The Purported Health Benefits of Magnolia Bark

Magnolia bark with cup of tea

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Magnolia bark is a natural remedy sourced from the magnolia tree (Magnolia officinalis) that has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). It contains a compound called honokiol that mimics the function of estrogen in the body. Magnolia bark also appears to have potent antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects. Together, these properties are believed to prevent or treat a variety of health conditions, including mood disorders, tooth decay, and stroke.

Magnolia officinalis is native to the mountains and valleys of China but can be found in other parts of Asia, including India and Japan.

Also Known As

  • Ho-no-ki (Japan)
  • Houpu (traditional Chinese medicine)
  • Indian bark
  • Japanese whitebark

Purported Health Benefits

Practitioners of TCM use magnolia bark to treat the stagnation of qi, the "vital life force" consisting of the air, water, and food that we need to function normally. The stagnation of qi means that energy does not flow as freely through the body and organs as it should.

According to TCM practitioners, magnolia bark specifically increases "moisture circulation" in the abdomen associated with digestive disorders and "chest tightness" manifesting with breathing problems.

Scientists have found that honokiol in magnolia bark functions as a phytoestrogen and may influence hormone function in the same way as estrogen. Another compound in magnolia bark called magnolol is classified as a lignan, a plant-based nutrient-rich in soluble and insoluble fiber that not only aids in digestion but improves cardiovascular health.

In alternative medicine, magnolia bark is said to aid in the treatment or prevention of the following health problems:

  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Anxiety
  • Asthma
  • Cavities
  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Gum disease
  • Halitosis (bad breath)
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Insomnia
  • Menopausal symptoms
  • Obesity
  • Stroke
  • Tension headaches

What the Research Says

So far, research into the benefits of magnolia bark has been limited, but there have been some promising findings. Here is some of what the current research says:

Anxiety and Depression

Magnolia bark has long been regarded as a potent anxiolytic (anxiety-relieving) drug. According to a 2013 review of studies in the journal Frontiers, honokiol functions as a depressant the central nervous system while interacting with the same receptors in the brain—called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors—that certain antidepressants and benzodiazepine drugs do.

According to research, honokiol appears as nearly effective as the benzodiazepine drug Valium (diazepam) in relieving anxiety but with far fewer motor and cognitive side effects.

With the said, the results can vary based on the magnolia bark extract used. Efforts are now underway to explore the pharmaceutical potential of purified honokiol and magnolol in treating insomnia, stress, depression, and other mood-related disorders.

Menopausal Symptoms

Magnolia bark may help ease the symptoms of menopause, suggests a 2006 study published in Minerva Ginecologica. For this study, 89 women experiencing menopause were assigned to 24 weeks of treatment with either a combination of calcium and vitamin D or a supplement containing calcium, vitamin D, magnolia bark, soy isoflavones, probiotics, and magnesium.​

According to the investigators, the supplement containing magnolia bark was far more effective in relieving menopausal hot flashes, insomnia, anxiety, depression, irritability, vaginal dryness, and loss of libido.

Despite the positive findings, it is unknown how much magnolia bark contributed to these effects, if at all. Few studies since have explored the effectiveness of magnolia bark in treating menopause symptoms. Further research is needed.

Cavities

Magnolia bark may soon be the next big thing in cavity-fighting toothpastes, suggests a 2016 study in Microbiology and Immunology. For this study, researchers in Japan formulated a series of biofilms infused with honokiol, magnolol, and chlorhexidine (a surgical disinfectant). These were each applied to lab samples of Streptococcus mutans, a bacterial strain linked to tooth decay.

After five minutes of use, magnolol was able to neutralize S. mutans far more effectively than honokiol, which, in turn, was far more effective than chlorhexidine. Furthermore, magnolol and honokiol were able to achieve these effects at lower concentrations and with less cellular toxicity than chlorohexidine.

