What Are the Health Benefits of Magnolia Bark

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on May 31, 2022
5 min read

Magnolia bark is a popular herb in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine. Modern research shows that it's helpful when treating various conditions like stress-induced anxiety, digestive issues, and sleep troubles among others. 

Today, magnolia bark extract is used all over the world and forms a key ingredient in many beauty products and food supplements.

As you might have gathered from its name, magnolia bark refers to the bark of the magnolia tree — a native of East and Southeast Asia. This tree belongs to the Magnoliaceae family and can grow to a mature height from 16 ft up to 80 ft. You can easily identify the magnolia tree from its large and fragrant flowers that often reach 8 inches in diameter. Along with the bark, sometimes these flowers and leaves are also used for making medicine.

The scientific name of magnolia bark is Magnolia officinalis. The Chinese also call this herb "Houpu" — referring to the thick (hou) bark that comes from the unadorned (pu) part of the tree. Its other names are magnolia cortex, cucumber tree, honoki, and swamp sassafras.

Those who practice traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) often harvest the bark in April and June. They do it by peeling or cutting the bark from the roots, stems, and branches of the tree. While the stem barks are decocted to a slight extent in boiling water, the branch and root barks are dried in the shade. All these barks are then stacked up in a wet area. Once their inner surface turns dark brown or purplish brown, the TCM practitioners steam, roll, and dry them.

This dried bark — known for its sharp smell and bitter taste — is then soaked in a traditional medicine tincture for oral use. Today, you can also find this herb in the medical stores sold as bundles of 4 inches long magnolia bark strips.

To date, scientists have found over 250 chemical compounds in the bark, flowers, cones, and leaves of the genus Magnolia. Among them, magnolol and honokiol are the main nutrients in magnolia bark with the most medicinal value. These two compounds come under the category of polyphenols — plant micronutrients that offer health benefits like defense against UV radiation and microbial infection. 

Research shows that both magnolol and honokiol are, by nature:

  • Anti-inflammatory: able to reduce inflammation in the body
  • Antimicrobial: able to kill or slow the spread of bacteria, viruses, and fungi
  • Antioxidant: able to protect cells against damage by free radicals 
  • Neuroprotective: able to protect brain cells against damage
  • Antidiabetic: able to control blood sugar and prevent diabetes
  • Antidepressant: able to reduce the symptoms of depression
  • Antixiolytic: able to reduce anxiety
  • Antiangiogenic: able to keep new blood vessels from forming and prevent tumor growth 

The extract of the magnolia bark has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine. During the 7th century, monks in the Chinese Buddhist temples grew these trees in their gardens for use in treating conditions like depression, asthma, muscle pain, and headache. It was also valued in TCM for its ability to reduce inflammation, anxiety, and bloating

Within Kampo or traditional Japanese medicine, magnolia bark's main role was that of a digestive supplement. It was also used in Native American medicine as an antimalarial herb.

The first recorded mention of the herb was made in the ancient Chinese herb guide "Shennong Bencao Jing" around 100 A.D. It was said to treat "fright qi" — a condition caused by emotional distress due to fear and anxiety. 

Later, it was described in many famous Chinese medical texts such as the "Jingui Yaolue" and the "Shanghan Lun" (ca. 220 A.D.).

Today, magnolia bark is still used in these two traditional medicinal formulas:

  • Banxia Houpo Tang: This Chinese formula is said to move stagnant qi in the solar plexus, head, and throat area. 
  • Saiboku-To: This Japanese formula has anti-inflammatory properties that can help to reduce asthma symptoms.  

In the western world, the magnolia tree was first seen in North Carolina during the 16th century. Later, it was carried to England. The tree got its scientific name from the name of Pierre Magnol, a well-known French physician and botanist of the 17th century. 

Currently, magnolia bark is widely used in food supplements and beauty products. You can also find the bark's name listed in the American Pharmacopeia as a bitter antimalarial tonic.

There are many potential health benefits of magnolia bark offered by two key micronutrients — magnolol and honokiol — present in it. You can easily find this herb in pill form in most medical and drug stores. 

Among its various uses, these are the most-researched magnolia bark benefits: 

  • May relieve stress and anxiety. Studies show that taking supplements with magnolia and phellodendron bark can help reduce stress and improve your mood. Magnolia has also been found useful in reducing anxiety in women between 20 and 50 years old. Many animal trials have also been done on honokiol, which shows its anti-anxiety effects on the subjects.
  • May improve sleep. Many use magnolia bark extract for getting better sleep at night or as a remedy for insomnia. Studies done on mice show that magnolia's active ingredient magnolol can reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.
  • May support weight loss. Early research shows that magnolia bark extract could help those who have a habit of overeating when stressed to lose weight. This is due to its stress-relieving properties.
  • May aid digestion. Magnolia bark can improve the health of your digestive system. Per some animal studies, the extract of this herb improves the levels of gut bacteria that aid in healthy digestion. Studies done on magnolia’s active constituents, magnolol and honokiol, also show that they can help food move more easily through the digestive tract.
  • May lower the chances of cancer. More and more studies are coming up that support the use of honokiol in cancer prevention and treatment. While more large-scale human studies are needed, current research shows that honokiol has the potential to prevent tumor growth in skin, liver, breast, colon, brain, and other organs.
  • May offer other health benefits. Both the key polyphenols in magnolia bark magnolol and honokiol — have antioxidant properties. As a result, they can help to reduce inflammation in your body and decrease your chances of having conditions like heart disease, Alzheimer's, and diabetes.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given magnolia bark a “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) status. This herb belongs to the Safety Class '2b,' which means it should not generally be used during pregnancy and breastfeeding.  

Additionally, since one use of magnolia bark is to help in sleeping, you should not take it alongside other anti-anxiety drugs or sleeping pills. Doing so may cause drowsiness and make it unsafe for you to drive or use heavy machinery.