Star Anise: Traditional Spice Getting Love as Medicinal Plant

Brpwm, dried star anise pods with fruit fill the photo frame

Star anise not only looks like a star, it is quietly becoming one beyond the spice world.

Star anise is not your run of the mill medicinal plant. Star anise is 10 times sweeter than sugar due to the presence of the compound anethole. The flavor is compared to licorice with a hint of cinnamon and clove. Consequently, star anise is often added to breads and cakes.

The traditional Czechoslovakian bread vanocka, popular around Easter and Christmas, is usually made with star anise.

In addition to its use as a sweet spice, star anise is associated with a long list of health benefits ranging from improvement in skin to fighting fungal infections and improving digestion.

Star anise (Illicium verum) is a fast growing 26-foot tall evergreen tree native to southern China and northern Vietnam where its fruit is used heavily in regional cuisine. It’s related to magnolia.

Small light green star-shaped immature fruit on star anise tree
Star anise tree with immature star-shaped fruit

The olive green leaves are lance-shaped with cup-like, soft yellow blooms. The leaves also have a licorice scent when crushed but they aren’t the part of the tree used in cuisine. The star-shaped fruit is green when under ripe and brown and woody when ripe. It is made up of half dozen to eight carpels, each of which contains a seed. Star anise is actually the hard pericarp of the fruit of the star anise tree.

Normally, the star anise fruits are harvested when still green and dried in the sun.

This star-shaped spice, which was first introduced to Europe in the 17th century, is used whole, powdered or extracted into an oil. It is highly desired due to its active chemical compounds, particularly those found in star anise oil.

Close up of star anise essential oil in brown apathecary jar
Star anise essential oil

Additionally, this medicinal plant also contains a compound called shikimic acid, which is a very important part of anti-influenza medications around the world. Extracting and processing this acid takes an entire year, so the cost of this herb is largely determined by the global demand for influenza medications.

Star anise contains a high level of antioxidants, such as linalool, quercetin, thymol, terpineol, caffeic acid, anethole, kaempferol, and coumaric acid, as well as a significant amount of iron.

Also contained in star anise are smaller amounts of vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and magnesium.

The calorie count in star anise is low – only 23 calories in 1 tablespoon of whole star anise fruit. 

Star anise is often cited for improving the immune system. It’s believed that the antibacterial effects of star anise could be effective against several antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains, which has the pharmaceutical industry interested in using components of star anise to treat bacterial infections of the stomach and other body parts.

Star anise is also believed to have anti-fungus qualities. In many parts of the world, star anise has been used as a remedy for many different types of fungal infections such as ringworm, Candida and even athlete’s foot.

It’s believed that the flavonoid compound anethole is responsible for the distinct flavor and possible potent antifungal benefits.

Some believe star anise can also improve digestion. Its supporters claim that star anise can be used to help relieve bloating and excess flatulence as well as reducing cramping.

Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicines have extensively used star anise to treat different digestive ailments such as stomach pain, infections, constipation and indigestion.

Staying in the gut, another health claim involves star anise as a possible preventative to painful gastric ulcers, which cause burning sensations, nausea and indigestion.

Sawdust-looking star anise powder
Star anise powder

In addition to balancing gut bacteria, star anise might also impact hormonal balance in both men and women. For women, star anise may help regulate menstrual cycles, control mood swings, and have a positive impact on other hormone-driven side effects of menstruation. 

There’s also considerable interest in star anise for helping relieve symptoms of depression – including post-partum depression.

It’s possible star anise can help with symptoms of type 2 diabetes as well by balancing blood sugar levels. Again, it’s anethole, the active ingredient in anise seeds that may aid in keeping blood sugar levels steady.

Star anise is also ballyhooed as a skin rejuvenator and anti-aging product. It’s believed that the high level of antioxidants in star anise helps promote the demise of free radicals – especially those that do bad things to skin.

The upshot is star anise may help boost skin elasticity, cover up old scars, minimize wrinkles and keep skin looking vibrant.

How to take ginger graphic

Star anise is available in several different forms. You can find star anise supplements as well as star anise essential oil. The oil has an aroma similar to black licorice and is often used in diffuser and inhaler blends intended to help ease bronchitis, colds and the flu.

Star anise tea is also popular around the world.

Most people in Western cultures are familiar with star anise as a powder or “spice.” In cooking, star anise can be used whole or as a powder. It’s often utilized in classical Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines, especially as a flavor enhancer in broths, soups and curries for a warming boost of flavor.

Because of its unique sweet taste, star anise is also sprinkled over confections such as muffins, cookies and cakes.

Concerns logo for ginger

It’s important not to confuse Chinese star anise with the Japanese variety, which is poisonous. Always double-check the source of star anise you’re purchasing to ensure purity and start with a small amount to avoid adverse reactions.

That said, Chinese star anise is generally considered safe, although there have been reports of allergic reactions by some people who will experience mild itching or a rash when topical applications of this spice are used, whereas others may suffer from mild to severe gastrointestinal distress and inflammation when consumed.

As with most medicinal plants, it’s wise to consult with a medical professional before adding star anise to your health regime, especially if you are taking prescribed medications such as those used for hormonal regulation or cancer.

