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A modern “superfood” with ancient herbal roots

Goji berry

Lycium barbarum Solanaceae

Known widely as a modern day superfood with antioxidant properties, these tasty little red berries have long been cherished in the east as herbal tonics and used extensively in traditional recipes and herbal formulas to tonify blood and yin, nourish the eyes, strengthen weakness and promote longevity.

Sustainability Status

Sustainability status

Not currently on risk lists but complete data may be missing on the status of the species. Commonly cultivated though may be sourced from the wild. Only source cultivated supplies or from certified sustainable wild collection. Read more about our sustainability guide.

Key benefits
  • Blurred vision, poor vision, dry eyes
  • Dizziness
  • Tinnitus
  • Sore low back and knees
  • Impotence
  • Nocturnal emission
  • Diabetes
  • Anaemia
  • Cough
  • How does it feel?

    As sweet in the mouth as they are on the nose, dried goji berries are a delightful treat. Slightly tangy and chewy with tiny seeds, once hydrated in a tea, soup or stew, gojis become plump, silky pouches of fruity herbal loveliness, imparting their tart sweetness to the recipes, both culinary and medicinal, in which they are contained.

  • What can I use it for?

    Goji berries have many clinical applications in TCM and can be found in or added to a vast array of herbal formulas. With the appropriate pattern presentation, gojis may help treat anything from dry eyes to low back pain, consumptive cough to diabetes.

    Primarily, goji is indicated in cases of liver and kidney deficiency. These are not deficiencies of the anatomical organs as we understand them in the west, but of the TCM liver and kidney organ functions. In Chinese medicine, the liver stores the blood and the kidneys are the seat of the yin and yang energies of the body. Goji is especially valuable in cases of liver and kidney depletion with yin and blood deficiency.

    Such deficiencies present with constellations of signs and symptoms including sore low back and knees, dizziness, tinnitus, nocturnal emissions, impotence, weakness, a pale complexion, anaemia and diabetes.

    In Chinese medicine, liver blood and Kidney yin and jing (essence) nourish the eyes. Where these deficiencies have impacted the eyes we may see dry eyes, blurred vision, diminished vision or poor night vision.

    As goji is a moistening substance, it can also be used in instances where yin deficiency has affected the lungs and there is consumptive cough (i.e. tuberculosis).

  • Into the heart of goji berry

    Sweet in nature, and therefore supplementing, Goji berries are a gentle herb belonging to the TCM category of blood tonics. They are, however, also an important yin tonic. In particular, they nourish the yin of the liver, kidneys and lungs. While these are the primary functions of Goji, what makes them unique is their neutral energetic temperature and ability to support, albeit to a lesser extent, the yang and essence (jing) also, making them useful for conditions of overall weakness.

    Lycium barbarum polysaccharides (LBPs) are the primary active components of L. barbarum with displayed antioxidant, anti-ageing, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, immunomodulating, retinal-protective, hepatoprotective, neuroprotective, antidiabetic, lipid-lowering and anti-cancer properties in pre-clinical studies. Their anti-ageing quality may be attributed to their immunoregulative, anti-apoptotic properties and ability to reduce DNA damage, thus inhibiting biological ageing.

    Their historic importance as a food and medicinal for the eyes may be explained somewhat by the constituent zeaxanthin, the primary carotenoid in the eye lens and macular region of the retina that has been found to alleviate visual problems, suppress oxidative stress in the retinal tissues and may inhibit the ageing of the lens.

    High levels of beta-carotene, reflected in goji’s brilliant orange-red hues, support liver health, lower cholesterol, inhibit atherosclerosis and boost immunity.

  • Traditional uses

    In China, Goji berries are often called “red raisins” (9) and they have been consumed in teas and food recipes for hundreds of years to benefit the eyes, promote longevity and support diabetics. In folk medicine, 10g are steamed and eaten 2-3 times a day for ‘wasting and thirsting disorder’ (diabetes) (10).

    As the dried fruit can be hard on digestion, particularly where there is weakness, gojis are traditionally eaten cooked in a stew or soup, or happily chewed at the end of a tea where they have been steeping, rehydrating and softening.

    A simple, traditional tea for decreased vision that may be consumed daily is made by steeping 20g of dried goji (roughly a small handful) in near-boiling water (11). This tradition is encouraged by modern research showing a daily dose of 15 grams of goji delivers adequate zeaxanthin levels to promote eye health (estimated at 3 mg/day) (12,13).

    As a medicinal herb, goji was first recorded around 100CE in the Shennong Bencao Jing (The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica).

  • Traditional actions

  • Traditional energetic actions

    Herbal energetics are the descriptions Herbalists have given to plants, mushrooms, lichens, foods, and some minerals based on the direct experience of how they taste, feel, and work in the body. All traditional health systems use these principles to explain how the environment we live in and absorb, impacts our health. Find out more about traditional energetic actions in our article “An introduction to herbal energetics“.

