Researchers at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey administered danshen's active ingredient — the chemical tanshinone IIA — to hamsters with hypertension. The hamsters' blood vessels dilated in response, and their blood pressure decreased as a result. Researchers hypothesize that danshen causes this effect by increasing the body's production of nitric oxide.
Danshen, known by the scientific name Salvia miltiorrhiza, is a variety of sage.
David Kim, author of the study and assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology, is a licensed acupuncturist who prescribes danshen to his own high-blood-pressure patients. "Traditionally, we knew this was working for high blood pressure," he said, "but we didn't know what the mechanism was."
Kim says he wants to further study how long danshen's effects last after it is administered.
"In Western medicine, [a treatment] works fast but doesn't last long," he said. "In Oriental medicine, it works slowly, but it lasts."
Researchers say that tanshinone IIA could eventually be used to produce a new hypertension drug.
"Danshen has been used for thousands of years in Chinese Medicine to move blood," said consumer health advocate Mike Adams, author of "Natural Health Solutions."
"Western medicine is finally beginning to catch up by learning things about medicinal herbs that the Chinese have known for millennia," he said.
Lixing Lao, co-president of the Society for Acupuncture Research, cautioned against rushing to turn danshen into a pharmaceutical product.
"More research on drug toxicity and adverse effects will be needed to evaluate the safety of this remedy," Lao said. He advised in particular that patients on blood thinning medication use danshen with caution.