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Table of Contents
Year : 2021  |  Volume : 7  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 287-298

The distribution, uses, and characteristic components of gentianaceae plants in China

1 Department of Pharmacology, College of Pharmacy, South-Central University for Nationalities, Wuhan, China
2 Department of Gatroenterology, Affiliated Puren Hospital of Wuhan University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, Hubei, China
3 Department of Nutrition, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA

Date of Submission15-Jun-2020
Date of Acceptance02-Sep-2020
Date of Web Publication24-Mar-2021

Correspondence Address:
Prof. Guo-Xun Chen
229 Jessie Harris Building, 1215 West Cumberland Avenue, Knoxville, Tennessee 37996
Prof. Xian-Ju Huang
182 Minyuan Road, Wuhan 430074
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/wjtcm.wjtcm_14_21

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Extracts of Gentianaceae herbs have been widely used as food additives, teas, or medicinal remedies for various human diseases and disorders. Iridoids, secoiridoids, and analogs glycosides, mainly include gentiopicroside, sweroside, swertiamarin, and loganic acid, are the characteristic compounds found in the Gentianaceae plants. The uses of the medicinal herbs containing these secoiridoids have been described in Chinese Materia Medica. Herbal extracts containing iridoids, secoiridoids, and analogs could exert protective effects in multiple human tissues and cells. Some of these medicinal herbs have been studied using modern pharmacological means. The results indicate that they have analgesic, liver protective, anti-inflammatory, antiallergic, anti-pathogeny, and anti-bacterial functions. This review was aimed to summarize the use of Gentianaceae herbs for disease treatments and pharmacokinetic characteristics of the active compounds. In so doing, we hope to demonstrate that Gentianaceae herbs and bioactive compounds in them may have abilities to affect inflammation, hepatic metabolism and cell signaling. In addition, we would like to bring this to the attention of the field about the use and study of compounds derived from Gentianaceae herbs.

Keywords: Analogs, gentiopicroside, iridoids, phytomedicines, secoiridoids

How to cite this article:
Cheng H, Ge YB, Li J, Zhang Y, Huang XJ, Chen GX. The distribution, uses, and characteristic components of gentianaceae plants in China. World J Tradit Chin Med 2021;7:287-98

How to cite this URL:
Cheng H, Ge YB, Li J, Zhang Y, Huang XJ, Chen GX. The distribution, uses, and characteristic components of gentianaceae plants in China. World J Tradit Chin Med [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 Jun 29];7:287-98. Available from: https://www.wjtcm.net/text.asp?2021/7/3/287/323493

  Introduction Top

With the prolonged life expectancy, a series of age-related metabolic diseases has become an epidemic and one of the major health issues throughout the world. Metabolic diseases are caused by metabolic disorders, including diabetes, diabetic ketoacidosis, and gout.[1]

Many metabolic patients choose therapeutic herbal or traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) along with the mainstream anti-metabolic drugs, thus making alternative therapy for metabolic disease a popular remedy. The gentian family consists of 99 genera with a total of about 1736 species. Most of them are plants with medicinal uses in folk medicine to treat various diseases include metabolic disorders. Gentianaceae plants are extensively consumed as medicine or tea for curative purposes. For example, the consumption of bitter gentian teas is very popular among the nomadic people of Siberia.[2] These teas have been widely used as a remedy to treat various digestive disorders associated with the food consumptions.[3] Gentiopicroside and sweroside have been detected as specific components in gentian herb teas. Gentian root extract, a bitter food additive registered and used in Japan, also contains sweroside and gentiopicroside with the later one as one of two major components.

Gentiopicroside and sweroside have the most and second to the most bitterness indexes (14,500 and 9500, respectively) in the gentian teas.[3] The structure of gentiopicroside and its role as the principal bitter molecule in gentian are proposed in 1961.

This review was aimed to summarize the distribution, uses and characteristic components of Gentianaceae plants in China.

