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Star anise may help soothe respiratory, digestive problems

November 07, 2005|Elena Conis

The licorice-flavored star anise fruit is an ingredient (along with cinnamon, cloves, fennel and pepper) in the five-spice seasoning widely used in Chinese cuisine. It's used to spice up meat dishes, curries, pickles and liqueurs, and in some regions its seeds are chewed after meals to freshen breath and help digestion. Star anise's medicinally active compounds are its volatile oils. The star-shaped fruit also contains shikimic acid, a compound that's used to make the flu drug Tamiflu, which has shown some promise against avian flu.

Uses: In Asia and central America, star anise has been used in treating cramps, gas, indigestion and intestinal parasites -- as well as cough, bronchitis and lung ailments. In some cultures, it is given to babies for colic, though it may have serious side effects in infants and children.

Dose: Take several doses that would total 300 milligrams of essential oil, 3 grams of crushed seed or three cups of herbal tea each day. To make star anise tea, boil half a teaspoon of crushed seeds in a cup of water. The volatile oil is sometimes inhaled to quiet a cough.

Precautions: Star anise products should not be given to infants or children. Don't confuse star anise (Illicium verum) with Japanese star anise ( I. anisatum), which is toxic to the nervous and digestive systems. Japanese star anise can damage the kidneys, digestive organs and urinary tract, and can cause seizures. Chinese star anise is generally safe in the doses used for cooking and herbal medicine.

Research: In 2003, the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers against star anise teas after dozens of reports of vomiting and seizures, including many cases in infants. A 2004 report in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. concluded that the effects may have been caused by overdoses or contamination of teas with Japanese star anise. Japanese and European in vitro studies suggest star anise may have anti-cancer properties. Clinical trials haven't proved the spice's effectiveness against cough, colic or indigestion. But its active ingredients have been shown to increase mucus production and decrease gas, which likely aid respiratory and digestive discomfort.

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