  • What practitioners say

    Eyes: Goji is a primary TCM herb for benefitting the eyes and is used in cases of blurred vision, diminished visual acuity, poor night vision, dizziness, vertigo and dry eyes. For this purpose, it is often combined with cooling chrysanthemum flowers (ju hua) as in the classic formula, Lycium fruit, Chrysanthemum and Rehmannia pill (qi ju di huang wan) which can address dry eyes with diminished vision, photophobia, tearing when exposed to drafts or painful eyes when stemming from liver and kidney yin deficiency. The presence of zeaxanthin in goji and a wide range of positive pre-clinical and clinical research into their ophthalmologic benefits support their use in promoting eye health.

    Reproductive: Goji is used for impotence and spermatorrhea stemming from liver and kidney deficiency. For this purpose it is typically combined in formulas with Rehmannia (shu di huang), Cuscuta (tu si zi) and Eucommia (du zhong). Goji polysachharides have been found to increase sperm parameters, sexual performance and protect the testis from toxic insults. For women, goji is found in formulas such as “Restoring the Left Kidney Decoction” (zuo gui yin) to help tonify the blood and yin where this has led to conditions such as absent, late or light periods, infertility and menopausal syndrome.

    Metabolic: Traditionally used in cases of ‘wasting and thirsting’ disorder (roughly the equivalent of diabetes), goji has been shown to reduce blood sugar by increasing glucose metabolism, insulin secretion and pancreatic beta-cell proliferation and by reducing insulin resistance. It has also been found to improve total cholesterol and triglyceride levels and benefit obesity (7).

    Respiratory: Used to treat consumptive cough (TB) from lung and kidney yin deficiency. To this end, it is typically combined with Ophiopogon (mai men dong), Anemarrhena (zhi mu) and Fritillaria (bei mu).

    Musculoskeletal: Goji is a useful addition to formulas addressing low back, leg and knee weakness from kidney deficiency.

  • Research

    Clinical research has found that goji can prevent macular degeneration and pathology. A recent 12 month RCT where daily goji or placebo granules were administered found that goji provides a neuroprotective effect for the retina and could help delay or minimize cone degeneration in retinitis pigmentosa (14). An earlier 90 day RCT where goji milk was given to elderly subjects found that plasma zeaxanthin levels and antioxidant capacity significantly increased (26% and 57%, respectively) as compared to the placebo group. The authors also concluded that daily goji supplementation in the elderly protected from macular hypopigmentation and soft drusen (fatty deposits that accumulate under the retina associated with age-related macular degeneration (AMD)) accumulation (15).

    Preclinical studies have also found that goji may prevent damage from glaucoma (7).

    A 2017 systematic review of the use of goji for cardio-metabolic risk factors established that goji significantly reduced fasting glucose concentrations and marginally reduced concentrations of total cholesterol and total glycosides (16).

    Additional clinical research for goji has displayed benefits for dyslipidemia, obesity, insomnia, anxiety, ADD, cognition, stress, fatigue, athletic performance, hangover, immunity function, influenza, cancer (adjuvant to cancer therapy) (7).

    Preclinical studies have also displayed hepatoprotection and benefits for male infertility, male sexual dysfunction, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and dermatitis (7).

  • Did you know?

    Goji is derived from the Chinese gou qi zi, and the common name “wolfberry” is extracted from the character for gou which is related to the character for dog or wolf.

Additional information

  • Botanical description

    Barbarum is a hardy deciduous shrub growing up to 3 metres tall with alternate narrow, simple, entire linear to linear-oblong shaped leaves, small pale pink or purple trumpet flowers with yellow stamens in the Spring and Summer followed by berries in late Summer and Autumn. The berries are fleshy, orange-red, fusiform or oblong shaped and around one inch long and half an inch wide. Once picked, they are left to air dry or baked lightly. The bark of the Lycium root is another TCM herb, di gu pi (Cortex Lycii Radicis). 

    Native to China, Goji cultivation is said to have begun in China’s eastern province of Hebei (L. chinense) around 100 CE. It has since spread westward to Ningxia, Gansu, Qinghai, Tibet and Inner Mongolia (L. barbarum). 

    There are four distinct climatic regions of growth: monsoon (Hebei), semi-arid (Ningxia, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia), plateau (Qinghai) and arid regions (Xinjiang). 

    Good quality is large, soft, sweet and red with thick flesh and small seeds. L. chinense fruits are smaller and traditionally regarded as inferior. However, a recent study found that this species has greater antioxidant activity. Indeed, a separate study posited that the different chemical profiles and pharmacological activities between L. barbarum and chinense are such that they perhaps should not be used interchangeably (1). 

    Ningxia gojis have long been regarded as the best quality but they were found to be no different to other regions based on morphological and metabolomic profiling (including polysaccharide levels). And while redness is an appealing selling point, dried berries that are too bright may indicate sulfur treatment(2). It is also worth noting that “Himalayan gojis” are named for marketing purposes and do not indicate their region of origin (3). 

    Both L. barbarum and L. chinense have been cultivated in europe for hundreds of years. L. chinense was grown in European botanical gardens as far back as 1696 (4). L. barbarum was introduced to Britain in 1730 and is now considered naturalised (5).

