Atractylodes (Bai Zhu, Cang Zhu)
Botanical Name: Bai Zhu – Atractylodes Macrocephalae, A. Ovata. Cang Zhu – A. chinensis.
Of the two versions of Atractylodes, Bai Zhu (Rhizoma A. Macrocephalae or Ovata) is considered one of the finest Qi tonics available. Used by martial artists to strengthen their legs and muscles, this herb is often used in combination with other herbs to help build Qi and balance herbal formulas. In contrast, Cang Zhu (Rhizoma A. chinensis) is very drying and more aromatic.
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Also Known As: Atractylodis
Organs/Systems: Black Atractylodis (Cang Zhu) – Digestive, Joints. White Atractylodis (Bai Zhu) – Digestive, Blood, Bladder.
Key Actions: Digestive, Antibacterial, Diuretic, Hypoglycaemic, Sedative, Stomachic, Tonic, Antifungal, Anti-inflammatory, Antioxidant
Medicinal Uses: Black Atractylodis (Cang Zhu) – bloating, nausea, poor appetite, colds, flu with phlegm. White Atractylodis (Bai Zhu) – gastro and abdominal distention, diarrhea, edema, dizziness due to excess phlegm, prevent sweating, soothes the fetus, and helps prevent abortion. Used to help “cleanse the blood” from complications of dialysis.
Also Known As: Black Atractylodis (Cang Zhu), White Atractylodis (AKA Largehead Atractylodes / Bai Zhu)
Meridians: Spleen, Stomach
Key Actions: Cang Zhu (Black Atractylodes) – Strongly Dries Damp, Tonifies Spleen Qi, Expels Wind Damp, Clears Dampness in the Lower Burner, Dries Dampness, Induces Sweating, Releases Exterior, Improves Vision. Bai Zhu (White Atractylodes) – Tonifies Spleen and Qi, Strengthens Spleen, Dries Dampness, Stabilizes the Exterior, Stops Sweating, Strengthens Spleen, Calms Fetus.
Medicinal Uses: Cang Zhu (Black Atractylodes) – poor appetite, diarrhea, bloating, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, headaches, body aches, night blindness, rough sensation in the eyes. Bai Zhu (White Atractylodes) – Diarrhea, fatigue, poor appetite, vomiting, digestive disorders due to weak Spleen Yang, edema, reduced urination, sweating, restless fetus disorder, joint pain, weight loss due to cancer, allergies, or toxicity, Candida, blood cleanser.
Basic Habitat / Botany:
Atractylodes (both Bai Zhu and Cang Zhu) prefers pastures and wastelands. It also grows in grassland and forests and is commonly found in the mountain valleys of China’s Zhejiang province.
Parts Most Frequently Used: Root, Rhizome
Flavors/Temps: Cang Zhu – Acrid, Bitter, Warm, Aromatic. Bai Zhu – Bitter, Sweet, Warm.
Caution: Considered safe. Some may experience an allergic reaction if they have a pre-existing allergy to ragweeds or daisies, which are in the same family (Compositae) as atractylodes.
Key Constituents: Atractylol, Atractylone, Hinesol, Vitamin A, Butenolide A, Butenolide B, Volatile oils, Essential Amino acids, Glucoside, Inulin
History/Folklore: Atractylodes is an important general tonic herb that generally supports the digestive system and balances the appetite. In China, it is widely used to help weight loss programs. Its warming properties make it mildly stimulating. It is widely used as a safe diuretic helping to regulate fluid metabolism. With ongoing use, it is recognized as aiding the control of appetite. In China, it is also said to strengthen the legs and muscles. It is considered one of the best tonic herbs in Chinese herbalism and is sometimes called “the First Herb of Invigorating Qi and Strengthening the Spleen.”
Bai Zhu (aka white atractylodes) is the most frequently used of the two varieties. In contrast to Bai Zhu, Cang Zhu (aka black atractylodes) is very drying. Patients using Cang Zhu are often recommended to eat it in congee (rice porridge) to counteract the plant’s drying effects. Good quality Cang Zhu is large, solid, and lacking small hairs. It will be aromatic. Cang Zhu is harvested in the spring and autumn. Cang Zhu is more typically collected from the wild. There is some reporting that indicates the herb burned as an incense may have antibacterial qualities.
Bai Zhu is harvested from late autumn to winter–the later the better. Used raw, Bai Zhu helps Dry Dampness and promote urination. Dry-fried Bai Zhu will help strengthen and tonify Spleen Qi. Scorched Bai Zhu is considered best to help stop diarrhea. Good quality Bai Zhu will have a yellowish-white cross-section compared to Cang Zhu, which has a cross-section color that is similar to cinnabar. In studies, Bai Zhu has increased assimilation of glucose and lowered plasma glucose levels.
Bai Zhu is typically blended with other herbs, such as codonopsis, astragalus, and bupleurum, to strengthen the functioning of the Spleen and digestion. By strengthening the Spleen, it helps to increase blood and strengthen Energy (Qi). It is often combined with skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) to help prevent miscarriage. Bai Zhu is rarely used as a lead herb, but most often as an adjunct herb to help focus a formula’s therapeutic effects on a particular area or function. Bai Zhu is typically cultivated and not harvested from the wild.
Both varieties of atractylodes are used for treating conditions associated with Dampness. They promote digestion and have been used to treat tetany and jaundice. Bai Zhu can be used to help reduce general swelling.
The ancient Taoists used the herb to help counter the loss of body weight and appetite associated with the consumption of heavy metals in alchemical mixtures used to promote longevity or “lightness.”
Many consider the herb to be, next to ginseng, one of the best tonic herbs for the daily treatment of Qi Deficiency and treating conditions caused by an accumulation of Dampness. There is an old Chinese saying, “ginseng in the north and atractylodes in the south”, referring to the herb’s ability to especially treat digestion and intestinal issues caused by excess Damp, whereas ginseng is especially preferred for its upward clearing and strengthening abilities associated with the respiratory and heart systems. As a diuretic, it is useful for aiding the elimination of dangerous toxins.
According to ancient texts, atractylodes is one of the key herbs to be used for salvation during end times for its ability to build strong Qi, fight off ghosts, and promote longevity.
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