You may be familiar with the spice cardamom. It’s a little bit exotic and aromatic. Cardamom is used in Chai tea, Indian cooking, curries, basmati rice and in baking recipes from Nordic countries. But did you know that cardamom is also the basis for a couple of Chinese herbs?
It’s true. Two different species in the Amomum plant are used as herbs in Chinese medicine—Sha Ren and Bai Dou Kou. They’re members of the zingiberaceae (a big word for ginger) family, which contains over a thousand species. These aromatic plants grow in tropical and sub-tropical areas around the world. The term aromatic means that the plants or their fruit or rhizome (roots) have a strong, but pleasant oil-based smell. In these aromatic herbs, it’s partly their smell that helps exert their effects on your body, which is an important concept in Chinese herbal medicine and contributes to the ideas behind aromatherapy.
These aromatic and healing effects are found in two cardamom plants that are herbs in the Chinese formulary. They are:
Sha Ren. This herb is made of the mature fruit of the amomum villosum plant. It’s a moving herb that aromatically transforms dampness. Dampness is a condition in which your body doesn’t transform or metabolize fluids very well. The result can be a soggy or heavy feeling, and it can derail your digestion. In its role of transforming dampness, Sha Ren can be included in formulas to stop vomiting, control diarrhea and relieve abdominal pain. It also moves and supports your Qi. It can help revive a poor appetite and alleviate abdominal bloating. During pregnancy, Sha Ren can be used to treat morning sickness and to calm a restless fetus.
Bai Dou Kou. The round cardamom kernels or clusters of the amomum kravanh plant make up this herb. Like Sha Ren, Bai Dou Kou also treats dampness through its aromatic properties. It can be used in patients who have colds or flu with a high fever and chest fullness and a loss of appetite. The action of Bai Dou Kou is to warm your stomach, support the descending function of your digestion and stop vomiting and diarrhea. When it feels like the food you’ve eaten is just sitting in your stomach, this herb can be helpful because it moves stagnation downward and relieves distention and bloating.
So, here’s the thing. It sounds like these two herbs do the exact same thing—so how do herbalists know when to use which in a formula? While both Sha Ren and Bai Dou Kou treat vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating, Sha Ren is often the better choice if your symptoms are in your lower abdomen, such as with diarrhea and bloating. However, Bai Dou Kou is often chosen first when symptoms are higher, such as for nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and chest fullness.
While cardamom is an aromatic spice, it’s also an aromatic herb which gives it it’s healing properties. So, the next time you drink chai tea or eat cardamom spiced cookies, think about the healing properties of this herb! And if you’d like more information about how herbal medicine can help you, please contact me.
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.