In traditional Chinese medicine several herbs are known as tonic herbs, generally they’re used to increase vitality, strengthen, treat the spirit and improve longevity.
These herbs are defined as substances that supplement or support general or specific physiological functions and can be used in cases of deficiency and weakness.
These can be used as tinctures, alone or in combination with Western herbs.
They are different to what we term as tonics in the west, these are normally bitter herbs taken before meals to stimulate the digestive process, in Chinese medicine these would be classed as cleansing herbs.
They may be used to treat general weakness, such as after prolonged stress, childbirth or illness or simply in old age or when run down. They are traditionally taken in the autumn and winter and more often by those in middle age or older.
They are very rarely used to treat acute disease, for instance colds, flu, or fever as they may make symptoms worse or last longer.
As tonic herbs are heavy and moist in nature they’re very rarely used alone but rather would be combined with herbs which help the digestion and move the Qi or energy of the body such as orange peel, fennel, ginger, cardamom. Someone with weak digestion may find them hard to digest, resulting in bloating, indigestion, nausea and loss of appetite.
Tonics are split into sub sections: Qi or energy tonics, Yang or sympathetic adrenal tonics, Yin or parasympathetic adrenal tonics and blood tonics.
In China use of tonic herbs would be preceded by a period of detoxification, working on the principle of making weak before strong, as a herb like Ginseng is very expensive this makes sense to to gain all of its benefits.
Overuse of tonic herbs can lead to gastrointestinal fullness, chest pains and headaches, it is important to use them in small amounts according to the individual, working with seasonal requirements and possibly adding a preliminary detox, plus using them in combination with herbs such as ginger, citrus and cardamom to help ‘move’ them around the body preventing problems.
Some of the best known are summarised below:
GINSENG (Panax ginseng or Ren shen)
Qi tonic of spleen and lungs, rejuvenate, stimulant, aphrodisiac, demulcent, nervine, febrifuge, antidepressant, adaptogen, aphrodisiac, expectorant.
Ren shen literally means ‘man root’, ginseng has been worth more than gold in the East.
There are many grades of ginseng, the wild being the best and hugely expensive.
Cultivated Ginseng comes in two types; red and white. The red is steamed, usually from Korea and is stronger or more yang in nature than the white which is normally from China. Ginseng is an amazing tonic and rejuvenating herb, working on both the body and mind where it is said to increase wisdom, it is known as the King of tonics.
It is said that ginseng strengthens our ‘ancestral Qi’, this means it increases our life force and vitality, increasing the bodies resistance to disease and increased longevity.
Ginseng is an adaptogen (helps us to cope with stressors better), it is both sedative and stimulating to the nervous system, helping us withstand the effects of stress on body and mind. It stimulates the adrenal glands and enhances the action of the nervous system, giving better focus, mental performance, memory, concentration and decreasing fatigue.
It may make a great herb for short term use whilst studying for exams or other stressful situations.
Due to its adaptogenic effect it may be stimulating or sedative, according to what the body needs, as such it may help insomnia.
It’s also a Qi or energy tonic for the lungs and therefore the whole body, it strengthens the digestion benefits the heart and soothes the spirit, it may be used for palpitations.
As a tonic of the lungs it may help breathlessness, this may be the result of stress, illness or old age.
Ginseng is famous for its aphrodisiac properties, particularly if low libido is associated with stress or general debility.
Try 2 – 4 ml in water twice daily for one or two months then have a break before resuming if necessary.
CHINESE ANGELICA (Angelica sinensis or Dang gui)
Blood tonic, emmenagogue, sedative, analgesic, mild laxative, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, hormone balancing, detoxifying, nourishing.
Chinese angelica is sometimes known as the ‘women’s ginseng’, it is the most famous blood tonic for women in Chinese medicine but may equally be used for men.
A blood tonic would typically be suitable for someone who has a washed out, pale complexion and lips, dizziness, weak or blurred vision, lethargy, palpitations, anxiety, dry skin, poor memory and a pale tongue. Women would have scanty, light red menses or stopped menstruation.
Chinese angelica is particularly good for menstrual irregularities, it has a regulating effect on menstruation, painful periods and delayed or scanty periods and for menopausal imbalances.
It is a great herb to use for someone who has just had a baby to rebuild energy and speed recovery, normally combined with astragalus.
Chinese angelica is a good blood tonic for women as it invigorates the blood and improves its circulation when it has become stagnant, causing symptoms of period pains or abdominal pain.
Chinese angelica may help tinnitus, blurred vision and dry constipation if the constitution fits a blood deficient type. It’s very nourishing, contains lots of vitamins and aids the absorption and utilization of vitamin E. It may help anaemia.
As this herb helps the circulation it may help speed tissue repair, lower blood pressure, prevent hardening of the arteries and relaxes the heart muscle.
Dang gui enhances the immune system, has antibacterial, antiviral and anti fungal properties, it stabilises blood sugar levels, has detoxifying and moistening properties which may relieve dry constipation.
