The name of this herb literally means "Black-haired Mr. He," in reference to an ancient story of a Mr. He who restored his vitality, sexual potency, and youthful appearance by taking the herb now named after him. He shou wu is widely used in China for the traditional purpose of restoring black hair and other signs of youth.

Traditional Chinese herbal medicine ordinarily recommends the use of herbs in complex formulas, but He shou wu is also often taken as a single herb. He shou wu is often called fo ti; pure unprocessed root is named white fo ti, while herb boiled in black-bean liquid according to a traditional process is called red fo ti. The two forms are said to have somewhat different properties.

He shou wu is widely marketed today as a general anti-aging herb, said to reduce cholesterol, prevent heart disease, prevent age-related loss of mental function, improve sleep, and extend life span. However, the evidence supporting these uses is far too preliminary to meaningfully indicate effectiveness for any of these proposed uses.1-6

He shou wu is reputed to strengthen immunity ; however, one constituent of the herb, emodin, has shown some promise as an immune system suppressant! 7

Finally, He shou wu has a traditional reputation as a mild laxative. In support of this, it has been pointed out that emodin belongs to a family of chemicals called anthraquinones; other members of this family act as laxatives. However, animal research has failed to find any evidence that emodin itself has a laxative effect.8