A selection of Chinese tonic herbs


The Importance of Qi in the Body

Qi means “life energy.” The source of Qi in the body is food, air and water. The process of transforming and assimilating food, air and water, into Qi is, according to TCM theory, governed by the TCM-Spleen. Because the source of this type of energy is not congenital but external, it is deemed “acquired Qi” exemplifying the importance of the quality of these in relation to our health and wellbeing.

Congenital Qi represents qualities inherited from our parents and ancestors. TCM theory maintains that this Source Qi (called Yuan Qi) is stored in the TCM-Kidneys.  This is a potential that differs from person to person and it can only be used and not added. It is needed for all phases of growth and maturation. We need this energy to grow and mature. It is like the battery reserve in an engine for which the spark is needed to get things going.

I distinguish TCM-Spleen and TCM-Kidneys from Western physiological spleen and kidneys because these have expanded functions beyond the description of the anatomical organs. The kidneys have a small pea-sized gland attached to them that regulates the hormones of the body. TCM expands the kidneys to represent both the urinary organ as well as the endocrine system generally. The spleen has the pancreas attached to it; the TCM-Spleen also has an expanded function to include digestion, assimilation, transformation and transportation of Qi throughout the body.  From a Western perspective the TCM-Spleen broadly represents our metabolism.

Biological sex and age are factors in traditional Chinese diagnosis. Qi is assigned as the primary issue for males while for women who naturally lose blood during menstruation and childbirth, Blood is their primary health issue. TCM teaches the integral relationship between Qi and Blood saying that Qi is the commander of Blood and Blood is the mother of Qi. In other words, we need both.

“In youth blame the Kidneys. In the aged blame the Spleen.”

Age has its own diagnostic significance that must be considered when we use TCM diagnostic techniques. For most of the serious health problems of youth, failure to thrive or grow should be considered congenital factors or issues with Source Qi stored in the Kidneys. There are specific herbal formulas that effectively treat these conditions. From puberty through adulthood we are dealing with finding our way in life, with its highs, lows and frustrations. This makes for an irregular circulation and movement of Qi and we must consider the specific formula “Bupleurum and Peony” (Xiao Yao Wan) for people at this stage of life. In our elder years, most of us hopefully are more settled, but Source Qi is spent. We are dependent on TCM-Spleen Qi derived from food, air and water. So, we are more reliant on Qi and Blood tonics as well as Kidney Yin and Yang tonics to deal with the problems occurring in our elder years.

Chinese tonic herbs which address deep level deficiencies involving, among other essential systems, our endocrine system, are different from Western ‘tonics’ which is a label that may be applied to any herb that is known to specifically stimulate an organic function. Ayurvedic rasayanas most closely relate to Chinese tonics in that both promote longevity, optimal health, and slow or reverse the effects of aging.

Tonic Herbs to Have in Your Pantry

Hippocrates’ oft-quoted maxim, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” also implies that medicinal herbs serve the function of being “special foods.”  Chinese tonics are a special class of medicinal herbs and many of them are described as having a ‘sweet’ taste among others. Sweet is the taste associated with nourishment. It is the flavor common to most Chinese tonic herbs because they are considered to be food-like. Traditional Chinese people use herbs, each with a wider range of therapeutic efficacy, the same way that many in the West use vitamin and mineral supplements.

Herbal medicine and food are closely related. Traditional Chinese people would tend to keep a number of tonic Chinese herbs on hand to fundamentally nourish and strengthen their Blood and Qi. Different ones are more appropriate than others based on constitutional, seasonal and climatic variances. In China, people would visit their favorite herbal pharmacy to obtain a special herbal formula prepared for the whole family of tonic herbs intended to keep them healthy and strong.

I suggest stocking a small number of tonic Chinese herbs in your pantry. They have a long shelf life and can be used as teas or in various soups or other dishes as well as the following herbal Qi tonic oatmeal. Sources for purchasing bulk Chinese herbs are listed at the end of this article.

Codonopsis (Dang shen) tonifies Qi and is a milder substitute to ginseng. It tonifies the Qi of the Lung and Spleen and has a pleasant sweet taste. It is neither too warming nor too cool energetically. It strengthens the stomach and is good for weak digestion and weak lungs. It can be used for lack of appetite, fatigue, tired limbs, diarrhea, vomiting, prolapse of the uterus, stomach or rectum, chronic cough, shortness of breath, drooling or copious sputum caused by Spleen Qi deficiency.

Astragalus (Huang qi) is a Qi tonic currently widely used in China as a substitute for Chinese ginseng. It goes to the Lung and Spleen and has a sweet taste and slightly warm energy. It tonifies Qi and Blood, raises Yang Qi, strengthens the immune system, reduces edema, and promotes the discharge of pus and promotes healing. It is complementary to codonopsis described above because it tonifies Blood.  Read more about the benefits of astragalus: https://bit.ly/3cJx3E0.

Ophiopogon root (Mai men dong) tonifies Yin. The basis of Chinese Taoist philosophy is rooted in the complementary dualism of Yin and Yang. Yin is cool and moist while Yang is warm and dry, among many other dual parameters. Qi is a part of Yang, Blood is a part of Yin. To achieve balance, one must have both Yin and Yang energy. Without Yin energy, Yang Qi will not arise. We can have low energy as a result of Yin deficiency or Yang deficiency, however more people have Yin deficiency and by constantly pushing themselves they burn out, leaving them inflamed and dry. In order for Yang to find a place to nest, it requires Yin. Ophiopogon goes to the Heart, Lung and Stomach and it is sweet and slightly bitter. It has a cold, moist energy which balances the warm and more drying nature of other herbs. It moistens the Lungs and provides a cool nourishing energy for the Heart, Lung and Stomach. It counteracts dryness throughout the body including the skin, lungs and the synovial fluids.  Other uses are insomnia, heart palpitations, anxiety, restlessness and muscle spasms.

