Recently while kayaking in the ocean on the Mendocino coast of California, we landed at a beach in a small cove. The beach was littered with abalone shells, large and small, whole and fragmented. Though we frequently see abalone shells on the beaches of California, the number was unusual high. Our instructor told us many of the abalone were starving due to lack of food since the kelp forests in the area had been decreasing in the last few years, creating an abundance of shells along the shore. This led me to contemplating my daily use of abalone as an herb for a variety of my patient’s ailments.
Only the abalone shell is used in Classical Traditional Chinese Medicine (CTCM). Abalone shell, Shi Jue Ming in Mandarin meaning “stone sense brightness”, or Concha Haliotidis in pharmaceutical Latin, is a commonly used Chinese herb. Mentioned in the classic text Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, the Divine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica, Abalone’s medicinal properties have been known, recorded and studied since the second century. In the classification of properties, abalone is considered a cold herb with a salty taste, entering the Liver meridian or channel. To maximize the extraction of active medicinal components, Shi Jue Ming is crushed and often (though not always) precooked. Modern research studies have confirmed the chemical composition of abalone shell to include calcium carbonate, magnesium, iron, silica, phosphate, and 17 amino acids.
When I order Shi Jue Ming for my office, I buy it from an herbal wholesaler by the pound, specifying whether I want it crushed, precooked or calcined, or raw. Like most other herbs that I order, it comes in one pound bags. The abalone I order is farmed, not wild.
How is abalone used medicinally? Like most herbs in Classical Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shi Jue Ming is rarely, if ever used alone, but rather is combined with other herbs into a formula and boiled or decocted into a tea. The boiling process takes about 30-40 minutes. The liquid is strained and taken warm on a daily basis.
Abalone, similar to all other Chinese herbs, has specific therapeutic properties or actions for which it is prescribed. In CTCM, Shi Jue Ming is considered a heavy herb with a sinking nature. As such, it has the ability to anchor or sink rising Yang energy of the Liver.
There are three primary medicinal usages for Shi Jue Ming:
1) High blood pressure & related symptoms
2) Visual problems
3) Digestive disorders, especially stomach pain & acid reflux
4) Menopausal complaints
Patients with high blood pressure often have a variety of other symptoms such as vertigo, tinnitus, headaches, migraines, insomnia, irritability &/or short temperedness, and a red, flushed face. These are all symptoms of Liver Yang rising. Liver Fire or Liver Yang rising occurs when the Liver and Kidney energy becomes imbalanced with the moistening element of the body unable to control the heat or fire element. Patients experiencing Liver Yang rising will often say they feel an uncontrollable sense of heat rising up to their face with an accompanying sense of rage, anger or irritability, followed by a headache and thirst. During menopause women often experience this feelings of heat in the face or the top of the head, uncontrolled sweating, dry mouth, irritability and other “hot flash” related symptoms. In cases such as these, She Jue Ming is combined with other herbs to effectively reduce or eliminate the feeling of heat rising.
Some of the other herbs used with Shi Jue Ming are Ju Hua, commonly known as Chrysanthemum flower, Gou Teng, (Uncariae, similar to Cat’s Claw used in Peruvian folk medicine for digestive and other problems), and Tian Ma, the root of the orchid plant or Gastrodiae. Abalone may also be combined with other shells such as, Mu Li or oyster shell (to be discussed in part 2 of Gifts from the Sea).
In terms of eye disorders, problems such as red, swollen painful eyes, dry eyes, photophobia, pterygium, blurred vision, and night blindness, among others are treated with abalone. Again, as with almost all other Chinese herbs, the crushed abalone is combined with other herbs that treat vision, boiled and taken as a tea. Some of the other herbs that might be combined with Shi Jue Ming to treat eye disease are Gou Qi Zi, commonly known as Go Ji berries, Ju Hua or Chrysanthemum flowers (mentioned above), Bai Ji Li (Fructose Tribuli or puncture vine), and Jue Ming Zi (Cassiae seed).
She Jue Ming is also used to treat what is called in CTCM as Stomach Fire. Gastric reflux, acid reflux, stomach pain, and heartburn may be considered Stomach Fire. Other herbal gifts of the sea such as Mu Li or oyster shell, and Hai Piao Xiao or Cuttlefish bone (Endoconcha Sepiae) are often combined with abalone to treat Stomach Fire.
The next time you are at the beach and see an abalone shell on the shore, I hope you will have a deeper appreciation of the special gift of the sea that the little creature has given humankind.