  Distribution of Genus Gentian in China Top

A total of 417 species of genus Gentian are identified in China, and they are distributed in all provinces and regions. Among them, Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan, and other southwestern provinces have the most species. A cluster analysis of some medicinal resources of gentian has been conducted to analyze the internal transcribed spacer sequences,[4] which establishes a scientific reference for the identification of these medicinal resources. According to its morphology, the genus Swertia under the gentian family has also been reclassified.[5]

Gentianaceae plants are widely used in the clinical practice of TCM, such as “Di Da,” one of the representative medicinal materials with Tibetan medicine characteristics. “Di Da” does not refer to a certain kind of medicine, but a general term for drugs used to treat liver and gallbladder diseases. The ancient and modern Tibetan medicine literature shows that “Di Da” includes a variety of medicinal materials that are extremely complex on the origin, and lots of gentian plants.

In an attempt to understand the bioactive compounds in Veratrilla baillonii Franch, a medicinal herb used commonly in southwestern area of China for the treatments of pyrexia, inflammation, gastro spasm, and aconite root poison, we found that gentiopicroside and sweroside in the plant are the responsible bioactive compounds with capability to regulate gene expression and to active components of insulin signal transduction cascade in hepatoma cells, indicating their effects on the hepatic metabolism.[6]

  Characteristic Components in Gentianaceae Herbs Top

Secoiridoids mainly as gentiopicroside, sweroside, and swertiamarin are the characteristic components of the medicinal plants of Gentianaceae used in the practice of TCM. As shown in [Table 1], the presence of one, two or all three of these secoiridoids has been demonstrated in a variety of medicinal herbs, which are not limited to the genus of Gentianaceae. Gentiopicroside is also identified in aerial parts of Gentiana gelida. Other than Gentianaceae, secoiridoids can be found in Swertia, Veratrilla, Centaurium, Gentianella Moench, Gentianopsis, Halenia Borkh, and Cornus. It is reasonable to observe the wide distribution of these secoiridoids as gentiopicroside and sweroside are the components responsible for the bitter taste as indicated in.
Table 1: The reported genus, and species of medicinal herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine that contain gentiopicroside, sweroside, swertiamarin or their combinations

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A total 53 of iridoids, secoiridoids, and analogs from 50 Gentianaceae exist in Chinese Materia Medica,[7] which include 29 iridoids and secoiridoids, and 24 analogs glycosides [Figure 1].
Figure 1: All the structures of the studied compounds 29 iridoids, seco-iridoids and analogss for CYP3A4 and CYP2D6

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Secoiridoids are a type of monoterpenes that have the general form of cyclopentanopyran with one of the rings open as shown in [Figure 2]. Early tracer experiments using radio-labeled acetate and mevalonate had established the biosynthesis scheme of monoterpenes.[8],[9] The roots of Swertia caroliniensis Kuntze contain relatively abundant (about 2.5%) gentiopicroside.[8] The administration of radio labeled mevalonate (mevalonate-2-14C) through a cotton wick inserted in the stem of a Swertia plant shows the incorporation of radioactivity in gentiopicroside at a rate of 0.04%. Removal of the glucose moiety of the radiolabeled gentiopicroside reveals that all the radioactivity was presented in the aglucone, suggesting that a cyclopentanoid monoterpene may be a precursor for the biosynthesis of gentiopicroside in Swertia caroliniensis Kuntze.[8] It was concluded that gentiopicroside, a monoterpene is synthesized from mevalonate in Swertia caroliniensis Kuntze.[9] Originally, the secoiridoid synthesis was thought to be initiated from isoprenoid biosynthesis through mevalonate to geranyl pyrophosphate, which is then converted to monoterpene iridoid loganin.[13] Iridoid loganin will undergo ring cleavage to afford secoiridoid monoterpene.[13]
Figure 2: Original and generation of secoiridoids sweroside, swertiamarin and geniopicroside in plants. Starting from mevalonate, isoprenoid biosynthesis leads to the synthesis of oxogeranial, which is converted to iridoid loganin eventually. Loganin undergoes ring cleavage reaction to generate sweroside. Sweroside will be converted into swertiamarin, and then gentiopicroside. Gentiopicroside can be further modified to form indole alkaloids

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The secoirdoids mentioned here seem to be present in a variety of medicinal herbs that used in different cultures and geographic locations. This phenomenon indicates that these bioactive compounds in the medicinal herbs are responsible for the treatment activities of those plants. The function of a medicinal plant can be replaced by another one or other plants if the content and amount of the bioactive compounds are present. Interestingly, oleuropein, another secoiridoid synthesized in olives fruit, has been shown to attenuate the hepatic steatosis in mice fed a high-fat diet.[21] The oleuropein treatment reduces the expression levels of genes responsible for oxidative stress and pro-inflammatory cytokines.[8],[9] It will be interesting to compare the bioactive compounds in medicinal herbs that can be used to treat similar diseases, and identify the common one or more components for further analysis of their biological and pharmacological activities.

