When you walk along a beach scattered with sea shells, you may be surprised to find that you’re walking among Chinese herbs! That’s right, a number of shells are included in the Chinese formulary for their healing properties. At first glance, it may seem far-fetched that the cast-off exoskeleton from marine snails, clams and oysters could have any properties at all. However, shells are made primarily of calcium carbonate plus a small amount of proteins and other minerals that your body may need if it becomes out of balance.
The fact that these shells are made from calcium is important. The best-known consequence of a calcium deficiency is osteoporosis—thinning of your bones. However, there are a number of other, more subtle signs that you may need more calcium. They can include fatigue, insomnia, heart palpitations, dizziness, feeling light-headed and brain fog. As we discuss Chinese herbs that are derived from shells, it’s interesting to see how the role of calcium overlaps with the actions of these herbs.
- What you may know as oyster shell calcium is actually the herb Mu Li. In Chinese herbal medicine its weight and density is important in helping to settle the spirit, which is a way of describing symptoms related to your mental health, such as anxiety, heart palpitations and insomnia. Because of its weight, Mu Li is also used to anchor Liver energy rising upward and causing dizziness, vertigo and vision problems. When oyster shell is cooked it becomes calcined and is called Duan Mu Li, which makes it more potent in treating Liver uprising symptoms, such as dizziness, tinnitus and vertigo.
- Abalone Shell is called Shi Jue Ming. In Chinese medicine it’s used to pull Liver fire downward and treats symptoms such as headaches including migraines, dizziness and red eyes. Shi Jue Ming is also included in formulas to treat vision problems caused by uprising Liver energy, such as light sensitivity, red eyes and blurry vision.
- Ge Ke is clam shell and its action is to clear heat in the Lungs caused by infection or inflammation. It helps Lung energy move downward and transforms phlegm, both actions that suppress and reduce chronic cough. In addition, Ge Ke is used to soften and reduce nodules, such as goiter (a thyroid condition) or swollen lymph nodes.
- Wa Leng Zi is cockle shell. As an herb it moves stagnant blood and dissolves invisible phlegm. It’s used to treat abdominal masses that are the result of blood stasis, stagnant qi and accumulated phlegm. These masses can take the form of an enlarged Liver or Spleen, pelvic tumors or cysts.
You may be wondering why these herbs treat different health conditions, even though they mostly contain calcium carbonate. The answer is that while they primarily consist of calcium, they contain different minerals based on the marine animal that made the shell. For example Mu Li also contains magnesium, which is known for its calming effect and ability to prevent migraines.
Despite their differences, these shell-based herbs have one thing in common. They can all be used to treat stomach hyperacidity and heartburn pain. Calcium carbonate is the primary ingredient in numerous over-the-counter products, such as Tums, Maalox, Mylanta and Rolaids, to name a few. That said, Mu Li, Duan Mu Li and Ge Ke are the herbs most commonly added to formulas for this purpose.
So yes, sea shells can be Chinese herbs. The next time you’re walking along a beach and come across an assortment of shells, think about the potential healing properties at your feet!
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.