[Editor's note: Due to the length of this article, it will run in two installments, starting here with the first 25 herbs. The author uses terminology with which most of our readers are familiar, but briefly, the three treasures of Chinese medicine are "Jing" (essence), "Qi" (energy), and "Shen" (spirit). To achieve health, these treasures are balanced by bringing yin (deficient) or yang (excessive) qualities into equalibrium by using herbs, diet, meditation, exercise, lifestyle changes, etc.] See Part 2 of this article.
Chinese tonic herbalism is the most sophisticated and effective herbal system in the world. It differs from other herbal systems in that it emphasizes the promotion of health rather than the elimination of disease. In this sense, tonic herbalism is extremely similar to qigong. Though qigong offers a wide variety of remedial exercises and techniques, quite clearly the emphasis is on developing superior health and spiritual power by performing exercises that harmonize the body, mind and spirit, that develop the Three Treasures, Jing, Qi and Shen, that integrate the organs, and help us harmonize with the environment and the universe.
Of the several thousand herbs used in the Chinese herbal system, there is an elite group of about fifty herbs known as the "Superior Herbs." These very special herbs have also become known as the "tonic" herbs of Chinese herbalism.
The tonic herbs have traditionally been used by the people of China and other Asian societies to enhance vitality and lengthen life. The most extraordinary of the tonic herbs have routinely been used by the wisest people in Asia because they were believed to possess profound life-enhancing benefits. These superior herbs are not considered to be "medicinal" in the usual sense of the word. They are not used to treat or to prevent specific diseases or disorders (though modern medical researchers have discovered many such uses for the tonic herbs). The tonics are used to promote overall well-being, to enhance the body's energy, and to regulate the bodily and psychic functioning so as to create what the Chinese call "radiant health."
Radiant health is defined in China as "health beyond danger." Radiant health is dependent upon one's ability to adapt appropriately to all the stresses that one encounters in the course of one's life. The tonic herbs are said to provide adaptive energy that helps us handle stress much more easily. It is possible to develop a very high degree of adaptability to the many changes that constantly take place in our lives. And by overcoming stressful circumstances successfully, we grow as human beings. Many people have discovered that health is not as difficult to obtain as happiness and true mastery. The tonic herbs have served as a primary tool of Daoist and Buddhist masters for thousands of years.
Only herbs that meet specific qualifications are considered "tonic." For an herb to be recognized as a tonic (a superior herb), it must have been found over many centuries to have profound general health-promoting actions that result in a long and healthy life. Secondly, the tonics must have no negative side-effects when used reasonably, so they may be taken continuously over a long period of time if desired, yielding cumulative, long-term benefits. This emphasis on safety is in accordance with the first law of Chinese herbalism"Do no harm." Thirdly, a tonic must be believed to affect the psyche so as to help improve one's state of spiritual and emotional well-being and happiness. Fourthly, many of the herbs in this category taste good. In fact, most of these tonic herbs are routinely used in healthy Chinese cooking. The tonic herbs are considered a food group in the Chinese diet.
The Chinese tonic herbs have always held a very special place in Chinese culture. The "superior herbs" have been associated with the highest qualities of living and thus are associated with the ideals of long life, radiant health, happiness, wisdom, physical vitality, adaptability, sexual vigor, mental acuity, slow aging, love, compassion, and harmonious relations with nature and with one's fellow human beings. The ultimate purpose of consuming Chinese tonic herbs is not to eradicate diseaseit is to achieve these ideal goals of living.
In order to achieve this kind of health and well-being, one must work on all aspects of one's life. But many practitioners of qigong in the west are not aware of the importance of tonic herbs in both their practice of qigong, and in their overall physical and spiritual development. It has become clear over many centuries that the great tonic herbs can make a major contribution toward ultimate well-being.
50 Tonic Herbs
There are currently fifty natural substances that are generally recognized as the major Chinese tonic herbs. These incomparable, legendary herbal substances have stood the test of time. Each has in its own right come to be recognized through many centuries of continuous use to be a remarkable life-enhancing tonic. These are the true supersonics, the greatest list of herbal substances in the world.
The following descriptions are not exhaustive. They present insight into these 50 great tonic herbs and provide the most important functions of each oneknowledge that every qigong practitioner should have. The information provided here is designed to lay the groundwork for a broader understanding of tonic herbalism. If you are a health care practitioner, you may read descriptions in a number of texts, including the author's most recent book, The Ancient Wisdom of the Chinese Tonic Herbs, published by Warner Books, that provides complete information on all of these herbs. In actual practice, most of these herbs are combined into formulations that may be consumed on a daily or otherwise regular basis to promote our long term health and well-being.