Another interesting point deserves to be noted is about the relationship between iridoids and secoiridoids. Iridoids, the precursors of secoiridoid biosynthesis,[9],[10], [11,[12],[13],[14] have some of the same activities discussed here. For example, loganin, an iridoid and the precursor of secoiridoids, at doses of 0.02 and 0.1 g/kg attenuates diabetic nephropathy in STZ-induced diabetic C57BL/6J mice.[8] In STZ-induced diabetic male SD rats, loganin at 5 mg/kg or 10 mg/kg (i. g.) attenuates the diabetic nephropathy through the reduction of connective tissue growth factor level, but does not reduce the blood glucose level.[9] The treatment of loganin extracted from Corni Fructus (20 or 100 mg/kg body weight/day, p. o.) for 8 weeks reduces the hepatic oxidative stress in db/db mice and blood glucose slightly in the 100 mg/kg group, showing its hepatic protective function.[10] If both iridoids and secoiridoids can have antidiabetic activities, there might be pathways responding to these monoterpenes in cells and animals. Further investigation of these pathways may help the prevention and treatment of diabetes and other metabolic diseases. In addition, whether any enzymatic system contributes to the conversion of iridoids to secoiridoids or vice versus in mammals is an interesting topic that deserves to be investigated.

  Pharmacokinetics of Gentiopicroside, Sweroside, and Swertiamarin Top


Studies are designed to determine the pharmacokinetic parameters of gentiopicroside or crude extract preparations containing significant amount of gentiopicroside using rabbits, rats or Beagle dogs as shown in [Table 2]. In studies using the pure gentiopicroside and rats, the values of the time to attain the maximum plasma concentration (Tmax) of two doses 50 mg/kg and 78.2 mg/kg are 0.25 and 0.57 h, and the maximum plasma concentration (Cmax) are 16.5 and 6.2 μg/ml in the blood, respectively.[46] These results are comparable to the one using total iridoid glucosides administrated similarly as described in.[47] These data indicate a quick absorption and achievement of sufficient concentration for therapeutic purposes. If administrated intravenously, the plasma concentration of gentiopicroside can achieve as high as 163.5 μg/ml in Beagle dogs receiving the pure compound[48] and 45 μg/ml in rats receiving a crude extract.[49],[50],[51],[52],[53] The presence of other components in the crude extracts seems to affect the Tmax, but not the Cmax as indicated in the studies comparing the gentiopicroside and extracts with equal amount of it.[54] Compared with gentiopicroside alone, as judged by the area under concentration-time curve values, studies demonstrate the marked variability in pharmacokinetics and bioavailability of the active component from different herbal preparations. In mice, a single intravenous administration can distribute gentiopicroside in tissues and organs to achieve concentrations with therapeutic effects.[55]
Table 2: The pharmacokinetic experiments of Gentiopicroside in animals

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Metabolites of gentiopicroside have been detected in rat plasma after oral gavage.[56] Erythrocentaurin and gentiopicral, two metabolites of gentiopicroside, can reach 600 ng/ml and 150 ng/ml, respectively, after oral administration of gentiopicroside at a dose of 200 mg/kg.[57] The potential pathways leading to their productions have been proposed.[58] This observation was supported by another pharmacokinetic study using purified gentiopicroside.[47] Gentiopicroside and two of its metabolites can be detected after a single oral dose at 150 mg/kg in rats, showing the absorption and conversion in vivo.[50]

Fifteen catabolic products of gentiopicroside have also been identified in human urine, indicating their metabolism in human body.[59] Erythrocentaurin and gentiopicral can also be identified after gentiopicroside is incubated with strains of human intestinal bacteria.[60] Whether these bioactive compounds are absorbed first and modified by the hosts or modified in the gut by the bacteria first and then taken by the hosts remains to be studied.


