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Jamu: A Herbal Wonder Drink

Figure 1: Different spices (©Unsplash)

In most parts of Indonesia, we have the privilege to have a woman who, every morning or evening, sells a variety of “herbal medicine” door-to-door. Indonesians call this woman “Mbok Jamu”. But what is Jamu? In addition, why is this tradition still kept in this modern industry (era)?

Jamu is an herbal drink made from different plant extracts; some also include grind dried plants as the ingredient. Nevertheless, to put it generally, it is an herbal therapeutic preparation, original from Indonesia, used for health and beauty promotion and for curative purposes.3 We can consider jamu as a liquid extract of several plants with hot water as solvent. Traditionally, this ancient beverage is sold by a woman carrying a woven bamboo basket filled with bottles of plant extracts slung over her back. She will formulate the opportune jamu in a few seconds mixing the different extracts she carries and pouring it into a glass ready to be served.

Figure 2: Indonesian Old Lady Roasting (© Unsplash)

Many people believe jamu originated during the seventh century CE, when the powerful Srivijaya naval kingdom flourished, bringing Hindu and Buddhist influences with it. Back to the main product, there are more than 20 types of jamu depending on the area. The most common ones are:

· Jamu kudu laos for hypertension

· Jamu pahitan relieves diabetes mellitus and itching by allergies

· Jamu cabe puyang for muscle stiffness and fatigue

· Jamu beras kencur improves appetite and relieves fatigue

· Jamu kunci suruh for excessive vaginal discharge

· Jamu uyup-uyup stimulates lactation.1

Traditionally the extract came from different parts of plants typical of Indonesian backyard. A single “dose” of jamu can contain 10-20 different plants! Although there are hundreds of ingredients used, the 5 most common drugs for the beverage preparation are Curcuma longa, Andrographis paniculata , Alpinia galangal, Phyllanthus niruri.2 Fresh picked ingredients are generally boiled using kitchen utensils such as ceramic pots or pounded with a traditional tool called lumpang.

Figure 3: Curcuma longa widely known as ginger. (©Unsplash)

It is extremely difficult to define the specific biological mechanism of action of each preparation. The different type of beverages, extemporaneously prepared, does not consist of a single active molecule targeting a specific receptor but a phytocomplex: a system rich in different natural compounds, whose properties are not directly related to those of a single component. Then, the next question is why do we not extract each active metabolite from each ingredient and make a super drug that works wonders? Well that might sound easy but there is a specific complexity in handling a purified active compound. Sometimes it could be easier to work with a phytocomplex rather than a single active because the first one consists of all the single active molecules working together in harmony, reducing the possibility of degradation and side effects, whereas a purified single active principle could have a higher chance of degradation due to the lack of “buddies” helping in its stabilization. Considering that the biological activity may be the result of the combination of several compounds, the isolation process may lead to its loss or reduction.4 Their components have multiple activities that result in a greater total activity.

Jamu is just one among hundreds of (other) traditional herbal medicines all around the world with their unique phytocomplexes. Herbal pharmaceuticals are by far the most dominant product segment in the global herbal medicine market and accounted for a valuation of more than USD 50.9 billion in 2017. This shows the high interest people still have towards herbal medicine.


(1) Torri, M. C. The Jamu System: Linking Small-Scale Enterprises, Traditional Knowledge and Social Empowerment? Int. J. Entrep. Small Bus. 2012, 15 (4), 488–501.

(2) Elfahmi; Woerdenbag, H. J.; Kayser, O. Jamu: Indonesian Traditional Herbal Medicine towards Rational Phytopharmacological Use. J. Herb. Med. 2014, 4 (2), 51–73.

(3) Krier, S.E. Our Roots, Our Strength: The Jamu Industry, Women's Health and Islam in Contemporary Indonesia. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh 2011, p.49.

(4) Raskin, I. Can an Apple a Day Keep the Doctor Away? Current Pharmaceutical Design. 2004, 10, 3419-3429. (accessed on November 18. 2019) (accessed on November 18. 2019)

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