Enhancing strength, vitality and longevity with Chinese tonic herbs
Updated: Oct 22, 2020
Chinese herbalism is, arguably, the most sophisticated and effective natural health system in the world. Of the several thousand herbs listed in the Chinese materia medica, only an elite group of about fifty are considered to be "superior" – these legendary “tonic” herbs have stood the test of time and represent the greatest list of herbal substances in the world. Used for centuries by Daoist masters, these herbs possess profound health-promoting actions that increase vitality, improve strength, calm the spirit and enhance longevity.
Tonic herbs have always held a very special place in Chinese culture. Long associated with the highest qualities of living, they are associated with the ideals of long life, radiant health, happiness, wisdom, physical vitality, adaptability, sexual vigor, mental acuity, slowed aging, compassion, and living in harmony with nature. These superior substances include roots, bark, leaves, berries and mushrooms.
Chinese tonic herbs are used to promote overall well-being, enhance the body's energy, and regulate both our physical and emotional functioning in order to create "radiant health" or what is often defined as "health beyond danger" in China. These herbs are often referred to as adaptogens because they increase our physical, emotional and spiritual ability to "adapt" to change and help us overcome life’s daily stress. Importantly, they help encourage resistance to trauma, anxiety, and fatigue by allowing the body to naturally regulate itself, normalizing over-activity or under-activity of the organs and glands. Additionally, tonics have a protective nature beyond that of other more common nutritive, sedating or cleansing herbs that encourage the body’s innate self-healing mechanisms. Most tonic herbs specifically target certain, vital organ pathways or bodily substances to rebuild, rejuvenate and/or activate life-force energies. They not only bring about positive changes in one's physical being, but also greatly influence overall wellness on an emotional and spiritual level.
As their name implies, tonics are "tonifying." Their energy is directed at building and strengthening our overall strength, vitality and immunity so we are less susceptible to getting sick or vulnerable to the causes of disease. In this sense, these “superior” herbs are not considered to be medicinal in the usual sense of the word – tonic herbs are not generally used to treat or even prevent specific diseases (though modern medical researchers have discovered many such uses for the tonic herbs). Instead, they are used to fortify the body-mind-spirit, strengthen organ functions, encourage “natural harmony” with the world around us, and enhance our energy, inner life-force, and adaptability. Their real power lies in helping re-establish balance and harmony by enhancing our inner most ‘life force’ and promoting a dynamic equilibrium of the psycho-physical condition for maximum health and well-being.
Tonic herbal medicine’s emphasis on promoting health – rather than eliminating disease – differentiates it from other herbal traditions in the West (as well as most medical traditions). In this sense, the goals of tonic herbalism are quite similar to Qigong. Though Qigong offers a wide variety of remedial exercises and techniques, its emphasis focuses on developing superior health and spiritual power by performing exercises to balance the body, mind and spirit; develop the Three Treasures, Jing, Qi and Shen; to integrate and strengthen the organ systems; and to help us harmonize our lives with the environment and the universe.
Classification of tonic herbs
While there are several different ways to classify tonic herbs, they are most commonly divided into these main categories:
- Qi or energy tonics
- Blood tonics
- Yin or parasympathetic adrenal tonics
- Yang or sympathetic adrenal tonics
Qi tonics improve the energy producing function of organs, leading to increased overall functioning, vitality and stamina of all bodily systems. Importantly, they are not stimulants. Qi tonics are generally believed to enhance the absorption of nutrients in the gastrointestinal system to yield improved energy and blood. They also support healthy metabolic function. These herbs typically target the Spleen and/or Lungs, seeking to enahnce the extraction of energy from the food and air we take into the body. Abundant, free flowing Qi is a foundation of abundant health, protection and longevity.
Blood tonics nourish and build the blood to help the body better utilize essential nutrients and function optimally. Blood tonics also help to build muscle and increase energy, nourishing the tissues of the body. They ensure blood stays vital to distribute the nutrients, hormones and immune cells we need to stay strong and healthy throughout the body. Women (who are often deficient in blood because of their monthly menses) often benefit greatly by regularly consuming blood tonics. According to TCM, blood tonics are particularly active on the Liver, as it has a primary role in blood production and storage. Some herbs are also said to have “blood vitalizing” activity to improve blood circulation, a key factor in maintaining vibrant health. As we age, blood circulation often degrades and gets “sluggish” – these herbs support healthy blood production and circulation, as well as the larger organs and vessels associated with the cardiovascular system.
