Food as Medicine

Chinese Red Dates: An Ancient Cancer Fighter

This delicious superfood has a long history in Chinese medicine
BY Emma Suttie TIMEAugust 8, 2022 PRINT

For 4,000 years, Chinese red dates, also known as jujubes, have been a staple in Chinese cuisine and a powerful tool in Chinese herbal medicine. Now research shows red dates help protect the brain and can make cancer cells self-destruct.

Chinese Red Dates Kill Cancer Cells

A lab study from 2018 in the journal Food and Function found that triterpenoids isolated from Chinese red dates induced apoptosis, or programmed cell death, in human lung, breast, and prostate cancer cells, essentially causing them to self-destruct.

Triterpenoids are naturally occurring compounds that plants use to protect themselves against pathogenic organisms and plant-eating animals. People in many Asian countries use them for medicinal purposes and strengthening effect on the immune system.

Triterpenoids also contain anti-inflammatory properties, and can reduce fevers, prevent liver damage, improve heart function, decrease pain, and have sedative and restorative effects on the body.

The study found that four of the triterpenoid compounds reduced the cancer cells’ survival rate, while three other compounds caused the cancerous cells to self-destruct.

Another study, published in the Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine in 2016, investigated the anti-cancer effects of Chinese red dates on cervical and breast cancer. The researchers found that jujube extracts exhibited anti-cancer properties such as inhibiting cancer cell growth, reducing the spread of cancer cells, and causing apoptosis.

A study from 2011 in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology looked at the “cancer killing” effects of red dates on human breast cancer cells. The study concluded that extracts from Ziziphus jujube were effective in inhibiting the growth of breast cancer cells as well as causing apoptosis. Interestingly, in the lab, the extracts had no adverse effects on healthy tissue. Based on their findings, the researchers determined using Ziziphus jujube extracts showed promise in treating breast cancer in traditional Chinese medicine.

Protect the Brain

Scientific research has shown that red dates also benefit the brain and help to reduce stress. A study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2017 found that red dates have brain-protecting properties. The researchers found that the jujube demonstrated neuroprotective activities, which included protecting neuronal cells against neurotoxin stress, increasing the growth of nervous tissue, and promoting memory and learning. The researchers concluded that the jujube is a potential candidate for developing supplements to prevent and treat neurological diseases.

These findings validate what Eastern medicine has known for millennia; that red dates can calm the mind, ease stress in the body, and benefit the brain.

Add Chinese Red Dates to Your Diet

So how can you add Chinese red dates to your diet to reap the health benefits? According to an ancient Chinese saying, just a few a day will keep you “forever young.”

Compared to Middle Eastern brown dates, red dates have more antioxidants and fewer calories, and contain 32 times more vitamin C. They also contain half the sugar of brown dates, making them an excellent healthy snack and natural sweetener for cooking and baking.

Red dates can be eaten fresh or dried. They taste similar to a sweet apple when fresh. They are more popular dried and easier to find. They taste like brown dates but with a more subtle flavor.

A serving of three brown dates has 54 calories and 12 grams of sugar, while three Chinese red dates have 28 calories and only 6 grams of sugar. Red dates also contain phosphorus, calcium, iron, manganese, and potassium.

You can add a handful to oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies, or pour boiling water over them to make tea. Add them to desserts as a natural sweetener. They are also traditionally added to soups and rice for their sweet flavor and health benefits.

Chinese Red Dates in Chinese Culture

Chinese red dates are the fruits of the Ziziphus jujuba plant and one of the most popular medicinal foods in China. They are native to China but now grow worldwide. They are eaten as a tonic to fortify health and promote youth. Red dates are so prized in China that they are often given as gifts to friends and family on special occasions.

Red Dates in Eastern Medicine

In Chinese medicine, red dates are called “da zao” and have been used for thousands of years to calm the body and mind and improve sleep.

Because of their sweet flavor, red dates strengthen and harmonize the digestive system and are considered an overall body tonic. They increase energy and benefit the blood. They also have a calming effect on the nervous system, making them an excellent remedy for anxiety and sleep problems.

An herbal formula containing red dates called “suan zao ren tang,” or sour jujube decoction, has long been used in Chinese medicine to treat insomnia, calm the mind, and improve cognitive function. A study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2011 looked at insomnia in perimenopausal, menopausal, and postmenopausal women. After four weeks of taking suan zao ren tang, the researchers demonstrated a significant improvement in the women’s sleep quality and duration, and in their ability to function during the day.

Final Thoughts

Chinese red dates are an excellent addition to your diet for their abundant vitamin C, low calories, low sugar content, and brain protecting and cancer-fighting abilities. They’re also a good option for any problems with sleep, stress, or anxiety. You can find them dried at most Chinese grocery stores and health food stores, and online.

Emma Suttie
D.Ac, AP
Emma Suttie is an acupuncture physician and founder of Chinese Medicine Living—a website dedicated to sharing how to use traditional wisdom to live a healthy lifestyle in the modern world. She is a lover of the natural world, martial arts, and a good cup of tea.
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