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What Is Fo-Ti?

By C. Mitchell
Updated May 17, 2024
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Fo-ti is an herb native to China that features prominently in traditional Chinese medicine and is lauded for its perceived restorative powers. Ancient Chinese medicine teaches that fo-ti, or Hu shou wu as it colloquially known, has the power to restore inner balance. Ingesting the herb, many believe, will help detoxify the body, unblocking passages for energy input and output. It is commonly prescribed for fatigue, constipation, and complaints related to old age.

In Chinese, the name Hu shou wu is a reference to a legendary old man, Hu, who reportedly retained his vitality and strength after chancing upon the herb in the wilderness. Loosely translated, the phrase means “Hu’s black hair,” which describes the man’s reverse aging. People with gray and graying hair often seek out the perceived benefits of fo-ti in hopes of realizing some of the same results.

There are two primary ways of preparing the herb: raw or boiled in a broth, typically along with fermented black beans. In either case, only the root is used. The leaves and stems are not generally believed to carry any medicinal qualities. Flowers are sometimes brewed as a tea, but this is more for flavor than any pronounced health benefit.

Raw root is generally prescribed for constipation and fatigue. Patients will typically swallow small sections of the root whole, but it can also be ground or mashed into food. Mixing the root in with other plant juices to create a healing tonic beverage is also common.

Doctors of Chinese medicine will often recommend boiling the herb in bean broth to treat a range of internal problems, from heart failure to liver disease. Tuberculosis and cancer patients also sometimes receive the broth at varying intervals, usually in conjunction with other herbal treatments. Patients who wish to regain the strength of their youth, suffer from aching joints, or simply wish to reverse the graying of their hair may also take the herb in bean broth form.

According to the tenets of Chinese medicine, only specially trained herbalists can prescribe or calculate a fo-ti dose. The herb can be seen as something of a cure-all, but just the same, it is not usually recommended unless a specialist advises it after considering the entire person’s health, well-being, and so-called “balance.” Chinese medicine focuses extensively on the idea of balance and teaches that only those trained to see a body’s imbalance can cure it.

Nevertheless, the herb is widely available as an herbal supplement in many places. It is usually sold over the counter at pharmacies and health food stores. The herb is considered a dietary supplement under the laws of most countries, which means that it is not subject to many of the same labeling laws and dosage controls as pharmaceutical products may be. As such, the herb is often easy to get a hold of, but can be difficult to know how to use.

Very few scientific studies have been done on the herb and its perceived health benefits. The safety of the herb over the long term is also largely unknown, and there is only scant information when it comes to fo-ti side effects and dangers. Some research has indicated that the herb can be harmful to the liver if taken over an extended period of time. There is also a general consensus that women should avoid potent herbal supplements like fo-ti during pregnancy. In general, however, whether the herb is actually effective — along with whether it presents any health risks — remains largely unknown.

It is usually recommended that people speak with a medical professional, either a doctor or a certified herbalist, before beginning any sort of herb-based regimen. Even if a supplement like fo-ti is generally innocuous, it can have significant and sometimes deadly interactions with other drugs and herbal compounds. Taking fo-ti can also sometimes mask the symptoms of other more serious conditions that warrant medical attention.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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