Yin tonics nourish the fluids of the body and provide the “deep substance” of life. They restore and sustain all vital nourishing substances throughout the body associated with fluids, blood, flesh, bone, and our solid organs. Yin tonics support the structural matrix of the body and bring lubricating and generally cooling support. They also stimulate and nourish the parasympathetic nervous system and produce effects like those of adrenal cortex hormones. Yin and Yang represent opposing forces within all systems. Yin is responsible for the accumulation and storage of energy. Yin energy is generally condensed and stored in all of the tissues of the body, but most extensively in the major solid organs, particularly the organs associated with the Kidney. The Kidney stores energy known as Yin Essence, which is considered to be the body’s fundamental reserve. Yin tonics are usually associated with the preservation of life and many of them are considered in China to be the most important anti-aging and longevity herbs.
Yang tonics are the “power” herbs of Chinese medicine and, like Yin tonic herbs, primarily target the Kidney. Yang allows for the utilization of stored Yin energy. In China, Yang tonics are believed to build will-power and courage. Yang energy is also associated with mental creativity and the ability to manifest one’s ideas. Certain Yang tonic herbs are also famous as sexual tonics — some are even reputed to be aphrodisiacs since Yang energy is said to control sexual drive. Because Yang tonics build strength, they are a favorite of athletes. Yang tonics directly increase the body’s metabolism (and along with Qi tonics) and build muscle, as well as support bone and the skeleton (in particular the lower back, knees and other joints). They increase activity in the sympathetic nervous system and boost biochemical energy production that produces effects like those of adrenal medulla hormones.
Combining Qi and blood tonics, or Yin and Yang tonics, is common practice in TCM. Several important principles regarding their use should be kept in mind with any type of herbal tonic formulation.
Qi and blood tonics are frequently combined to enhance the desired effect of the formula, and to prevent untoward side effects such as Stagnation. This is especially applicable to formulas that build or tonify blood, since boosting Qi not only helps to build blood, but also move it. They are in some respects co-dependent, since according to Chinese medical theory “Qi is the commander of blood, and blood is the mother of Qi.” Strong and properly flowing Qi must be present to provide adequate energy and assist metabolism in the production of blood, as well as store, distribute and move it throughout the body. The Spleen is the root of blood and Qi in the body. Without adequate Spleen Qi, blood cannot be sufficiently produced, or adequately held within the vasculature.
Yin and Yang represent two component parts of a single whole. While each may seem dichotomous in nature, they are actually symbiotic – one is contained within, and transforms into, the other. This is why an extreme version of one can manifest into the other, and why each attracts the other. Combining Yin and Yang tonics within the above context is common practice, since tonifying one in isolation may lead to an imbalance of both. The functional natures of Yin and Yang support one another: Yin provides substance and substrate for Yang’smetabolic processes, while Yang assists the body to absorb Yin’s energy. In many cases, Yin, Qi and blood tonification are often a crucial strategy to restore Yang.
Shi Quan Da Bu Wan – also known as the “All-inclusive Great Tonifying Decoction” – is a famous Chinese formula that contains ten herbs that work synergistically to tonify Qi, blood, Yin and Yang. Shi Quan Da Bu Wan is part of a special class of Fu Zheng tonics used to strengthen the entire body, and as its name suggests, is an extremely versatile tonic. The general strategy of its “all- inclusive” tonifying action is to restore to the body the ability to optimally maintain itself by nourishing the Qi and blood of the organs. It is especially appropriate for post-surgical replenishing of Qi, blood Yin and Yang, and for those who have had long- term chronic illness with marked weakness and deficiency, or a slow recovery from injury or illness.
The way this formula accomplishes its generalized tonification can be difficult to grasp. The strategy is often summed up as “tonifying Qi and blood while warming the Yang.” While this description isn’t wrong, it is over-simplified. It is clinically important to understand that Shi Quan Da Bu Wan does not so much replenish Qi, blood, and Yang, as it restores the body’s ability to produce and regulate these substances itself.
