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Boost Brain Health With Gastrodia (Tian Ma) 

Are you nervous about your nervous system? Rates of cognitive and nervous system dysfunctions are on the rise. Because of an aging population, poor lifestyle habits, environmental pollution, and advances in diagnostic and genetic research, cognitive impairment seems like a “when”—not an “if.”

Once inflammation and harmful bacteria take root in the brain, neurodegeneration follows. That’s why it’s important to not only watch your diet but also add research-backed neuroprotective herbs to your daily health regimen. 

Gastrodin, the active ingredient in the traditional Chinese herb, Gastrodia (Tian Ma), has been the subject of several recent research studies that demonstrate extensive pharmacological activity, including protecting the brain. Let’s take a look at why Gastrodia (Tian Ma) is one herb you should consider making room for in your supplement cabinet.

Research on Gastrodin 

A 2023 review in Archives in Pharmacal Research suggests gastrodin has “prominent neuroprotective effects” for a wide variety of nervous system imbalances. In addition to supporting cognitive function, gastrodin supports cardiovascular health and can “mitigate liver, kidney, and bone tissue damage caused by oxidative stress and inflammation,” the researchers suggest.

Gastrodia (Tian Ma): Good For the Gut, Good For the Brain

A 2023 review in Archives in Pharmacal Research suggests gastrodin has “prominent neuroprotective effects” for a wide variety of nervous system imbalances…    

A 2022 study published in Frontiers in Pharmacology also highlights gastrodin’s neuroprotective effects. While the researchers indicated that the detailed mechanism of action is unclear, they hypothesized that the active ingredient in Tian Ma works by improving the microbiome of the gut-brain axis. 

By boosting the beneficial bacteria of the GI system, gastrodin reversed the memory dysfunction of mice that were induced with dementia. The neurons in demented rats were reduced. However, the decrease was suppressed in the rats who were administered gastrodin. To determine whether the microbiota-gut-brain axis is involved in the neuroprotective effect of gastrodin, researchers gave the mice an antibiotic cocktail before and during the trial period to decrease the gut microbiota of mice. The antibiotic cocktail partially eliminated the neuroprotective effect of gastrodin by changing the gut microbiome composition. These results, concluded the researchers, indicated that gastrodin improved the memory of the mice by targeting the microbiota-gut-brain axis and mitigating neuron inflammation.

Anti-Aging Effects of Gastrodia (Tian Ma)

A 2021 research study published in Food & Function offers a ringing endorsement for users of Tian Ma — provided those users are Musca domestica Linnaeus, a.k.a. flys. 

Gastrodin significantly extended the lifespan, increased the climbing ability, enhanced the resistance to oxidative stress, increased the activity of the antioxidant enzymes, superoxide dismutase and catalase, and promoted the expression of anti-oxidative genes in old flies.

If only Tian Ma could do the same for old people who want to get into rock climbing! Of course, the conclusions of these studies are limited because they were conducted on animal models. However, the potential for Tian Ma to support brain health is promising. 

In the study on flies, gastrodin prevented the progressive loss of dopamine in the brain. “This suggests that gastrodin can be considered as an ideal therapeutic candidate for drug development towards anti-aging,” the researchers concluded.

Better Brain, Better Sleep 

Great news for rodents who don’t sleep well. New research on gastrodin published in the journal Brain Sciences says gastrodin improves REM sleep deprivation and cognitive dysfunction by regulating certain signaling pathways (TLR4/NF-κB and Wnt/β-catenin). Thus, the researchers posit that gastrodin “can be considered a potential candidate for REM sleep deprivation.”

How Does Tian Ma Work in TCM? 

Now that we have an inkling of how Tian Ma works in modern applications (at least the active ingredient) let’s turn the clock back 5,000 years or so and explore how this well-regarded Chinese herb works from a traditional Chinese medicine perspective.

Calming Liver Yang

In TCM, the Liver organ system is responsible for the smooth flow of Qi (vital energy) throughout the body. When Liver Qi becomes stagnant or excessive, it can lead to symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and irritability. Tian Ma is believed to have a calming effect on Liver Yang, helping to soothe Liver Qi and alleviate symptoms associated with Liver channel imbalances.

Extinguishing Wind

Wind is one of the primary external pathogenic factors in TCM. A Wind invasion causes symptoms such as headaches, tremors, and spasms. Tian Ma extinguishes wind, meaning it can help alleviate symptoms caused by wind patterns, particularly those affecting the head and neck.

Soothing Liver and Kidneys

In TCM, the Liver and Kidney organ systems are closely interconnected, and imbalances in one organ can affect the other. Tian Ma is believed to have properties that can soothe both systems, promoting harmony between these organs and supporting their respective functions. This action is particularly relevant in conditions where liver and kidney imbalances coexist, such as hypertension and certain types of headaches.

Dispelling Dampness 

Dampness is another pathogenic factor in TCM. When excessive heat is not cleared, dampness causes symptoms such as heaviness, swelling, and sluggishness. Gastrodia (Tian Ma) may help dispel dampness from the body, particularly when dampness accumulates in the head and manifests as symptoms like foggy thinking, heaviness in the head, or dizziness.

Where To Get Gastrodia

The easiest way to use Tian Ma is via ActiveHerb’s single herb extract granules, available here

The granules are 6X concentrated, meaning one 100-gram bottle of granules is the equivalent of 600 grams (1.3 lbs) of raw, dried Tian Ma herb. With a slightly sweet, neutral flavor, the granules can be added to hot water for an instant herbal tea. Tian Ma granules can also be mixed with smoothies, juices, yogurt, oatmeal, etc. 

Old-School Tian Ma

ActiveHerb offers one-pound sealed bags of Tian Ma, prepared according to Chinese medicine traditions, for those preferring raw bulk herbs.


Tian Ma is the namesake herb in the formula Tian Ma Gou Teng Pian/Wan. It is available as Liver WindClear under ActiveHerb’s Guang Ci Tang brand. Liver WindClear is heralded for its ability to support normal head sensation.


If your problem area is the neck, Tian Ma is featured in the formula NecKinder

To support your balance, Tian Ma is included in another Chinese medicine formula named after this neuroprotective herb: Ban Xia Bai Zhu Tian Ma Pian, better known as BalanceEZ.