Can Fo-Ti Help Prevent Grey Hair Safely?

Fo-ti / Polygonum multiflorum root dried
Badagnani/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum) is a plant that is native to China and also found in Japan and Taiwan. Used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as a longevity tonic, fo-ti is known as He Shou wu (which means "black-haired Mr. He"), referring to the legend of an older villager named Mr. He who took the herb and restored his black hair, youthful appearance, and vitality. 

Why Do People Use Fo-Ti?

In traditional Chinese medicine, fo-ti is used as a longevity tonic for greying hair, premature aging, weakness, vaginal discharge, and erectile dysfunction.

The type of fo-ti typically used is red fo-ti, which is the root boiled in a liquid made with black beans.

Fo-ti is also used in TCM for other conditions, including:  

The unprocessed root, known as white fo-ti due to its light color, is traditionally used for constipation or is applied topically to the skin for acne, athlete's foot, or dermatitis.

Although some preliminary laboratory and animal research suggests that fo-ti may have certain beneficial effects, there's currently a lack of clinical trials to support these findings.

Possible Side Effects

Despite fo-ti's long history of use, there have been numerous cases of hepatitis reported following the use of fo-ti. In a review of 450 case reports about liver damage associated with fo-ti, researchers concluded that fo-ti "causes liver toxicity and may cause liver damage in different degrees and even lead to death; most of them are much related to long-term and overdose of drugs".

The report's authors went on to say the liver damage associated with fo-ti is reversible and that after active treatment, the majority could be cured.

Rarely, people develop an allergic skin rash after taking fo-ti. A stimulant laxative, fo-ti may cause side effects including loose stools and diarrhea.

Taking more than 15 grams of the processed root has been associated with numbness in the arms and legs.

One study tested 32 plants used for menopause in traditional Chinese medicine. They found that fo-ti had the greatest estrogenic activity. People with estrogen-related cancers of the breast, ovary, uterus, and prostate in particular should avoid fo-ti, as the effect of hormonal effect in humans isn't known.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women and children shouldn't use fo-ti.

Fo-ti may affect blood sugar levels, particularly in people with diabetes. It shouldn't be taken in the weeks prior to surgery. 

Fo-ti may interact adversely with medications such as digoxin, stimulant laxatives, and diabetes drugs. It can also interact with drugs that affect the liver, such as ibuprofen, warfarin, and amitriptyline. 

Supplements haven't been tested for safety and due to the fact that dietary supplements are largely unregulated, the content of some products may differ from what is specified on the product label.

You can get tips on using supplements here, but keep in mind that self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

The Takeaway

Although fo-ti may have some possible health benefits, it cannot be recommended due to the potential for serious adverse effects such as acute liver damage.

If you're still thinking of trying it, it's essential that you speak with your healthcare provider first.

Sources:

Lei X, Chen J, Ren J, et al. Liver Damage Associated with Polygonum multiflorum Thunb.: A Systematic Review of Case Reports and Case Series. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2015;2015:459749. 

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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