While there are many modern applications of Shi Quan Da Bu Wan, its impact treating cancer patients is particularly worth highlighting. Research shows that Shi Quan Da Bu Wan has been successfully used to restore hematopoeitic function in patients who have previously undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatments that resulted in leukopenia. A study of 134 cancer patients who suffered this side effect due to chemotherapy and radiation treatments were given Shi Quan Da Bu Wan; 113 of the 134 patients brought their white blood cell count to normal levels. Another three year study conducted on 130 patients with advanced breast cancer in Japan from 1985-1987 showed increased survival rates for patients treated with Shi Quan Da Bu Wan following the appropriate chemotherapy and radiation treatment for each case. The difference in the survival rates between the group receiving SQDBW and the control group was noted 18 months into the treatment, following the chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The improvement in survival rates of the group treated with the formula continued throughout the three years of monitoring.
The following list superior tonics herbs is not exhaustive. Rather, it presents insight into 20 of the most commonly prescribed tonic herbs along with their most important benefits.
BAI SHAO / WHITE PEONY
Bai Shao is traditionally used to regulate menstruation and the female menstrual cycle, as well as strengthen and purify the blood. Known as a pain reliever, it helps relax muscles and relieve cramps/spasms anywhere in the body. Finally, it helps to stabilize emotions, particularly in relation to a woman’s monthly cycle, pre-menopausal and/or menopausal transition.
BAI ZHU / ATRACTYLODES
Bai Zhu is an important and potent Qi tonic that is famous for regulating digestive functions, in addition to being a powerful energy booster. It is widely used in China by athletes and martial artists seeking to increase their vitality, in addition to weight control programs.
DANG GUI / ANGELICA
Dang Gui is widely used as both a superb blood tonic and an important blood revitalizing herb, helping to improve circulation, speed tissue repair, lower blood pressure, prevent hardening of the arteries and relax the heart muscle. It enhances the immune system, has antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties, stabilizes blood sugar levels, and has detoxifying and moistening properties which may relieve dry constipation.
Dang Gui is sometimes called “women’s ginseng” since it is the most famous blood tonic for women in Chinese medicine. It is widely used to regulate the female menstrual cycle, as it invigorates the blood and improves its circulation when it has become stagnant. Combined with Huang Qi (astrgalus), it is also a great herb for women who have just had a baby to rebuild their energy and speed their recovery. TCM’s most universal gynecological herb, Dang Gui is used in formulas to treat painful menstruation, premenstrual syndrome, infertility and menopausal distress. It is also helpful to treat many skin conditions (which are often rooted in the blood) including blemishes, urticaria, eczema and neurodermatitis. It is found in virtually all women's tonic preparations.
DANG SHEN / CODONOPSIS
Dang Shen is among the most widely used of all superior tonic herbs. Known as the "poor man's ginseng," it is a gentle, yet energizing, and often used in formulas as a ginseng substitute. It is, in fact, favored over Ren Shen when ginseng's energy may be too strong/stimulating or too warm. As a Qi tonic, Dang Shen restores energy, balances the metabolism, and stimulates the production of blood. Targeting both the Lungs and Spleen, it helps clear out excess mucus from the respiratory tract while also moistening and nourishing tissues and organs where needed. It is often used to treat weak digestion and lack of appetite. Dang Shen also acts as a blood tonic to detoxify and build blood, encouraging a beautiful complexion. It is considered a wonderful immune-boosting tonic for those who are severely depleted or weakened after prolonged illness.
DONG CHONG XIA CAO / CORDYCEPS
This rare and strange herb tonifies Yang primal essence and is considered to be a Jing and Qi tonic of the highest stature, in the same league as other major super-tonics such as Lu Rong (deer antler), Ling Zhi (reishi), and Ren Shen (ginseng). It is a fungus that grows on the head of a particular kind of caterpillar in mountainous regions of Mongolia, Western China and Tibet (although today it is widely cultivated on rice cakes). It is renown as a tonic herb, and is said to build sexual and physical power, mental energy, and the immune system. It is widely known to replenish deep rooted energy lost to excessive exertion, stress, illness, injury or aging. As a Kidney tonic, it supports sexual function, brain power, skeletal integrity, and healing ability. Throughout Asia, it is universally believed to prolong life and slow down aging.
