We assessed the bioavailability of magnesium lithospermate B (MLB), a main polyphenolic component of Salvia miltiorrhiza and a potent antioxidant having various pharmacological activities, to evaluate its action in vivo. The plasma concentrations of lithospermic acid B (LSB) showed a biexponential decrease after intravenous administration of MLB to rats at doses of 4 and 20 mg/kg. The values of area under the concentration-time curve (AUC; 87.8 +/- 10.9 and 1130 +/- 329 microg.min/mL), total body clearance (CL (tot); 55.52 +/- 7.07 and 23.51 +/- 5.98 mL/min/kg), and distribution volume at steady state (V (ss); 7.60 +/- 1.03 and 3.61 +/- 1.16 L/kg) suggested non-linear pharmacokinetics between the two doses. After oral administration of MLB at a high dose of 100 mg/kg, the mean AUC was barely 1.26 +/- 0.36 microg.min/mL. Absolute bioavailability of MLB was calculated to be 0.0002 from the AUC values after both intravenous dosing at 20 mg/kg and oral dosing at 100 mg/kg. The extremely low bioavailability was caused mainly by poor absorption from the rat gastrointestinal tract; about 65 % of the dose was retained in the tract even 4 h after oral administration, and most of the dose was retained even 20 min after infusion in an in situ jejunal loop experiment. Urinary and biliary excretion of LSB were only 0.70 % +/- 0.26 % and 5.10 % +/- 2.36 %, respectively, over a 30 h time period after intravenous injection despite the large CL (tot) and V (ss) values, and were much less (0.010 % +/- 0.001 % and 0.12 % +/- 0.04 %) after oral dosing. These findings suggest that extensive metabolism, including a first-pass effect, and wide distribution of LSB besides the poor absorption contributed significantly to the extremely low systemic bioavailability.