2 – 4 ml three times daily in water
FLEECEFLOWER ROOT (Polygonum multiflorum or He Shou wu)
Blood tonic, laxative, antibacterial. Fleeceflower is a liver, kidney blood and Yin tonic. This herb was first mentioned in a Chinese medical text in 713 AD. Since then it has remained a key Chinese tonic herb.
The name fleeceflower in Chinese literally means; black haired mister. Fleeceflower is said to retain the vital essence of the body, or Jing Qi, this essence has its ‘home’ in the kidneys and is associated with youthfulness, longevity and virility; as such may be used for prevention of impotency and premature greying of the hair.
The ‘Jing Qi’ is easily damaged by unwise or unhealthy living and the stress of modern life. Fleeceflower is one of the few tonics which can rebuild the strength of the liver, kidney and Jing Qi.
It’s traditionally used to increase the sperm count in men and help infertility in both men and women. It is also used for anaemia, dizziness, to sooth weakness or pain of the lower back and knees. It may help constipation in the elderly as it tonifies but also has a mild laxative effect.
It can be used for longer periods as a blood tonic whenever there is general weakness such as after illness. Fleeceflower is a good tonic because it is easy on the digestive system.
2 – 4 ml in water three times daily.
CODONOPSIS (Codonopsis pilosula or Dang shen)
Qi tonic, demulcent, expectorant. Tonic of spleen and stomach Qi, these extract Qi or energy from the food we eat. It’s also a lung tonic which extracts Qi from the air we breathe.
Codonopsis is often used when Ginseng would be too strong in effect, its milder and less stimulating than Ginseng.
It is often used to treat weak digestion and lack of appetite.
As a lung tonic it may be useful for shortness of breath or a chronic cough. As a Qi or energy tonic it may be useful with fatigue and weakness of the limbs as it increases our vital energy.
Codonopsis may be used to help lower blood pressure and normalise blood sugar levels. It also increases the number of red and white blood cells.
2 – 4 ml of tincture in water three times daily.
SCHIZANDRA (Schizandra chinensis or Wu Wei Zi)
Astringent, adaptogen, immune stimulating, tonic, anti-tussive, expectorant. Tonic of lungs, heart and kidney Qi.
Known as the ‘Five Flavour Fruit’ as it has all five tastes – sweet, sour, acrid, bitter and salty.
This is a famous sex tonic and aphrodisiac for men and women as it strengthens the vital energy of the kidneys, which according to Chinese medicine provides the energy of reproduction and growth.
Traditionally used as a beauty aid; it promotes the secretion of body fluids which in particular soften and beautify the skin.
It is said to prevent loss of physical, mental and spiritual energy. As a lung tonic it is used to strengthen weak lungs and for a chronic cough.
Schizandra’s astringent properties help prevent night sweats, incontinence and chronic diarrhoea.
It calms the spirit, soothing anxiety and helping you to have a good night’s sleep, it invigorates and has a balancing effect on the nervous system and is said to help revive a poor memory and may help palpitations.
Schizandra as a Qi tonic helps to build stamina, increase endurance and reduce fatigue, as such sports people may like this herb.
Healthy circulation and blood pressure may be promoted by use of this herb.
5 ml in water three times daily.
ASTRAGALUS (Astragalus membranaceus or Huang Qi)
Qi tonic, immune tonic, diuretic, hypotensive, antispasmodic, adaptogen, cholagogue, antibacterial, nervous stimulant, hypoglycaemic. Tonic of Lungs, Spleen, Qi and Blood
Astragalus is the main herb used in China to strengthen the immune system, it does this by strengthening the Qi or energy of the lungs, this acts to energize the outside of the body and tonify the protective energy known as the ‘Wei Qi’ which flows just under the skin and protects the body from pathogens.
Astragalus may help to restore a defective immune system, it has been shown to enhance the function and number of white blood cells. It increases resistance to viral infections and has natural antibiotic properties.
Astragalus would be a great herb for someone who is run down after illness, childbirth, through over-work, excess stress or naturally lacks a strong metabolism and immune function.
Astragalus supports the adrenal glands, thus helping someone who has a very hectic lifestyle and needs support both with adrenal health and immunity.
Astragalus has ginseng like effects in its adaptogenic properties, although it is more suitable for someone younger and more physically active as its less stimulating than Ginseng.
As astragalus strengthens the Lung Qi it’s useful for someone who has weakness in that area, this may manifest as shortness of breath.
This may be a useful herb for spontaneous sweating or hot flushes, it is able to influence the skins ability to close its pores and hence stop sweating.
Astragalus acts as a natural diuretic and balances fluids within the body, for someone weak and run down who has a tendency to oedema or fluid retention. It combines well with Chinese angelica as it supports the circulation, dilates blood vessels, lowers blood pressure and acts as a heart tonic, improving the endurance of a fatigued heart.
2 – 4 ml in a little water three times daily.
LYCIUM (Lycium chinensis or Gou Qi Zi)
Blood and Yin tonic
Also known as Chinese Wolfberries, it has been used in China and Tibet for over 2,000 years.