Traditionally, this medicinal mushroom has been used to strengthen weak Lungs, and highly recommended for those who suffer from chronically deficient Lungs, marked by coughing or wheezing due to shortness of breath. It is known to be useful in recovery from adrenal depletion and helps increase Lung capacity as well as oxygen utilization, making it a great tonic for improving athletic performance and aerobic workouts. Importantly, it has a natural ability to resist a wide range of pathogenic bacteria, fungi and viruses.
DU ZHONG / EUCOMMIA BARK
Du Zhong is a potent Kidney tonic and Yang Jing herb that is well-known for its ability to strengthen the skeletal structure of the body. It is specifically effective for joint and back pain as well as stiffness, especially in the knees, ankles and lower back. In many cases, it is often used as a nutritional tonic for the elderly to ensure healthy cartilage, ligaments and tendons, as well as guard against arthritis. Regarded as the king of Jing herbs and held in equal esteem with ginseng, the Chinese name “Du Zhong” literally means “enlightened one” or “thinking of transcendence” and attests to the high esteem it is held in.
Also considered a Yin Jing herb, Du Zhong encourages flexibility in the ligaments and tendons and is known to help fortify and nourish the bones. It additionally supports healthy endocrine and sexual functions.
GAN CAO / LICORICE ROOT
Gan Cao is a broad-spectrum natural detoxifying agent, ridding the body of over 1200 known toxins without any distressful side-effects. This cleansing action is said to "allow for all energies to flow more smoothly." It also helps regulate blood sugar levels and counteract hypoglycemia. As a Qi tonic, it builds energy and is an excellent digestive tonic. Gan Cao is perhaps best known as "the great harmonizer" for its supporting influence when used with other Chinese herbs. Indeed, licorice root is included in most Chinese herbal prescriptions because of its ability to harmonize the ingredients in a formula. Importantly, pure licorice root is very powerful and should be used in small quantities.
GE JIE / GECKO TAIL
The tail and backbone of the gecko lizard that inhabits southern China is widely used as a powerful Lung and Kidney tonic. In particular, it strengthens the Kidneys as it tonifies the Lungs, to “help the Kidney grasp Qi.” This unique action makes Ge Jie particularly powerful to treat asthma and wheezing, two conditions where the body is unable to draw in sufficient air Qi. It is also why gecko tail is favored among athletes who want to enhance their strength and endurance.
GOU QI ZI / GOJI BERRY
Also known as Chinese Wolfberries, Gou Qi Zi has been used in China and Tibet for over 2,000 years. This tasty fruit exerts a gentle tonic effect on the two organs of the body which are most likely to be damaged by stress, overwork and old age – the Kidneys, which contain our vital life force, and the Liver. In Chinese medicine, the Kidneys are responsible for nourishing the bones while the Liver looks after the tendons – Gou Qi Zi is both a Yin and blood tonic providing nutrition and moisture. It is a great herb for someone with weakness in the lower back, knees and weak legs or the aches and pains of old age. Because it is a fruit with a lovely sweet taste, goji berries are widely eaten as a food – simply rehydrate dried berries for a couple of hours in water and then add them to muesli or yoghurt. They are often used as a harmonizing ingredient blended with other Chinese herbs to increase their effectiveness.
HE SHOU WU / POLYGONUM
He Shou Wu is a well-respected adaptogen, premier Yin Jing tonic, and fundamental longevity herbs used extensively in Chinese medicine. It is very effective for replenishing Kidney Yin and reversing deep deficiencies associated with adrenal exhaustion. While acting as an energy restorative, it simultaneously calms the nervous system. It is a highly respected sexual stimulant that is known to encourage fertility in both men and women. He Shou Wu is particularly effective in strengthens tendons, ligaments and bones, and helping prevent premature aging. It is perhaps most famous for its legendary ability to reverse premature greying of the hair.
HUANG QI / ASTRAGALAS
Huang Qi is the premier herb used in China to strengthen the immune system. It does this by strengthening the Qi or energy of the Lungs, which then energizes the outside of the body and tonifies the protective energy known as the Wei Qi which flows just under the skin. This also makes astragalus a useful herb to treat spontaneous sweating or hot flushes, since it influences the skin’s ability to close its pores and stop sweating.
