Applications and Prescriptions of Perilla in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Since the advent of “Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing” (Shen Nong’s Herbal), the progenitor of herbals in traditional Chinese medicine, completed around 25 A.D., which classified herbal drugs into upper grade, mid-grade and lower grade, all subsequent herbals classified Chinese herbal drugs according to this tradition. The upper grade drugs are known as the imperial drugs which are non-poisonous and arc used mainly for nurturing our lives; the mid-grade drugs are known as the ministerial drugs which are either non-poisonous or poisonous and are used chiefly to nurture our temperament; and the lower grade drugs are known as the assistant or servant drugs which are used for treating disease and are mostly poisonous.

In clinical diagnosis, a physician of traditional Chinese medicine will first consider the circulation of qi, blood and water. The so-called blood conformation in traditional Chinese medicine (a conformation in traditional Chinese medicine can be approximated to a symptom complex or syndrome in Western medicine) refers to “blood stasis” which is a poor blood circulation condition resulted from congestion or stagnation of blood in the body and may lead to formation of disease. A water conformation is also referred to as “water-stagnancy conformation” which designates poor water metabolism whereof unbalanced circulation and distribution of water may cause disease. Whereas, qi is also an essential element of life and is often the element pertinent to living, senescence, disease and death. Qi is invisible but mobile, and the pathological state resulted from qi impediment or stagnation is known as “qi impediment conformation”, and a free circulation of qi is essential for maintenance of good health.

Perilla as recorded in ancient chinese medical. Classics

Perilla is recorded in “Ming Yi Bie Lu” (Renown Physicians’ Extra Records), a Chinese medical classic completed around 500 A.D., wherein the herb is listed as a mid-grade drug under the name “su”. The herb has also been recorded in many other medical works under different names such as “zi su” in “Shi Liao Ben Cao” (Bromatotherapy Herbs), or “chi su” in “Zhou Hou Fang” (Prescriptions Ready at Hand’s Reach). Li Shi-zhen (1518-1593 A.D., Ming dynasty) noted in his great work “Ben Cao Gang Mu” (Categorized and Itemized Herbal):

The character “su” means comforting, which implies that the herb comforts our bodies and promotes the circulation of blood and qi. Tao Hong-jing (462-536 A.D., Liang dynasty) stated, “The herb su is purple coloured on the undersides of its leaves and possesses a very aromatic flavour. The other species that are not purple coloured and do not have an aroma, which resemble ren [Peril/afrutescens (I..) Britton var. japonica (Hassk.) Hara] are known as wild Perilla and have no use as medicine”. The “Ming Yi Bie Lu” records this herb, saying, “Perilla is used chiefly to descend qi, and remove cold from the central torso of the body; the seed of the herb is especially good for these effects”. However, Su Song said, “The “su” species that are purple coloured on the backsides of leaves are better, which are gathered in the summer for the leaves and stems and in the autumn for the seeds, there being several varieties of the herb”.

From the above statements we can see that in ancient times, it was the seed of Perilla that was commonly used, and in the Song dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), the stem, leaf and seed of the herb seemed to have been used equally commonly. Nowadays, on the herb market we have supply of this herb in two forms: one is the leaves admixed with stems and the other is simply the seed.

As recorded in the “Ben Cao Gang Mu”, the stem and leaf of Perilla are described as having a pungent taste, a warming nature and no toxicity, and are said to be chiefly indicated for relaxing muscles, perspiring skin, dispersing winds and cl-dlls, moving qi, relieving stomach, resolving phlegm, venting the lungs, harmonising blood, warming stomach, stopping pain, arresting asthma, stabilising embryo, detoxifying poisoning from eating fish and crab and treating snake and dog bites. Perilla seed is said to have similar effects. As for the differences of uses between Perilla leaf and seed, Li Shi-zhen said that both the Perilla leaf and seed were of similar effects, but the leaf was good for dispersing winds and the seed was good for clearing and dredging the upper and lower torsos.

Perilla as used in chinese herbal medicine

Among modern literature, it is generally believed that the drug items “Perilla leaf”, “Perilla stalk” and “Perilla seed” as used in traditional Chinese medicine are the dried leaves, dried stems, and dried mature seeds of the plant Perilla frutescens (L.) Britton var. crispa (Thunb.) Decne. of the Labiatae family and plants of related genera (). The Chinese Pharmacopoeia (1990) also includes the dried mature fruits, dried leaves and dried stems of Perilla frutescens (L.) Britt. for the articles of Fructus Perillae, Folium Perillae, and Caulis Perillae. The Japanese Pharmacopoeia (1991), on the other hand, lists Herba Perillae as being derived from the leaves and twig ends of Perilla frutescens Britton var. acuta Kudo and related plants.

According to Chinese medical literature, Perilla possesses a pungent flavour and a warming property, and enters its effects into the lung and the spleen meridians. The Perilla leaf has been described as having the effects of diaphoresis, antipyresis, moving qi, relieving central torso (adjusting gastrointestinal functions and aiding digestion), antidoting poisoning from eating fish and crab. Hence it is suitable for treating common cold by rendering diaphoresis to resolve fever, allaying cough and asthma, effecting tranquility, relieving epigastric and abdominal distension, and strengthening the stomach. It is usually used together with other herbs for these effects. Besides, Perilla is also effective against poisoning from eating fish and crab. Whereas, Perilla stalk is effective in soothing qi and stabilising the embryo, and is thus capable of treating qi adversity, abdomen ache, and embryonic aching and instability.

