Photo of schizandra berries
Shizandra, or Wew Weu Zi, strengthens the vital energy of the kidneys, according to Chinese medicine [Image: 三上 勝生 - Wikimedia Commons]

Your guide to the Chinese tonic herbs

29 December, 2011

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 include:

Ginseng (Ren shen)
Chinese angelica
Fleeceflower root
Lycium fruit
Rehmannia root
Siberian ginseng

Neal’s Yard Remedies sells all these herbs in tincture form. To find out more about a specific herb click on the links above, or continue with the full article below.