The herbs are presented here in alphabetical order for your ease in referencing them.
Agaricus mushroom is not a traditional Asian herb. It is a Brazilian rainforest herb that has won huge acceptance in Asia and is now commonly incorporated into Chinese tonic herbal formulations in China and Japan. It is among the premier immune system tonics of all known natural substances. It is the richest source in the world of a type of polysaccharide known as beta-glucans, which has been solidly established to be among nature's most potent immune potentiating substances. Agaricus has double-direction activity on the immune system. In other words, it may be used to bolster a deficient immune system, as occurs in cases involving infections, or Agaricus may be used to moderate an excessive system, as occurs in cases of auto-immune disease and allergies. Agaricus may be used by anyone. In Japan, Agaricus is considered a "cure-all" herb.
Albizzia Bark and Flower
The bark and flower of this exotic tree are especially famous among the Chinese for use when one is experiencing emotional problems such as a broken heart and the experience of great loss. It is also used to help overcome excessive worry, fright, paranoia and insomnia. It is considered to be a shen tonic that nourishes the heart and strengthens the body. Both the bark and the flower are considered to have these qualities. The flower is more rare and is more emotionally uplifting. It is believed to be one of the ultimate shen tonics. The bark is more sedative.
American Ginseng Root
American Ginseng, or Panax Quinquefolium, is a true ginseng family member even though it grows in North America. It contains phytochemicals known as saponins, that are similar to those found in Oriental ginseng (panax ginseng). However, American ginseng is considered to be a yin tonic herb, especially nourishing to the lungs, skin and stomach. It builds adaptive energy without the warming effects of Asian ginseng and is thus the ginseng of choice for overly Yang people. American ginseng is extremely popular in China. The wild variety is far superior to the cultivated, but is much rarer and much more costly.
Wild Asparagus root is a marvelous shen tonic and yin tonic. It was credited by Chinese wise men and women as being able to open the heart, prolong life, and also to tonify the sexual functions of both men and women. It is also traditionally used in Chinese herbalism as a major lung tonic, and is widely used to add luster to the skin. It is also said that those who consume Asparagus over a long period of time come to feel so light and buoyant that they feel like they can fly.
One of the most important herbs in the world, Astragalus is the main herb in a wide range of tonic formulations. It is said to strengthen the "upright qi" which supports our posture and the position of the organs. Astragalus has been used for over 2000 years to strengthen the body as a whole. It has been recognized as a superb and potent immune system tonic by modern researchers. Astragalus has also been found to be a tonic to bone marrow. Astragalus is believed by the Oriental people to strengthen muscle and improve metabolic functions.
Atractylodes is an important and potent qi (energy) tonic that is famous for regulating the digestive functions and as a powerful energy booster. This tonic variety of Atractylodes is known as "White Atractylodes." It is widely used in China by athletes and martial artists, and in weight control programs. It has a mild diuretic action. Atractylodes may be used by anyone wishing to increase vitality.
Chinese Cinnamon bark is a strong essence (jing) tonic that promotes good circulation and powerful internal energy. It is sweet and spicy, and has a hot energy. Cinnamon bark is said to increase the yang energy and sexual vitality. The best Cinnamon bark in the world comes from Southeast Asia from trees where the bark is, at its best, over twenty years old.
This herb is used to strengthen the yang energy, and is famous in China as a sexual tonic which was used by Chinese royalty and by qigong practitioners. Cistanche builds deep strength and is quite revitalizing when used continuously for a period of time. It promotes healthy colon functioning. It is an excellent antiaging herb.
The small fruit is a superb tonic to the primal yang essence and is thus used in many tonics for both men and women. It is widely believed in the Orient to be a superb longevity herb and an excellent sexual tonic and stimulant. It is said to strengthen the bones.
This superb qi tonic is used in much the same manner as ginseng, and is considered to be an excellent substitute for ginseng in any formulation calling for basic ginseng, but requiring a gentler effect. It is favored over ginseng when ginseng's energy may be too strong or too warm. It is said to restore energy, balance the metabolism and stimulate the production of blood. It is also traditionally used to clear the lungs of mucous and as a tonic of special value to nursing mothers. It is said to help the skin become elastic, smooth and radiant and is thus used in many tonic formulations designed to increase both beauty and vitality. It is an excellent tonic to the immune system.