Noncompartmental model method was successfully applied to determine the pharmacokinetic properties of swertiamarin in rats after an oral administration at a dose of 20 mg/kg. The following pharmacokinetic parameters are obtained (mean): Cmax 1.92 μg/mL; Tmax 0.95 h; T1/2 1.10 h; Cl 5.64 L/h/kg; and V 9.64 L/kg.[33] Swertiamarin shows rapid absorption and elimination, and its absolute bioavailability is low at 10.3%.[34] Some studies have also been designed to determine the pharmacokinetic parameters of swertiamarin from extracts or preparations using normal or pathological rats. The presence of other components in the administrated samples seems to affect the pharmacokinetic parameters of swertiamarin comparing with the swertiamarin alone.[31],[32],[33],[34]


The pharmacokinetics of sweroside is evaluated in rats. Sweroside could be eliminated quickly after oral (T1/2 64.34 min) and intravenous (T1/2 23.27 min) administration. The absolute bioavailability is estimated to be very low (0.31%). The lower oral bioavailability might be due to the first-pass metabolism and intestinal bacterial biotransformation.[11] A few studies have been designed to determine the pharmacokinetic parameters of sweroside from extracts or preparations in rats.[21],[31] The presence of other components in the administrated samples seems to affect the pharmacokinetic parameters of sweroside.[31]

After the intravenous administration of REDuNing, sweroside is mainly excreted in the urine without any modification. Its elimination half-time is 0.4 h with 0.7 h of mean residence time, indicating a short half-life.[35]

After a single dosage (10 mg/kg) by gavage, sweroside is distributed in the liver, kidney, spleen, lung and brain (possibly be able to cross the blood–brain barrier), indicating its potential targets.[35] It is mainly metabolized in the liver, whereas free form of sweroside still can be found in urine, feces, and bile.[35] Another study using much higher dosage of sweroside (500 mg/kg) only detected in rat plasma 30 min after a single oral administration, suggesting a low bioavailability.[36] In addition, a significant amount of free sweroside can be detected in bile indicating the role of hepatobiliary route for sweroside excretion.[36] When sweroside is administrated orally in rats, 11 metabolites can be identified.[37] Only 4 of those 11 metabolites can be attributed as direct metabolites of sweroside and the rest ones are considered hydrolytic products of gut microbiome.[37]

  Effects of Gentianaceae Herbs on Animals and Cells Top

The uses of the aforementioned medicinal herbs in TCM have been described in Chinese Materia Medica,[7] which are summarized in [Table 3]. These medicinal herbs have been used to treat a variety of symptoms ranging from alleviating fever and pain to eliminating rheumatic arthralgia, etc. The processing methods and dosages vary depending on whether the herbs are used orally or topically. Some of these medicinal herbs have been studied using modern pharmacological means. The results indicate that they have analgesic, liver protective, anti-inflammatory, antiallergic, anti-pathogeny, and anti-bacterial functions. Whether all these actions are mediated by secoiridoids or not remain to be determined. Nevertheless, the effects of secoiridoids should not be over-looked.
Table 3: The clinical use, dosage and modern pharmacological studies of some of the Gentiana medicinal herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine as described in Chinese Materia Medica

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Antidiabetic effects

With the rise of number of diabetic patients, it has become urgent to look for any potential drugs from traditional medicinal herbs for the prevention and treatment of diabetes. Plants in Gentiana sect. Cruciata have been used in the Tibetan traditional folk medicine to treat a variety of symptoms that overlap with those being treated by Veratrilla baillonii Franch.[38] Both gentiopicroside and sweroside have been found in the roots of species belonging to Gentiana sect. Cruciata (Gentianaceae) also known as Qinjiao in TCM.[18] In addition, gentiopicroside, swertiamarin, and sweroside are also found in methanol extract of Swertia corymbosa, a plant in the family Gentianaceae and used in traditional medicine to treat diabetes in Indian.[39] In that study, the methanol extract of Swertia corymbosa has been shown to improve blood glucose levels in streptozotocin (STZ)-induced diabetic rats in a 28-day study, probably through the inhibition of α-glucosidase and α-amylase activities.[39] Our research results have shown the treatments of gentiopicroside, sweroside and a mixture of these two can cause phosphorylation of Akt and Erk in HL1C hepatoma cells,[8] demonstrating their abilities to cause changes of signal transduction pathways.