Clinical studies have shown astragalus is a potent immunity booster. Not only does it enhance the function and number of white blood cells, it also increases resistance to viral infections and has natural antibiotic properties. Huang Qi is a great herb for someone who is run down after illness, childbirth, over-work, excess stress or naturally lacks a strong immune function. It also supports the adrenal glands, thus helping someone who has a very hectic lifestyle and needs support both with adrenal health and immunity.
One of the most important herbs in the world, astragalus is the chief herb in a wide range of tonic formulations. It is said to strengthen the "upright Qi" which supports our posture, the position of the organs, and is thought to be the energy that counteracts the effects of gravity associated with the aging process. Astragalus has been used for over 2000 years to strengthen the body as a whole and has been long revered as one of the most potent energizing tonics available after ginseng.
LING ZHI / REISHI MUSHROOM
Long revered as an anti-aging herb, Ling Zhi is commonly referred to as the “mushroom of immortality.” Considered the “supreme protector”, reishi also tonifies all Three Treasures: Jing, Qi and Shen, guarding against the effects that physical, immunological and mental stress can have on the body-mind-spirit over time. When taken consistently, it is said to profoundly strengthen immune functions, calm and protect the nerves, and help us to positively adjust to anxiety in our lives. Reishi is a highly respected Shen tonic renowned as the “herb of spiritual potency” for its ability to open the heart and encourage a meditative state of being.
LU RONG / DEER ANTLER
Across Asia, Lu Rong is widely believed to strengthen all aspects of a person's life and is considered to be the ultimate Yang Jing primal Essence tonic. Although it is a warm tonic, it is also known to contain Yin Jing. Finally, it is a major blood tonic. Extracts of deer antler have been found to strengthen the central nervous system and the heart, and it is believed to strengthen the mind and calm the spirit (Shen). It is widely believed to invigorate sexual energy. Modern research indicates that Lu Rong stimulates the production of blood by nourishing the marrow. Deer antler contains chemicals that are very closely related to human growth hormone (hGH) and is believed to promote youthfulness as a result of this chemistry. Importantly, the soft antler is removed from the deer when it has grown just two or three spikes and it is still covered by velvet, leaving the deer to grow new antlers. The tip of the antler is the most potent part because it contains the most active substances. It takes thirty deer antlers to make one ounce of "tips."
REN SHEN / PANAX GINSENG
Asian ginseng is one of the most famous and valued herbs used by mankind. Referred to as Ren Shen in China, it is the primary Qi tonic of within Chinese herbalism that regulates the entire human energy system. It has been shown to be stimulating and regulatory to both the central nervous system and to the endocrine system. Ginseng is the first among adaptogenic herbs, helping a person to adapt to all kinds of stresses, and enhancing their endurance and resilience under stressful conditions. It stimulates the adrenal glands and enhances the action of the nervous system, allowing for better focus, mental performance, memory, concentration and stamina. It is said that ginseng strengthens our “ancestral Qi” or root life force and vitality, increasing the body’s resistance to disease while increasing longevity.
Ren Shen is known around the world for its energy-building and health-promoting effects. Ginseng tonifies both the Lung and Spleen, the two organs responsible for extracting energy from the foods we eat and the air we breathe. Although primarily used to activate Qi ginseng also works on all Three Treasures including Jing and Shen as well as Qi.
Ren Shen literally means “man root” and at times, has been worth more than gold in the East. There are many grades of ginseng, the wild being the best and hugely expensive. Ginseng is an amazing tonic and rejuvenating herb, working on both the body and mind where it is said to increase wisdom. Not surprisingly, it is known as the King of tonics.
There are many varieties of ginseng, all of which have distinct characteristics, based on the source and the age of the root itself. Cultivated ginseng comes in two types: red and white. The red is steamed, and usually comes from Korea. It is stronger or more Yang in nature than the white ginseng which usually comes from China. Wild and semi-wild ginseng is generally far superior to the cultivated, commercial varieties. The higher the quality, the more Shen (spirit) a ginseng root is said to contain. Beware of cheap ginseng products; they are often made from immature roots that have imbalanced chemistry.