Eucommia bark (Du zhong) is the bark of a species of rubber tree. It tonifies Yang Qi and especially benefits the Kidney and Liver. It is one of the few herbs that tonifies Essence, called Jing, or youthful energy. It has a sweet taste and slightly spicy flavor. It is especially good for weak, sore or painful lower back and knees, fatigue and urinary frequency. It promotes circulation in those with weakness of the sinews and bones. It promotes libido and metabolic warmth. Finally, it treats dizziness and vertigo associated with high blood pressure. For more information about Eucommia see: https://bit.ly/3lqOqx5

Jujube red dates (Da zao) is a fruit that is included in many Chinese medicinal herbal food recipes. Once you learn to prepare and appreciate them you will enjoy them. In fact, they are used as a sweet confection, no sugar needed, given to children in China. Jujube date is the most delicious, sometimes cloyingly sweet Qi tonic. The have only one flavor, sweet and they go to the TCM-Spleen and sStomach. Their energy is warm (relating to metabolism). They reinforce the Qi, nourish the Blood, calm the Spirit, and are commonly used to moderate the somewhat harsher properties of other herbs in formula. Buy Chinese red dates by the pound. Boil them alone or with other herbs until they are soft enough to manually squeeze out the small pit. I chop them up further and mix them back into the tea, soup or other dish I am making. These boiled and pitted dates also make a great dessert. I generally recommend only six or seven dates at a time, as their sweetness can be overcoming to some.

Herbal Qi Tonic Oatmeal Porridge

Step One: Make Tonic Tea

Combine a small handful of each of the first four herbs listed above along with six red jujube dates in a quart of boiling water using a glass, ceramic or stainless steel pot.  When these reach a boil, cover, reduce heat, and continue to simmer for another 15 or 20 minutes or until the water is reduced to approximately half of the amount of herbal liquid. Strain the tea in a large strainer or colander, reserving the tea to cook the oatmeal.  Pass cold water over the strained herbs and dates so you can handle each of the dates to remove their pits. Add the pitted and chopped dates back to the tea. If you only want to drink the tea, it is now ready for you to enjoy. I recommend dividing the tea into two portions, one for the morning and the second for late afternoon. You can also use this as a base for hearty chicken soup or to cook other grains such as brown rice.

By doubling or tripling the recipe you can make enough so you can store it for future use in the refrigerator.

These herbs have a wide versatile use so you can still use them individually in various preparations as in tea or in soups.

These are safe but potent herbs. However, if for any reason you find that this combination of herbs or if one of them is not right for you, by all means don’t consume them or the tea.

Step Two: Make Oatmeal

You will need:

Almond meal, available now as a paleo protein source for baking and cooking.

Organic Oatmeal is naturally gluten-free (if you have celiac, make sure the oats are processed in a gluten-free facility), rich in fiber and energy boosting ingredients. Oatmeal is the ideal breakfast cereal.

A small handful of chopped walnuts.  In traditional Chinese medicine, walnuts are called Hua Tao Ren and are associated with the Lung, Large Intestine and Kidney meridians. They have sweet and warm properties. Their functions are to tonify the Kidneys, nourish the Blood, warm the Lungs and moisten the Intestines. Typically, walnuts are used to treat pain and weakness in the knees and back, aid in digestion, and relieve asthma. The walnuts contain omega-3 oil and are classified as a Kidney Yang tonic in Chinese herbal medicine.

Cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and nutmeg powders. Each of these have potent healing properties and are used in both TCM and Ayurvedic medicine.

  1. Bring the tea to a low simmer. Slowly add 4 tablespoons of almond meal powder using a spoon or whisk to prevent clumping. At the same time add the chopped walnuts.
  2. Next stir in one or two handfuls of organic oatmeal and simmer for another 10-15 minutes.
  3. Finally add a quarter to a half teaspoon of each of the powdered spices. I keep these premixed in a separate container. Stir these into the porridge and your oatmeal Qi tonic porridge is done.

One further addition I enjoy adding is some dried or chopped fresh fruit such as berries, apple, pear or banana which I  cook with the oatmeal.

Serve it warm in a bowl with almond milk or fresh goat or cow’s milk.

The above is enough for two servings.

Hopefully many of you will be inspired to include tonic Chinese herbs as part of your personal health care. They can be taken in formula, in teas, powders, or with food.

Following are a few sources for purchasing Chinese tonic herbs such as those described in this article.

MayWay Herbs https://www.mayway.com

Chinese Herbs Direct https://bit.ly/3bWUeeC


Dragon Herbs

460 S. Robertson Blvd

Los Angeles CA

(310) 917-2288



Five Flavors Herbs
344 40th Street
Oakland, CA 94609

(510) 923-0178



Star Herbs & Ginseng

2318 Stevens Creek Blvd

San Jose, CA 95128


The Herb Room

1130 Mission St

Santa Cruz, CA 95060

(831) 429-8108

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