The ethanol and n-butanol extracts of Swertia macrosperma, a medicinal herb used in traditional folk medicine “Di da” in several southwestern provinces in China, also demonstrate activities to lower the plasma levels of glucose and triacylglycerols in STZ-induced diabetic rats, which is accompanied by the induction of glucokinase and reduction of glucose 6-phosphatase activities in the liver and improvement of morphology of pancreatic islets.[40] The ethanol extract of Swertia kouitchensis (called “Guizhou Zhangyacai,” “Shuihuanglian,” or “Silengcao”) has been shown to inhibit α-amylase and α-glucosidase.[41] This extract was effective to reduce blood glucose levels in STZ-induced diabetic mice.[41]

Plants in the genus anthocleista of the Gentianaceae family have been used for the treatment of diabetes.[42] Sweroside and gentianine are observed as components in some of those plants.[42] Furthermore, gentiopicroside and sweroside are identified in methanol extract of the milled aerial parts of the dried plant of Centaurium erythraea, which at 250 mg/kg body weight has been shown to reduce hyperglycemia and hyperlipidemia in STZ-induced diabetic rats.[43] Although in that study, the name of sweroside was typed as “sveroside” in the article.

Swertiamarin, isolated from Enicostemma littorale, has been shown to have antidiabetic activity.[44] Swertiamarin administrated orally at doses of 15, 25, and 50 mg/kg for 28 days reduced plasma glucose and lipid levels in STZ-induced diabetic rats with improvement of pancreatic β-cell regeneration.[44] The treatments of aqueous extract of E. littorale 1 g/kg, p. o. and swertiamarin 50 mg/kg, p. o. daily for 3 weeks improved diabetic nephropathy in STZ-induced diabetic rats.[45] In hyperglycemia rats induced by one administration of nicotinamide and STZ, swertiamarin at 50 mg/kg/day administrated orally for 40 days reduced plasma glucose and triacylglycerol levels.[46] Swertiamarin at 50 mg/kg/day administrated intraperitoneally for 6 weeks resulted in reduction of plasma triacylglycerol, and cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein levels in diabetic animals.[47] It seems that swertiamarin regulates both glucose and lipid metabolism in diabetic animals.

Liver protection effects

Among many Chinese herbal extracts with hepatoprotective activity, the extracts of gentian plants are hepatoprotective and uniquely advantageous in the prevention and rescue of liver injury.[12],[13] Monoterpenes, gentiopicroside, sweroside, and swertiamarin have been found in medicinal herbs that protect liver functions. Sweroside has been used in China to reduce serum alanine transaminase (ALT, glutamic pyruvic transaminase) in patients with hepatitis.[48]

Our laboratory recently investigated the potential effects of the material basis from gentian on acontine-induced hepatotoxicity in HepG2 cells and obtained metabolic data of drug-biotarget interactions. The docking scores of 53 components were calculated using computer-assisted docking simulation to determine the free energy of ligand-protein complexes. After comprehensive evaluation, six of those compounds, i.e., gentiopicroside, sweroside, swertiamarin, loganic acid, 6-O-β-D-glucosyl-gentiopicroside, and amarogentin were selected to evaluate their hepatoprotective effects. The result shows that amarogentin displays the most obvious inductive effect on CYP3A4 mRNA levels in HepG2 cells. The hepatoprotective effects are caused by facilitation of drug metabolism, amelioration of mitochondrial dysfunction, and reduction of oxidative stress.[49]

It has been shown that the methanol extracts of Gentiana cruciata L. aerial parts and roots, which contain high concentrations of sweroside and gentiopicrin (gentiopicroside), attenuates carbon tetrachloride-induced liver injury in Wistar rats.[50] At 400 mg/kg body weight, these methanol extracts completely normalize the elevated levels of serum aspartate aminotransferase aspartate transaminase, and alkaline phosphatase. The protective effects of these extracts are attributed to their antioxidative properties.[50] In addition, methanol extracts of Gentiana asclepiadea L. aerial parts and roots also exerted the same protective effects on tetrachloride-induced liver injury in Wistar rats.[51] These extracts also contained high concentrations of sweroside, and gentiopicroside.[51]