  • Common names

    • Lyciii berries
    • Chinese wolfberries
    • Lycium fruit
    • Matrimony vine (L. chinense)
    • Boxthorn fruit
    • Duke of Argyll’s Tea Tree (L. barbarum)
    • Gou qi zi / qi zi, tu gou qi (L. chinense) (Mandarin)
    • Kukoshi (Jap)
    • Kugicha (Kor)
  • Safety

    Not to be used in cases of excess heat or where there are loose stools. Induces CYP3A4 (cytochrome P450 enzyme), possible increased prothrombin time (PT/ INR) with warfarin.

  • Preparation

    Traditionally, soaked in water for at least 20-30 minutes then decocted in non-metallic pots in a formula of two or more herbs on a low-moderate heat for around 20-30 mins. Also taken as granules, powders, teas, medicinal wines, juice, food recipes, dried fruit snack.

  • Dosage

    6-18g daily dried herb in an infusion/ decoction and equivalent of powdered/ granulated herb. Tincture 2-4ml. When drunk as a juice a dose of 2-4 ounces of goji juice would correspond to 10-20 g of the dried herb (13).

  • Plant parts used

    Fruit

  • Constituents

    • Polysaccharides: Lycium barbarum polysaccharide (LBP)
    • Organic acids: Vitamin C
    • Phospholipids: cerebroside
    • Amino acids: betaine
    • Coumarins: scopoletin, escopoletin, gelsemenic acid, scopoletol
    • Tetraterpene / Carotenoids: zeaxanthin, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, mutatoxanthin
    • Phytosterols: beta-sitosterol, lanosterol, sigmasterol, cyclosterol, campesterol (7)
  • Recipe

    Goji and chrysanthemum (ju hua) tea for eye health

    • Sprinkle a small handful of goji berries and a few dried chrysanthemum flowers into a mug or teapot
    • Add near-boiling water and steep for 5 minutes
    • Strain and drink

    The soaked gojis can be eaten as a snack and the chrysanthemum flowers can be used as cooling poultices for sore, tired eyes.

  • References

    1. Yao R et al. What’s the Choice for Goji: Lycium barbarum L. or L. chinense Mill.? Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 2021. Vol 276. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2021.114185. 
    2. Yao R et al. Quality Variation of Goji (Fruits of Lycium spp.) in China: A Comparative Morphological and Metabolomic Analysis. Frontiers in Pharmacology. 2018. Vol 9. doi: 10.3389/fphar.2018.00151   
    3. Brinckmann J, Engels G. Lycium (Goji Berry). HerbalGram, Journal of the American Botanical Council. 2017. Vol 113. https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/113/table-of-contents/hg113-herbprofile/. Accessed 1 June 2022.
    4. Foster S, Yue C. Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West. Vermont: Healing Arts Press; 1992.
    5. Harford R. Duke of Argyll’s Teaplant: a Foraging Guide to Its Food, Medicine and Other Uses. Eatweeds. https://www.eatweeds.co.uk/duke-argylls-teaplant-lycium-barbarum. Accessed 1 June 2022.
    6. Gao Y et al. Lycium Barbarum: A Traditional Chinese Herb and A Promising Anti-Aging Agent. Aging Dis. 2017;8(6):778-791. Published 1 Dec 2017. Accessed 1 June 2022. doi:10.14336/AD.2017.0725
    7. Bokelmann J. Medicinal Herbs in Primary Care: An Evidence-Guided Reference for Healthcare Providers. Philadelphia: Elsevier; 2022. 
    8. Tierra L. Healing with the Herbs of Life. New York: Crossing Press; 2003.   
    9. Tierra L. Goji Berries for Macular Degeneration. Planet Herbs. Accessed 1 June 2022. https://planetherbs.com/blogs/michaels-blogs/goji-berries-for-macular-degeneration/
    10. Bensky D, Gamble A. Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica. 2nd ed. Washington: Eastland Press; 1993.
    11. Zong XF and Liscum G. Chinese Medicinal Teas. Boulder: Blue Poppy Press; 1996. 
    12. Cheng CY et al. Fasting Plasma Zeaxanthin Response to Fructus barbarum in a Food-Based Human Supplementation Trial. British Journal of Nutrition. 2005; 93(1): 123–130.
    13. Dharmananda S. Lycium Fruit: Food and Medicine. Published Aug 2007. Accessed 1 June 2022. http://www.itmonline.org/arts/lycium.htm
    14. Chan HH et al. Delay of Cone Degeneration in Retinitis Pigmentosa Using a 12-Month Treatment with Lycium barbarum Supplement. J Ethnopharmacol. 2019 May 23;236:336-344. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2019.03.023. 
    15. Bucheli P et al. Goji Berry Effects on Macular Characteristics and Plasma Antioxidant Levels. Optom Vis Sci. 2011 Feb;88(2):257-62. doi: 10.1097/OPX.0b013e318205a18f.
    16. Guo XF et al. The Effects of Lycium barbarum L. (L. barbarum) on cardiometabolic risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomised control trials. Food Funct. 2017. May 24;8(5):1741-8. 
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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