English: Snake gourds

Chinese: 瓜蒌

Parts used: Dried fruit

TCM category: Cool herbs that transform Phlegm and stop Cough

TCM nature: Cold

TCM taste(s): Sweet

Organ affinity: Large intestine Lung Stomach

Scientific name: Trichosanthes kirilowii or Trichosanthes rosthornii

Other names: Trichosanthes fruit

Use of Gua Lou (snake gourds) 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: Dry the fruit by hanging in a ventilated place

Dosage: 6 - 18 grams

Main actions according to TCM*: Clears Phlegm-Heat conditions with thick difficult to expectorate sputum. Regulates the Qi of the chest and relieves constriction and swellings of the chest and Lungs. Lubricates the Intestines.

Primary conditions or symptoms for which Gua Lou may be prescribed by TCM doctors*: Phlegm Sputum Coughing Angina Chest congestion Mastitis Lung abscess Appendicitis Constipation

Contraindications*: Should not be used by those with Cold and Damp especially when there is Spleen Deficiency.

Common TCM formulas in which Gua Lou is used*

Xiao Xian Xiong Tang

Source date: 220 AD

Number of ingredients: 3 herbs

Formula key actions: Clears Heat. Transforms Phlegm. Expands the chest. Dissipates clumps.

Conditions targeted*: HepatitisCholecystitis and others

Gua Lou is a king ingredient in Xiao Xian Xiong Tang. Like the name indicates, it means it has more power than other ingredients in the formula.

In Xiao Xian Xiong Tang, Gua Lou cools and transforms Phlegm-Heat, moistens the Intestines, and directs the turbid Phlegm downward. It facilitates the elimination of Phlegm-Heat via the bowels without causing Stagnation or aggravating the Heat.

As Records of Thoughtful Differentiation of Materia Medica, a key Chinese medicine treaty, states: "The most useful aspect of Gua Lou is that it guides Phlegm and turbidity downward; thus clumping in the chest and chest painful obstruction cannot be [successfully] treated without it." 

Read more about Xiao Xian Xiong Tang

Gua Lou San

Source date: 1826 AD

Number of ingredients: 8 herbs

Formula key actions: Remove breast carbuncle (mastitis) after birth giving.

Gua Lou is a king ingredient in Gua Lou San. Like the name indicates, it means it has more power than other ingredients in the formula.

In Gua Lou San, Gua Lou resolves Phlegm and affects the breast

Read more about Gua Lou San

Bei Mu Gua Lou San

Source date: 1732 AD

Number of ingredients: 6 herbs

Formula key actions: Moistens the Lungs. Clears Heat. Regulates Qi. Resolve Phlegm.

Conditions targeted*: PneumoniaPulmonary tuberculosis and others

Gua Lou is a deputy ingredient in Bei Mu Gua Lou San. This means it helps the king ingredient(s) treat the main pattern or it serves to treat a coexisting pattern.

In Bei Mu Gua Lou San, Gua Lou clears Heat, moistens Dryness, invigorates Qi and leads turbid Phlegm downward so as to remove the chest and diaphragm obstruction. 

Read more about Bei Mu Gua Lou San

Key TCM concepts behind Gua Lou's properties

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Gua Lou belongs to the 'Cool herbs that transform Phlegm and stop Cough' category. In TCM Phlegm is a condition of Stagnation of Fluids which tends to start in the Spleen and then goes to the Lungs. If this overly accumulates it thickens and becomes pathological Phlegm. Phlegm, being a form of Stagnation, often starts as being Cool and transforms to Hot as the condition progresses. The herbs in this category are Cold in nature so they treat the later stages of the Stagnation: Hot and Dry-Phlegm with symptoms such as cough, goiter or scrofula.

As suggested by its category Gua Lou is Cold in nature. This means that Gua Lou typically helps people who have too much 'Heat' in their body. Balance between Yin and Yang is a key health concept in TCM. Those who have too much Heat in their body are said to either have a Yang Excess (because Yang is Hot in nature) or a Yin deficiency (Yin is Cold in Nature). Depending on your condition Gua Lou can help restore a harmonious balance between Yin and Yang.

Gua Lou also tastes Sweet. 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. Sweet ingredients like Gua Lou tends to slow down acute reactions and detoxify the body. They also have a tonic effect because they replenish Qi and Blood.

The tastes of ingredients in TCM also determine what Organs and Meridians they target. As such Gua Lou is thought to target the Large intestine, the Lung and the Stomach. In TCM 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. 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. 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.

Research on Gua Lou

An anti-human immunodeficiency virus (anti-HIV) protein capable of inhibiting HIV-1 infection and replication has been isolated and purified to homogeneity from Trichosanthes kirilowii. This protein, TAP 29 has a therapeutic index at least two orders of magnitude higher than that of trichosanthin. Thus TAP 29 may offer a broader safe dose range in the treatment of AIDS.1


1. S Lee-Huang, P L Huang, H F Kung, B Q Li, P L Huang, P Huang, H I Huang, and H C Chen (1991). TAP 29: an anti-human immunodeficiency virus protein from Trichosanthes kirilowii that is nontoxic to intact cells. PNAS, 88 (15) 6570-6574; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.88.15.6570

Use of Gua Lou as food

Gua Lou is also eaten as food.