Swertiamarin (100 and 200 mg/kg, ig) attenuates hepatotoxicity induced by carbon tetrachloride treatment in rats.[52] Qing Ye Dan (200 and 100 mg/kg/d, ig), a Chinese herbal medicine derived from the whole plant of Swertia mileensis, and its main component, swertiamarin (16 mg/kg/d, ig), inhibit benign prostatic hyperplasia in rats.[53] This is mediated by the reduced expression levels of genes involved in inflammation and oxidative stress.[53] At 15 and 20 mg/kg, swertiamarin (ig) attenuates hepatic fibrosis in rats treated with dimethylnitrosamine.[54] This is through the swertiamarin-mediated inhibition of Ang II-induced proliferation and activation in hepatic stellate cells.[54]

In mice, two of the three protective activities of n-butanol extract of Swertia japonica Makino to D-galactosamine/lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-induced liver injury are attributed to gentiopicroside and sweroside in the plant, which works at the range of 25–50 mg/kg.[55] Gentiopicroside from Gentiana macrophylla Pall roots at 30–60 mg/kg/day has been shown to attenuate the chloroform- and LPS/bacillus Calmette-Guerin-induced liver injuries in mice.[56] Sweroside attenuates carbon tetrachloride-induced liver injury in mice.[57]

Gentianella turkestanerum contains significant amount of secoiridoid compounds (sweroside, swertiamarin, and gentiopicrin).[20] Its extracts protect the liver to toxicities induced by carbon tetrachloride in mice.[20] Sweroside (120 mg/kg/d, ig) protects cholestatic liver injury induced by α-naphthylisothiocyanate in mice through the attenuation of inflammatory responses.[58] Erythrocentaurin and gentiopicral, two derivatives of gentiopicroside aglucone after being treated with β-glucosidase, protect human embryonic hepatocytes (L02 cells) from cytotoxicity of hydrogen peroxide.[59]

Anti-inflammation effects

A TCM called Huo Luo Xiao Ling Dan is a mixture of 11 herbs, and has been used to treat experimental arthritis in rats.[60] The treatment of its extract at 2.3 g/kg for 23 days suppresses the arthritis development in rats.[61] In rat pharmacokinetic studies with extracts from the 11 herbs, T1/2 and Cmax are respectively 1.4 h and 5.8 mg/L for gentiopicroside, 2.7 h and 99 μg/L for swertiamarin, and 2.3 h and 14 μ/L for sweroside.[31] The methanol extract of Gentiana macrophylla Pall., one of the 11 herbs, contains gentiopicroside, sweroside and swertiamin, and demonstrates anti-inflammatory activities in rats and cultured cells.[17] The chloroform extract of Gentianae Scabrae Radix has been shown to have anti-inflammatory activity by inhibiting the interleukin-6 production in RAW264.7 cells treated with LPS.[62] The extract contains gentiopicroside and sweroside. Sweroside IC50 is 58 μM.[62]

The anti-inflammatory effect of gentiopicroside is not limited to the liver. Gentiopicroside (2.5 mg/kg i. p) reduces bleomycin-induced inflammation and fibrosis in mice.[63] The treatment of gentiopicroside (20, 40, and 80 mg/kg, ig) for 3 days significantly attenuates 70% ethanol-induced gastric mucosal injury in mice, which is probably through reductions of cytokines and oxidative stress.[64] The n-butanol fraction of ethanol extract of Gentiana macrophylla contains iridoid glycosides, mainly loganic acid, swertiamarin, gentiopicroside, and sweroside. This iridoid extract at 15 mg/kg or 30 mg/kg (ig) attenuates rheumatoid arthritis induced by intradermal injection of the complete bovine collagen Type II in male SD rats.[18] Gentiopicroside (200, 100, and 50 mg/kg, ig) once a day for 7 days reduces colitis induced by dextran sulfate sodium in mice through downregulation of inflammatory pathways.[65]

Smooth muscle movement

Gentiopicroside at 80 and 160 mg/kg has been shown to significantly induce the gastrointestinal motility in SD rats.[66] The amount of gentiopicroside can reach 2.73 and 3.99% in Gentianae scabrae radix.[67] On the other hand, chloroform/methanol (1/1) extract of Gentiana spathacea and the purified gentiopicroside from it inhibit the spontaneous contraction of isolated guinea-pig ileum and contraction induced by other compounds such as acetylcholine and histamine.[68] This shows the effects of gentiopicroside on the smooth muscle.

