The herb danshen grows naturally in China and is an integral part of traditional Chinese medicine. Related to the sage plant that is used in cooking, danshen finds applications in herbal treatments for cardiovascular disease including stroke. As of 2011, not enough evidence was available to prove the herb has useful and safe medical effects, although research continues.
Scientifically, danshen is called Salvia miltiorrhiza. The plant is an herb with toothed leaves that produces bluish-colored flowers in the summertime. Typically, the herbal extract used in Chinese medicine is taken from the root of the herb, which is bright red. This red color gives the plant some of its alternative names, which include Chinese Red Sage, Red Sage and Red Rooted Sage. Most often, Salvia miltiorrhiza is the herb sold as danshen in China, but as many as 17 other species of the sage family may be sold under the same name.
Historically, danshen had many different roles to play in traditional Chinese medicine. Herbalists used it to treat irregular menstruation, liver disease and sleeplessness. It was also considered a tonic for good health, and to improve the symptoms of blood loss. Modern uses are primarily focused on problems with the heart and the blood vessels. The herb is available as an oral medication and also as a liquid for injections.
Conditions treated with this medication historically include strokes, pain caused by angina and cardiovascular problems in general. The reason the herb is used for these conditions appears to be related to the active ingredients in the plant that may help to relax blood vessels, thus improving blood flow. Studies on laboratory animals have also indicated that danshen acts as a blood thinner, and may reduce the chance of blood clots.
Dangers of taking danshen include the possibility that the herb could prevent clotting in a patient with blood loss, in situations such as surgery. Along with the fact that the scientific research does not yet prove, as of 2011, that the plant is effective as a medicine, the research into its potential side effects is also not complete. Anecdotal evidence suggests that becoming dizzy, experiencing an allergic reaction, or suffering a headache, may all be possible side effects. Pregnant or breastfeeding women may place themselves or their child at risk if they use the herb, as it has not yet been proven safe. People who take medication for heart problems may find that the herb interferes with the drug's effects in a dangerous manner.