Dosing is another issue. Scientific information is lacking regarding how much star anise is enough. Generally, it’s believed that the dose depends on a multiple of factors such as the user’s age and health. Again, a medical professional should be consulted.

Additionally, children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should probably avoid taking star anise. Pure Chinese star anise has commonly been used to treat colic in infants, but there’s always the chance that Chinese star anise could be contaminated with the Japanese variety (they look identical).

Some infants given star anise tea have suffered from vomiting, irritability and even seizures – possibly because of the contamination factor.

Star anise may also interact with certain medications including birth control pills, estrogen, and tamoxifen.

A logo saying the science

There have been studies vindicating the claims that star anise has both antifungal and antibacterial qualities.

Some research has concluded that trans-anethole derived from star anise may inhibit the growth of pathogenic fungi in specific edible crops. Other studies show that bioactive compounds such as terpene linalool found in star anise essential oil may suppress cell wall formation of infectious fungi in people.

According to the National Library of Medicine, “Star anise has been shown to possess potent antimicrobial properties” due to anethole in the dried fruit.

The general belief in the scientific community is that star anise has the potential as a topical antimicrobial agent to successfully treat persistent infections such as staphylococcal skin infections.

This is important in a medical era of increasing resistance to staid antibiotics.

Close up of shiny brown star anise seed
Can the seeds of star anise replace antibiotics that are no longer effective?

Studies show Star anise might also improve bacterial balance in your gut, which could aid in better nutrient uptake efficiency.

Anecdotal evidence points to star anise as being an effective digestive aid that can help relieve bloating and excess flatulence while easing cramping and improving the bacterial balance in your gut for high nutrient uptake efficiency.

This anecdotal evidence is somewhat supported by science. A study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine documented a clinical trial that included 20 patients with chronic constipation who were treated for a five-day period.

Researchers found that a star anise-containing herbal combination was significantly more effective than a placebo in increasing the number of defecations per day.

The authors subsequently noted that the herbal combination may help fight constipation by producing a laxative effect.

Scientific research also points to anethole as the major antioxidant that seeks outs and directly reacts with alcohol, decreasing stomach ulcers in small animals.

Micronutrients within star anise include iron, magnesium, zinc, potassium and manganese. Studies are clear in that these elements enhance digestion, improving enzymatic function and decreasing bloating issues.

Additionally, there is empirical evidence that star anise (in combination with other elements) may help with both menstrual pain and hot flashes.

A study published in the Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health explained how a combination of star anise extract, saffron and celery seed may help alleviate menstrual pain.

In a rather substantial study, 180 female students (ages 18 to 27) were split into three groups:

  • Received the anise/saffron/celery seed mixture
  • Received a type of anti-inflammatory drug
  • Received a placebo

Starting from the onset of their menstrual bleeding or pain, each group took their assigned treatment three times a day for three days.

After following the participants for two to three menstrual cycles, the study authors found that those assigned to the anise/saffron/celery seed combination experienced a significantly greater reduction in menstrual pain compared to those assigned the other two treatments.

Woman with eyes closed getting her face covered in a star anise-based white paste
Skin tightening mask made from star anise (Source: FABBON)

Similar results occurred in a study published in the Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research. This study included 72 postmenopausal women who either took a placebo or star anise extract daily for four weeks. In the end, the women treated with star anise extract had a significantly greater reduction in the frequency and severity of their hot flashes.

There’s also substantial evidence that star anise may relieve symptoms of depression. For example, one well regarded study of 107 people showed that taking just 3 grams of anise seed powder three times daily reduced symptoms of postpartum depression.

Another four-week study of 120 people showed that taking a 200 mg star anise oil capsule three times a day decreased symptoms of mild to moderate depression compared to a control group.

The potential benefits of star anise for your skin are a little more sketchy, however, there are limited studies that back skin health claims as well.

In a 2021 study, researchers tested star anise extract on mice and found that it has potential use in skin infections (such as acne) because of its antimicrobial properties.

There’s also some limited evidence that star anise as a topical skin care product might help improve enlarged pores and skin texture.

Additionally, as a botanical astringent, star anise contracts the skin, which might help reduce wrinkling.

Also, when accompanied by a healthy diet, there is research that supports the possibility star anise may help keep blood sugar levels in check due to anethole, the active ingredient in star anise seeds.

Two animal studies are most often cited. A 45-day study in diabetic rats showed how anethole helped reduce high blood sugar through altering levels of key enzymes. Anethole also improved pancreas cell function – cells that produce insulin.

A separate animal study of diabetic rats had similar results showing that anethole improved blood sugar levels.

Graphic that says conclusions

Much of the anecdotal and traditional uses of star anise have been vindicated somewhat by science, although more human studies are needed, especially regarding claims of star anise lowering blood sugar.

It’s also important to understand that many of the studies showing positive health benefits did so using much higher dosing concentrations than normally recommended. Also, some studies, such as those on menstrual pain and hot flashes, showed good results based on a combination of star anise and other elements.

However, as an antifungal and antibacterial treatment, star anise would seem to be most effective, as well as relieving symptoms of depression. It must be noted that star anise as a spice does not have the same level of concerns as star anise the medicinal plant. As such, it’s very important to consult with a medical professional before consuming star anise for its potential health benefits.

Two glass cups of star anise tea shot from above and surrounded by cinamon sticks
Star anise tea