This rare and strange herb is considered to be a moderately yang primal essence (jing) tonic of the highest stature, in the same league as other major super-tonic herbs such as deer antler, reishi and ginseng. It is a mushroom that grows on the head of a particular kind of caterpillar in mountainous regions of Mongolia, Western China and Tibet. It has enormous renown as a tonic herb, and is said to build sexual and physical power, mental energy, the immune system. Cordyceps is universally believed in the Orient to prolong life and slow down aging.
This sour fruit plays an important role in many tonic formulations designed to build jing. It is said to be "astringent," thereby locking energy into the system and preventing the energy from "leaking" out. This is an important function to those practicing internal forms of qigong. It is a powerful yin jing tonic. It has a warm energy and is often considered aphrodisiac when combined with the appropriate herbs.
Cuscuta seed is commonly used in long term tonic programs, often in combination with cnidium seed. It is a gentle tonic for the kidney yin and yang, and also helps nourish qi. It helps the kidney to consolidate the qi . It is widely used to improve vision, nourish the sperm and marrow, strengthen bones and sinews and in particular to strengthen sexual functions.
Cynomorium is considered to be a superb tonic to the primal yang essence and is thus used in many tonics for both men and women. It is widely believed in the Orient to be a superb longevity herb and an excellent sexual tonic and stimulant. It is said to strengthen the bones. It is an excellent yang tonic for women.
Dang Gui (Tang Kuei) Root
Dang Gui, or Angelica sinensis, is used by men and women alike as a superb blood tonic. It is also an important blood vitalizing herb (e.g., it improves blood circulation). Men use it as a muscle-building blood tonic. However, Dang Gui is most famous as a women's tonic, because women so often use it as a blood tonic and to regulate the female menstrual cycle. It is found in most women's tonic preparations.
Deer Antler is widely believed in the Orient to strengthen all aspects of a person's life, and is considered to be an ultimate yang primal essence (jing) tonic. It is a warm tonic, although it is also known to contain yin jing. It is also a major blood tonic. Extracts of Deer Antler have been found to strengthen the central nervous system and the heart. Deer Antler is believed to strengthen the mind and to calm, yet enliven, the spirit (shen). Deer antler is universally believed throughout the Orient to invigorate sexual energy. Modern research indicates that Deer Antler 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 now widely believed to promote youthfulness as a result of this chemistry. The soft antler of the deer is removed from the deer when it has grown just two or three spikes and is still covered by velvet. The deer grows 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."
Certain varieties of Chinese orchid are an excellent yin essence (jing) tonic and longevity herb. There are several species and varieties of Dendrobium available. Dendrobium is said to quickly and effectively replace spent "adaptive energy." It is widely used in the Orient by those who engage in a lot of sexual activity to replace the spent energy and to replace fluids; and thus it is commonly called "honeymooners tea." When combined with licorice root, it is also called "healer's tea," because it is said to provide healing energy which can be transmitted to others and replace the spent healing energy. Thus body workers, other hands-on healers, and all those who give of themselves from their soul, benefit by consuming Dendrobium. It has been widely used both by Daoist masters and by the Chinese elite.
Epimedium is widely known as a powerful tonic and sexual stimulant. Epimedium is known as "horny goat weed" because when goats eat it, they copulate. It is considered by Oriental people to be a powerful aphrodisiac. Scientific research has confirmed that Epimedium quickly releases sex hormones in men and women. Epimedium is also said to strengthen the bones and joints. It is also known to calm and relax the heart. Recent research indicates that Epimedium is a strong immune system regulator.
Eucommia is a superb yang jing tonic, used to strengthen the back (especially the lower back), skeleton, and joints (especially the knees and ankles). Eucommia is believed to confer strength and flexibility to the ligaments and tendons. It is often used by qigong practitioners, martial artists, and other athletes to strengthen the entire body. It has been found to help regulate blood pressure, and is believed in China to be a safe and effective sex tonic for men and women.
The Gecko lizard that inhabits southern China is widely used in the Orient in tonic formulations. The tail and backbone of the Gecko are used traditionally as a warming yang tonic. It is a favorite among athletes for strength and endurance and is said to provide sexual energy. It is also traditionally used as a major lung tonic, as it is said to enhance the extraction of energy (qi) from the air. Gecko strengthens the kidneys.