Heart Disease

Lignans like magnolol are believed to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, in part by reducing cholesterol and other blood fats (lipids) in people with hyperlipidemia.

A 2018 study in PLoS One evidenced this effect in mice given daily injections of magnolol for six consecutive days. According to the investigators, magnolol was able to reduce triglyceride levels by directly inhibiting the apolipoprotein A5 (APOA5) gene.

The APOA5 gene provides the body instructions on how to synthesize triglycerides. Triglycerides, in turn, are the lipid type closely linked to atherosclerosis ("hardening of the arteries"), coronary artery disease, and stroke.

Further investigation is needed to determine how potent and lasting this effect may be and if the same can be achieved safely in humans.

Possible Side Effects

Despite centuries of use in TCM, little is known about the long-term safety of magnolia bark. Common side effects include drowsiness, headache, nausea, and vomiting.

Because of its effects on the central nervous system, magnolia bark should not be taken with sedatives or sedating medications (including older antihistamines such as Benadryl).

Magnolia bark can slow blood clotting and should be avoided if you take anticoagulants ("blood thinners") like Coumadin (warfarin) or Plavix (clopidogrel). Doing so can lead to easy bruising and nosebleeds.

You should stop taking magnolia bark two weeks before scheduled surgery to avoid excessive bleeding and complications arising from anesthesia.

Due to its estrogen-like effects, magnolia bark should be avoided if you have a hormone-sensitive condition like cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer, prostate cancer, endometriosis, or uterine fibroids.

Given the paucity of safety research, it is best to avoid magnolia bark in pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children as well as people with bleeding disorders such as hemophilia.

Selection, Preparation, and Storage

Widely available for purchase online, magnolia bark supplements can be found at many natural foods shops and stores specializing in dietary supplements. Wildcrafted dried magnolia bark can also be sourced from specialty herbalists and sellers of traditional Chinese medicines.

Magnolia bark supplements are the easiest options to use as they offer consistent dosing. There are no guidelines for the appropriate use of magnolia bark, although manufacturers generally recommend between 200 milligrams (mg) to 400 mg per day. Some people prefer to take the supplement with food or just before bedtime to minimize the sedating effect.

Wildcrafted magnolia bark, commonly used to make teas and decoctions, is trickier to use because there is no way to accurately measure the dose. Imported wildcrafted bark is of especial concern given the increased potential for contamination.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), some Chinese herbal products have been found to be tainted with drugs, heavy metals, pesticides, and other undeclared substances.

One way to ensure safety is to only buy products certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Some manufacturers have also taken to having their products tested by an independent certifying authority like the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), NSF International, and ConsumerLab. Doing so proves that their product contains the listed ingredients in the stated amounts.

It is also important to read the label of any magnolia bark product. It should not only list the scientific name of the plant (Magnolia officinalis) but also provide the percentage of honokiol and magnolol per dose.

Are There Substitutes for Magnolia Bark?

If you are unable to usee magnolia bark for whatever reason, you might consider gingko biloba and kava (Piper methysticum), both of which have anxiolytic properties (as well as their own risks and side effects).

Instead of treating anxiety and depression with pills and herbs, try partaking in light to moderate exercise which can lift moods by stimulating the production of endorphins. Mind-body therapies such as meditation, tai chi, and progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) can also help.

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Article Sources

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  2. Alexeev M, Grosenbaugh DK, Mott DD, Fisher JL. The natural products magnolol and honokiol are positive allosteric modulators of both synaptic and extra-synaptic GABAA receptors. Neuropharmacol. 2012 Jun;62(8):2507-14. doi:10.1016/j.neuropharm.2012.03.002


  3. Peterson J, Dwyer J, Adlercreutz H, et al. Dietary lignans: physiology and potential for cardiovascular disease risk reduction.Nutr Rev. 2010 Oct;68(10):571-603. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00319.x


  4. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Traditional Chinese Medicine: What You Need To Know. Bethesda, Maryland; October 2013.


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