ROU CONG RONG / CISTANCHE
Rou Cong Rong is the stem of a desert plant and is most famous as a potent tonic for enhancing sex drive and virility. It is often referred to as the "ginseng of the desert." It is specifically a Kidney Jing herb that works to increase Kidney Yang. Like Du Zhong (Eucommia), it excels at strengthening the skeletal structure, especially the back and knees. Cistanche extract also fortifies the Yin element and rejuvenates the Kidney-adrenal complex. The herb is made up of unique plant compounds such as phenylethanoid glycosides and cistanocides that contribute to its adaptogenic nature and range of actions. Cistanche builds deep strength and is revitalizing when used continuously for a period of time. It is an excellent antiaging herb.
SHU DI HUANG / (PREPARED) REHMANNIA
Rehmannia is a famous blood tonic that helps to build and strengthen both blood and Yin. It is often used for general weakness and lack of vitality, as well as restore Kidney Yin deficiency conditions marked by night sweats, lower back ache and weak knees. As a blood tonic, it may be prescribed for the patient with is blood deficient or has poor blood circulation. The root is often helpful for women who have just given birth, where it may be combined with Dang Gui (angelica) and Huang Qi (astragalus). Rehmannia is among the most prized of all Kidney tonics as a primary longevity herb. Providing potent Yin Jing directly to the Kidneys, it also promotes fertility and relieves menopausal distress.
SUAN ZAO REN / ZIZYPHUS SEED
Suan Zao Ren is regarded as an excellent tranquilizer and is among the most widely used herbs in Chinese herbal medicine to help those who suffer from sleeplessness. Zizyphus calms the heart system and agitated emotional states.
TIAN MEN DONG / ASPARAGUS ROOT
Tian Men Dong is one of the most valued Shen tonics in all of herbal medicine. It opens the Heart (increasing well-being and peace of mind); moistens and purifies the Lungs (which removes toxins from the respiratory tract and aids in breathing); and promotes the production of Kidney Yin (which may improve sexual potency). The Chinese have a saying that “wisdom comes from the Lungs.” As a major Lung tonic, Tian Men Dong helps the Lungs extract “Heavenly Qi” from the air we breathe, making us stronger and calmer. For those that smoke, live in dry desert climates, or are regularly exposed to smog, Tian Men Dong can help the Lungs extract oxygen from the air we breathe, while removing toxins from the respiratory tract.
Asparagus root is one of the major Chinese herbs that works on all Three Treasures, supporting the Lung (Qi), Heart (Shen) and Kidney (Jing) systems. It is most famous in Chinese herbal medicine as a Shen tonic specifically used to calm the Heart and is often prescribed as a natural antidepressant because of its uplifting nature. Taoists referred to it as the “divine spirit herb” and used it to help them on their path to radiant health and spiritual awareness, believing those who consumed enough of it over time would come to feel so light and buoyant that they feel like they can fly. It is so prized that many monks have relied on Tian Men Dong for generations to induce a profoundly spiritually lifted state and a widened, wiser perspective.
WU WEI ZI / SCHISANDRA
Schisandra is a tonic herb that benefits the entire body: promoting vigor and alertness, purifying the blood and detoxifying the Liver, sharpening the mind and improving memory, and strengthening vital energy. Known as the “five flavor fruit” as it has all five tastes – sweet, sour, acrid, bitter and salty – and the berries are commonly soaked and brewed to make “five flavor tea.” It is said to prevent loss of physical, mental and spiritual energy. As a Lung tonic, Wu Wei Zi is used to astringe and strengthen weak lungs for those with chronic cough. Schisandra’s astringent properties also help prevent night sweats, incontinence and chronic diarrhea – all forms of “fluid leakage” the tonic helps prevent. As a Qi tonic, it helps to build stamina, increase endurance, and reduce fatigue. Wu Wei Zi is the only Chinese herb known to effectively enter all 12 meridians.
XI YANG SHEN / AMERICAN GINSENG
American ginseng differs from Panax ginseng in that it is cooling rather than warming, making it a great energy topic for those that live in hot climates. Good for those with heat conditions, smokers, and those living in smoggy areas, Xi Yang Shen is noted for its ability to promote secretion of bodily fluids, which can help to moisten the Lungs.