In cultured rat aortic smooth muscle cells, aqueous root extracts of Gentiana lutea plant at a concentration of 1 mg/ml are able to reduce the cell proliferation and nitric oxide production induced by platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF)-BB treatment.[69] This is attributed to isovitexin-mediated inhibition of Erk1/2 induced by PDGF-BB.[69] Gentiopicroside is also present in the extract.[69]

Antinociceptive activity

The methanol extract of Gentiana lutea ssp. symphyandra roots at 250 and 500 mg/kg administrated through the intraperitoneal route increases swimming endurance test and shows analgesic activity in mice.[70] The Gentiana lutea extract contains 10.5% and 0.9% w/w of gentiopicroside and sweroside, respectively.[70] Gentiopicroside has antinociceptive effects (50 and 100 mg/kg) through the changes of behaviors in mice and electrophysiological parameters in neurons.[71]

Antibacteria and virus

Gentiopicroside isolated from the methanol extract of Centaurium erythraea aerial parts has antibacterial activity with minimum inhibitory concentrations at about 0.006–0.1 mg/ml, and antioxidant activities.[72] In addition, antimicrobial activity of gentian tea preparations is attributed to gentiopicroside.[3] Gentiopicroside from gentian tea preparations inhibits bacterial growth, and relieves digestive discomfort in nomadic people of Siberia who only consume high-fat and protein foods.[3]

Gentiopicroside derivatives after the modification of its sugar moiety have demonstrated anti-influenza A/WSN/33(H1N1) virus activity in MDCK cells, but not anti-hepatitis C virus activity in pseudo particle entry assay using Huh-7 cells.[73] Sweroside is in Chinese herbal medicine, ReDuNing, used for the treatment of viral upper respiratory tract infections.[35]

Anti-cancer and others

Gentiopicroside is in Chinese medicinal preparation Sann-Joong-Kuey-Jian-Tang,[74] which has been shown to inhibit Hep-G2 human hepatoma cells growth.[75] Aqueous extract of Gentiana veitchiorum protects bleomycin-induced pulmonary injuries in rats.[19] Gentiana veitchiorum contains 1.97% gentiopicroside.[19] In HL-60 Human leukemia cells, sweroside extracted from Lonicera japonica induces apoptosis through the activation of caspase 3.[76] Gentiopicroside (50 mg/kg, i. p.) reduces the depressive behaviors induced by LPS in mice, which is due to the decrease of tryptophan degradation in the mouse brain.[77]

Swertiamarin at 2, 5, and 10 mg/kg (ig) attenuates bone erosion in rats with adjuvant induced arthritis.[78] This is attributed to the direct effects of swertiamarin on osteoclasts and osteoblasts.[79] Sweroside as a major component in Fructus Corni has been shown to promote growth of human MG-63 and rat osteoblast cells.[80],[81],[82],[83],[84],[85]

  Conclusion Top

As reviewed in this paper, sweroside, swertiamarin, and gentiopicroside are produced sequentially in a variety of Gentianaceae herbs. Some activities of those medicinal herbs can be attributed to the presence of one, two, or three of them. These secoiridoids as a group of molecules with a unique molecular structure demonstrate biological or pharmacological activities in both in vivo and in vitro studies. These activities are mediated by various mechanisms ranging from signal transduction cascade to metabolic pathways.

With the rise of number of patients with diabetes and other metabolic diseases, more and more efforts will be devoted to find potential leads in medicinal herbs for the treatments of these diseases. We hope that our review here will bring some attention to secoiridoids, which may help the combat against those diseases.


We gratefully acknowledge financial support from Research project of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 81873090 and 81374064) and the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities, South-Central University for Nationalities (CZP20002).

Financial support and sponsorship

We gratefully acknowledge financial support from Research project of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 81873090 and 81374064) and the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities, South-Central University for Nationalities (CZP20002).

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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