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Costus roots

Chinese: 木香

Pinyin: Mù Xiāng

Parts used: Dried root

TCM category: Herbs that regulate Qi

TCM nature: Warm

TCM taste(s): BitterPungent

Organ affinity: Gallbladder Spleen Stomach Large intestine Liver Lung

Scientific name: Saussurea costus, Saussurea lappa, Aucklandia lappa

Other names: Kuth

Use of costus roots (Mu Xiang) in TCM

Please note that you should never self-prescribe TCM ingredients. A TCM ingredient is almost never eaten on its own but as part of a formula containing several ingredients that act together. Please consult a professional TCM practitioner, they will be best able to guide you.

Preparation: Remove impurities, wash, cut in thick slices and dry.

Dosage: 3 - 9 grams

Main actions according to TCM*: Relieves the Stagnation of Qi of the digestion in the Spleen, Stomach and Intestines. Relieves Qi Stagnation of the Liver and Gallbladder. Strengthens the Spleen and is used with tonifying herbs to prevent their potential cloying effects.

Primary conditions or symptoms for which costus roots may be prescribed by TCM doctors*: Abdominal pain Abdominal bloating Vomiting Diarrhea

Contraindications*: This herb should not be used by those with Yin and Blood Deficiency.

Common TCM formulas in which costus roots (Mu Xiang) are used*

Gui Pi Tang

Source date: 1529 AD

Number of ingredients: 12 herbs

Formula key actions: Tonifies and nourish Qi and Blood. Tonifies Heart and Spleen.

Conditions targeted*: Nervous exhaustionMyasthenia gravis and others

Mu Xiang is an assistant ingredient in Gui Pi Tang. This means that it either serves to reinforces the effect of other ingredients or it moderates their toxicity.

In Gui Pi Tang, Mu Xiang regulates the Qi and revives the Spleen. It is especially effective in this when combined with Atractylodes rhizome (Bai Zhu), which is one of the key herbs in this formula.

Its use also prevents indigestion due to the rich, cloying properties of the other herbs.

Read more about Gui Pi Tang

Wu Yao Tang

Source date: 1336 AD

Number of ingredients: 9 herbs

Formula key actions: Pacifies the Liver. Moves Qi. Stops pain. Nourishes Liver Blood. Eliminates Stagnation.

Conditions targeted*: Chronic pelvic inflammatory disease and others

In Wu Yao Tang, Mu Xiang is bitter and acrid. It promotes the movement of Qi and stops pain. It focuses on the Qi dynamic of the Middle Burner, the Spleen and the Stomach, because of its focal role in the ascent and descent of Qi. 

Together with Sha Ren, it reduces distention and alleviates pain while also strengthening the Spleen. Because Qi moves not just the Blood but also the Body Fluids, Qi Stagnation is widely accompanied by Dampness and water accumulation. This conjunction of symptoms, often found in premenstrual syndrome, is effectively addressed by this combination of herbs.

Read more about Wu Yao Tang

Xiang Sha Liu Jun Zi Tang

Source date: 1675 AD

Number of ingredients: 9 herbs

Formula key actions: Tonifies Spleen and Stomach Qi. Removes Dampness. Moves Qi. Alleviates pain.

In Xiang Sha Liu Jun Zi Tang, Mu Xiang moves Qi and eliminates Stagnation in the epigastrium

Read more about Xiang Sha Liu Jun Zi Tang

Key TCM concepts behind costus roots (Mu Xiang)'s properties

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), costus roots are plants that belong to the 'Herbs that regulate Qi' category. Herbs in this category typically treat a TCM condition called 'Qi Stagnation'. Concretely it means that Qi is blocked in the body's Organs and Meridians, most typically the Stomach, Liver, and to a lesser extent, the Lungs. In modern medicine terms, Qi Stagnation often translates into psychological consequences such as depression, irritability or mood swings. It's also frequently associated with conditions such as premenstrual syndrome (PMS), menopausal symptoms, the development of breast swellings as well as various digestive disorders.

Furthermore costus roots are plants that are Warm in nature. This means that costus roots tend to help people who have too much 'Cold' in their body, although with less effect than a plant that would be Hot in nature. Balance between Yin and Yang is a key health concept in TCM. Those who have too much Cold in their body are said to either have a Yin Excess(because Yin is Cold in nature) or a Yang Deficiency (Yang is Hot in Nature). Depending on your condition costus roots can help restore a harmonious balance between Yin and Yang.

Costus roots also taste Bitter and Pungent. The so-called 'Five Phases' theory in Chinese Medicine states that the taste of TCM ingredients is a key determinant of their action in the body. Bitter ingredients like costus roots tend to have a cleansing action on the body by clearing Heat, drying Dampness and promoting elimination via urination or bowel movements. On the other hand Pungent ingredients tend to promote the circulations of Qi and Body Fluids. That's why for instance someone tends to sweat a lot when they eat spicy/pungent food.

The tastes of ingredients in TCM also determine what Organs and Meridians they target. As such costus roots are thought to target the Gallbladder, the Spleen, the Stomach, the Large intestine, the Liver and the Lung. Similar to modern medicine, in TCM the Gallbladder stores and releases bile produced by the Liver. It also controls the emotion of decisiveness. The Spleen on the other hand assists with digestion, Blood coagulation and Fluids metabolism in the body. The Stomach is responsible for receiving and ripening ingested food and fluids. It is also tasked with descending the digested elements downwards to the Small Intestine. The Large Intestine receives the "impure" parts of the digested food from the Small Intestine, absorbs the remaining fluids and excrete the remainder as feces. The Liver is often referred as the body's "general" because it is in charge of regulating the movements of Qi and the Body Fluids. It also takes a leading role in balancing our emotions. In addition to performing respiration, the Lungs are thought in TCM to be a key part of the production chain for Qi and the Body Fluids that nourish the body.

Research on costus roots (Mu Xiang)

Different pharmacological experiments in a number of in vitro and in vivo models have convincingly demonstrated the ability of Saussurea costus to exhibit anti-inflammatory, anti-ulcer, anticancer and hepatoprotective activities, lending support to the rationale behind several of its traditional uses.1

Sources:

1. Madan Mohan Pandey, Subha Rastogi, Ajay Kumar Singh Rawat (2007). Saussurea costus: Botanical, chemical and pharmacological review of an ayurvedic medicinal plant. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 110(3): 379-390. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2006.12.033.