their dosage in previous trials was 10 pills, three times a day, applied directly under the tongue [R+].
However, Danshen dripping pills are not available in the US. In Canada, they have not been authorized for sale. Beware of any products labeled as Danshen dripping pills.
Additionally, many studies didn’t report details about the dosages they used. For example, some used Danshen dripping pills, which contain salvia miltiorrhiza, notoginseng, and borneol, but did not detail the exact composition of the pills used [R+, R+, R+].
In general, the recommended dosage of orally consumed Danshen (the dried root) ranges around 10-30 grams per day. [R+].
Users of this herb generally report high satisfaction, including decreased symptoms from diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and asthma, as well as a general feeling of goodness and calm upon taking the herb.
Other users–more infrequently–report that the supplement “doesn’t work” or is “a waste of money.” Some also had unpleasant side effects like headaches.
Buy Salvia Miltiorrhiza
Salvia miltiorrhiza has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years. Modern research is tapping into its potential to combat chronic diseases and improve health.
Available evidence suggests that compounds in the plant could be helpful for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, kidney and liver problems, and more. However, currently available studies are pretty low-quality. Additional high-quality clinical trials are needed.
Although salvia miltiorrhiza is generally considered safe and side effects are typically mild, it can interact problematically with some medications. Consult your doctor before supplementing, especially if you take blood thinners or any prescription drugs.
Evidence suggests that a combination formula called Danshen dripping pills may be useful for people with angina pectoris–chest pain due to heart disease. However, these pills are still under trials in the US and their use outside of China is restricted and potentially dangerous.