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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
- 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)
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.
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.
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
- 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)
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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- Foster S, Yue C. Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West. Vermont: Healing Arts Press; 1992.
- 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.
- 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
- Bokelmann J. Medicinal Herbs in Primary Care: An Evidence-Guided Reference for Healthcare Providers. Philadelphia: Elsevier; 2022.
- Tierra L. Healing with the Herbs of Life. New York: Crossing Press; 2003.
- Tierra L. Goji Berries for Macular Degeneration. Planet Herbs. Accessed 1 June 2022. https://planetherbs.com/blogs/michaels-blogs/goji-berries-for-macular-degeneration/
- Bensky D, Gamble A. Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica. 2nd ed. Washington: Eastland Press; 1993.
- Zong XF and Liscum G. Chinese Medicinal Teas. Boulder: Blue Poppy Press; 1996.
- 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.
- Dharmananda S. Lycium Fruit: Food and Medicine. Published Aug 2007. Accessed 1 June 2022. http://www.itmonline.org/arts/lycium.htm
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.