Centuries before James Parkinson described the "shaking palsy" that would later bear his name, the Chinese were already treating the condition they called "the shakes" with a simple herb.
But gou teng is more than just a folk remedy with a funny name: A new study shows this stuff might have the power to help tame or even beat Parkinson's disease.
Researchers in Hong Kong gave 115 Parkinson's patients either a blend of traditional herbs including gou teng, or a placebo, for 13 weeks, and found that those who got the traditional treatment had better sleep, improvements in speech, and a lower risk of depression.
Even better, the patients who took the herbs along with the Parkinson's drug levodopa suffered fewer of the med's notorious side effects -- including hallucinations and delusional thinking.
The researchers didn't stop with the clinical trial -- they also isolated the compounds in the herb and ran some tests to see if they could figure out what makes it work so well.
And they may have found it.
Hidden inside gou teng is an alkaloid called isorhy, which researchers say may have the power to normalize the cell death process that often goes haywire in the brains of Parkinson's patients.
That's the scientific explanation, anyway.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the description gets a little strange. I read one that explained how gou teng increases yin to counterbalance too much yang.
That's a little "out there" for most of us here in the West -- but it's considered a perfectly reasonable explanation in the world of traditional Chinese medicine, where the balance between yin and yang is believed to play a key role in health.
Those yins and yangs must be pretty busy, too: Gou teng has been used in China to treat high blood pressure, tinnitus, headaches, sleep problems, and more.
The one caveat here is that the research team behind the Parkinson's study has also applied for a U.S. patent for their herbal blend, and plan to bring it to market here after a second phase of the study ends in 2013.
That's a big enough conflict that I'd want to see more independent research on this before anyone starts taking gou teng -- but if it really works, I'm sure plenty of Parkinson's patients would be willing to balance their yins and yangs.