Lycium 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 ‘Jing Qi’ also known as our vital life force and the liver.
In Chinese medicine the kidneys are responsible for nourishing the bones whilst the liver looks after the tendons, Lycium is a Yin and blood tonic providing these areas with nutrition and moisture.
This makes it a great herb for someone with weakness in the lower back, knees and weak legs or the aches and pains of old age.
As this herb supports the vital energy of the body it may be useful for impotence or sexual weakness/debility.
Lycium strengthens both the Blood and the Yin, it may help weak, blurred or poor night vision, in Chinese medicine it may be combined with Chrysanthemum for this purpose.
As Lycium is a berry it is high in bioflavonoids; these help to strengthen the vessels in the body, as such it may be helpful for the eyes and circulation.
Lycium is a fruit with a lovely sweet taste, so it can be used as a food. Simply rehydrate dried berries for a couple of hours in water then add to foods like muesli or yoghurt.
If you do use them like this please ensure they come from a reputable and preferably certified organic source.
1 – 2 mls in a little water three times daily.
REHMANNIA (Rehmannia glutinosa or Shu Di Huang)
Blood and Yin tonic, cardiotonic, diuretic, nutritive, demulcent
Rehmannia is a very famous blood tonic throughout the East.
As a tonic herb Rehmannia helps to build and strengthen both the blood and the Yin of the body, it may be used for general weakness and lack of vitality.
It may help kidney Yin deficiency conditions such as night sweats, there may also be lower back ache and weak knees.
As a blood tonic it may be suitable for someone who is blood deficient or with poor blood circulation, there may be signs of: A pale complexion, insomnia, palpitations, irregular or scanty periods and dizziness.
The root may be helpful for women who have just given birth, here it is often combined with Chinese angelica and Astragalus.
As a tonic for supporting the kidney Qi or energy it would be beneficial for someone lacking overall vitality and energy. It may also help premature greying of the hair.
Rehmannia is classed as a greasy herb, it is usually combined with herbs which support the digestion.
5 ml in a little water three times daily.
ASHWAGANDHA (Withania somnifera or Winter Cherry)
Aphrodisiac, sedative, astringent, bitter tonic, adaptogen, nervine, anti-inflammatory.
Literally translated the name means: ‘That which has the smell of a horse’, the plant is traditionally associated with the strength and sexual energy of a stallion.
Ashwagandha is a very highly esteemed herb in Ayurvedic medicine, which is known as Indian ginseng. In modern times it has been included within the Chinese herbs as it is a tonic to the body.
Ashwagandha is a rejuvenative herb like ginseng, it may be used when the body needs rebuilding due to weakness. This may be due to general debility, illness, overwork, stress or nervous exhaustion.
As a rejuvenative it is thought to inhibit ageing and builds strength in the body by catalysing the anabolic processes of the body.
Although it is a rebuilding tonic herb like ginseng it has sedative properties and may help with insomnia.
As a herb which has adaptogenic properties it helps the body cope with stress. It’s calming and helps to give clarity of mind, also helping with a poor memory.
Aswagandha has an affinity with both male and female reproductive systems, it may be used for sexual debility, low sperm count, infertility, impotence, to improve the condition of the semen and as a tonic to the hormonal system.
2 – 4 ml in water three times daily.
SIBERIAN GINSENG (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Adaptogen, tonic, immune tonic, nervine, aphrodisiac.
Although Siberian ginseng is an ancient herb, widespread in the East, it was only classified botanically in the mid-19th century. It is not part of the ‘real’ ginseng family as it belongs to a different botanical family and has a safer and broader bio-chemistry.
Siberian ginseng has been used in Chinese and Asian traditional herbal medicine for over 2,000 years, and can be traced back much further in many ancient herbals. These herbals suggest that it has been known for as long as 5,000 years.
Russian botanist Carl Ivonovich Maximovich ‘discovered’ Siberian ginseng in 1854 in a remote area in southeast Russia. Four years later, the Russians gave it its Latin name.
Chinese Communist Party leader Chairman Mao furthered research into Siberian ginseng.
It increases stamina, mental alertness and works towards helping combat exhaustion and general debility. It helps improve work performance both mentally and physically.
This is a great herb to help with recovery from illness or surgery and to help the body cope with jet lag.
Siberian ginseng is popular with athletes as it positively affects physical performance, endurance, work load capacity and recovery rate after exertion.
Siberian Ginseng may help depression, it gives an increased sense of wellbeing, as well as reducing stress symptoms.
As with other ginsengs, Siberian ginseng is associated with longevity, is a tonic for general health and improves the memory.
This herb helps increase resistance to disease such as influenza, respiratory infection and to boost general vitality and resistance.
Siberian ginseng is a circulatory tonic and vasodilator, as such it may be useful to help normalize both hypertension and hypotension. It also helps reduce cholesterol levels.
As with other members of the Ginseng family this herb is associated with sexual health and vigour.
0.5 – 2.5 ml in water three times a day.
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