Perilla seed possesses the effects of descending qi, arresting asthma, stopping cough, dissipatingphJegm, relieving the chest and resolving depression, wherefore it is indicated for adverse cough, phlegm-associated asthma, qiimpediment, and constipation. In other words, Perilla leaf is good at dispersing the ailing evils, and Perilla stem is better in regulating qi, while Perilla seed is suitable for descending phlegm. Hence, Perilla leaf is mostly used in common cold with chills and fever; Perilla stalk is mostly used in pectoral distress and vomiting and in calming the embryo; and Perilla seed is frequently prescribed for asthmatic cough and for treating phlegm problem ().

Clinical applications of Perilla

Clinically, Perilla is often used in combination with other herbs in treating external contractions of wind and cold evils manifesting chest depression together with nausea, vomiting and other symptoms of the gastrointestinal type of cold. The diaphoretic effect of Penlla leaf is weaker than that of ephedra and cinnamon. Thus, when used alone, it usually does not produce noticeable effect, and therefore has to be used in combination with other herbs such as schizonepeta, siler, fresh ginger, etc. in order to help promote its diaphoretic effect. Nevertheless, Perilla leaf is characterised by its effects in regulating qi, relieving the central torso, and stopping vomiting (this effect will be promoted by combination with “zhi-qiao” i.e. Fructus Aurantii). Cases manifesting frequent nauseating and vomiting or diarrhoea may take a decoction from boiling 5 g of Perilla leaf and 3 g of coptis. Mild cold in the senile individuals or young children in whom the use of ephedsa and cinnamon may cause excessive diaphoresis may be treated with Penlla leaf instead. A Chinese herbal formula named Cyperus and Penlla Formula (to be elaborated later) is one of the formulas containing Penlla as one of their component herbs.

Perilla is also good for the vomiting, pectoral distress, nausea, and lower abdominal pain experienced during pregnancy. Because Perilla stalk possesses stomachic effect, it can present antiemetic effect against pregnancy nausea and vomit, can soothe qi and pacify the fetus. For such purposes 4-9 g of Perilla stalk together with citrus rind and cardamon is often used to augment the stomachic effect.

Also, poisoning from eating fish and shell fish, with the symptoms of vomiting, diarrhoea and abdomen ache can be treated by taking 30-60 g of Perilla leaf decocted alone or together with fresh ginger.

Besides, Perilla can also be applied externally for treating scrotal eczema wherefore 30 g of Perilla leaf is boiled in water, and after getting cool the decoction is used to wash the lesion and then wipe the lesion with peanut oil ().

Clinical application of Perilla seed mainly makes use of its qi descending and antiasthmatic effects. The herb is thus usually indicated for dyspnea, pectoral distress, wheezy stridor which in severe condition may necessitate a sitting up respiration or is accompanied by respiratory tract disturbance symptoms such as cough as seen in chronic bronchitis, pulmonary emphysema, etc. Excessive phlegm may hinder the respiratory tract passage and cause cough, dyspnea, and so forth. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is believed that eliminating phlegm may eliminate cough, dyspnea and pectoral distress which are symptoms due to pulmonary qi adversity, and this effect is known as descending qi (downing qi). Clinical experiences show that despite the above mentioned effects of Perilla seed, it is still necessary to incorporate Perilla seed with antitussive and expectorant herbs such as peucedanum, pinellia, etc. and qi regulating herbs such as magnolia bark, citrus rind, etc. in order to bring about the expected result. A Chinese herbal formula named Perilla Fruit Combination (to be elaborated later) is one of the formulas containing Perilla seed as one of the component herbs. In using the Perilla seed-containing formulas, it should be noted that because Perilla seed possesses an intestine lubricating (bowel moving) effect, it is contraindicated in patients with muddy stool or diarrhoea symptom. It can only be used in conditions showing cough with constipation ().

Commonly used chinese herb formulas that contain Perilla

Applications and Prescriptions of Perilla in Traditional Chinese Medicine: Conclusion

As a conclusion, in traditional Chinese medicine Perilla leaf is believed to be capable of rendering perspiration, resolving fever, moving qi, relieving the centres and antidoting poisoning from eating fish and crab, and is therefore indicated for common cold due to contraction of winds and cold, cough, asthma, pectoral and abdominal distension, tranquillisation, and stomach strengthening. Perilla stalk is believed to possess the effects of soothing qi, stabilising the embryo and thus can be used for treating qi adversity, abdomen ache, and embryonic aching and instability. Perilla seed or fruit possesses the effects of descending qi, arresting asthma, stopping cough, resolving phlegm, relieving the chest and alleviating depression and is thus commonly used for treating cough due to qi adversity, phlegmatic stridor, qiimpediment and constipation. However, in Chinese herbal medicine these herbal articles are usually used in combination with other herbs in a prescription and are seldom used alone.


Selections from the book: “Perilla: The Genus Perilla”. Edited by He-Ci Yu, Kenichi Kosuna, and Megumi Haga. Series “Medicinal and aromatic plants – industrial profiles”. 1997.