Ginkgo is used in China to improve circulation. The leaves of the Ginkgo tree are used in the Orient to "benefit the brain," by improving memory and the ability to concentrate. It is now known that Ginkgo biloba leaf extract improves oxygen supplies to the brain and other organs, including the genitals and skin. It is also traditionally used to strengthen the heart and lungs.
Oriental Ginseng is one of the most famous and valued herbs used by mankind, Panax Ginseng is an energy tonic that regulates the human energy system. It has been shown to be stimulating and regulatory to both the central nervous system and to the endocrine system. It is the primary qi tonic of Chinese tonic herbalism.
Ginseng helps a person to adapt to all kinds of stresses, and enhances endurance and resilience under stressful conditions. It has thus been termed an "adaptogenic" substance by scientific researchers. Ginseng is also used to tonify digestive and respiratory functions. Ginseng contains many active ingredients, but the most important are the saponins called ginsenosides. Ginsenosides specifically improve adaptability and are believed to help build muscle and endurance. Therefore ginseng is very popular with athletes. Ginseng generally has a "warm" energy.
There are in fact many varieties of ginseng, all of which have distinct characteristics. Most high quality ginseng is good for men and women alike. 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. Ask for advice as to which might be best for you. Beware of cheap ginseng products, because they are often made from immature roots that have imbalanced chemistry. These cheaper ginseng products account for ginseng's unfortunate reputation for increasing tension or for causing headaches, or even high blood pressure. Mature, high quality ginseng will not have side effects.
Gynostemma is popularly believed in Asia to be an anti-aging, longevity herb. Gynostemma is generally reinforcing to overall health, has a strong anti-fatigue effect. It is also used throughout the Orient as a virtual "cure-all." Gynostemma is a major adaptogenic herb, in the same league as Panax Ginseng, Siberian Ginseng, Reishi, Schizandra and Astragalus.
In China, Gynostemma is widely believed to reduce oxygen deficiency at high altitudes, to improve digestion, to strengthen the mind, and to improve sexual functions. It is also believed to help calm the nerves and to ease pain.
The ultimate greatness of Gynostemma lies in its broad spectrum adaptogenic quality. It has double-direction activity in many areas. It has the ability to bring balance to the body under a wide range of stressful circumstances. Constant consumption of Gynostemma tends to have a highly protective quality because it strengthens the adaptive capacity of the person at every level of their life. The chemical constituents responsible for the adaptogenic characteristic of Gynostemma are saponins called gypenosides.
Gynostemma contains more than eighty different gypenosides. This is the broadest range of saponins in one plant in nature. Ginseng, for example has about thirty six saponins (ginsenosides) and Astragalus has about thirty two saponins (astragalosides). These gypenosides are very similar to the of ginseng and to the eleutherosides of Siberian ginseng. In fact, four of Gynostemma's saponins are precisely the same chemical structure as the saponins found in ginseng and eleven more are almost identical. The similarities are so close and so extensive that Gynostemma is now called "southern ginseng." To the local people who grow it and consume it, it is simply called "magical grass."
Studies indicate that Gynostemma has a double-direction, regulating, adaptogenic influence of the central nervous system. It is calming when one is overexcited and stimulating when one is depressed. Japanese studies have shown that Gynostemma is clinically useful in a number of mental and neurological conditions, including simple depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.
Though Gynostemma is regarded as a tonic herb, it is already perceived by many Asian people to be a "cure all." In China, Gynostemma is being used to treat inflammation, stop cough, as an expectorant to remove sputum, to treat chronic bronchitis, and much more in actual clinical practice in Asia.
This special fruit, sometimes called "red date," though it is not a true date, has been used since ancient times as a nutrient tonic, a blood cleanser, and as an important adjunctive herb to other tonics, especially in combination with ginseng and Dang Gui. Jujube is universally believed in the Orient to build strength and extend life. Jujube is slightly sedative and laxative and removes obstructions of the energy flow. Jujube is often used with ginseng to bolster ginseng's beneficial effects.
Chinese Licorice root is also one of the greatest herbs known to mankind. Licorice root builds energy and is an excellent digestive tonic. It is a broad spectrum natural detoxifying agent, ridding the body of over 1200 known toxins without any distressful side-effects. It also helps regulate the blood sugar level, helping counteract hypoglycemia, a very common imbalance. Licorice root also provides basic nutrients to the adrenal glands. Licorice helps build and strengthen muscle, and it is a natural muscle relaxer. It is very sweet and adds a delicious flavor to herbal teas. Licorice is included in many Chinese herbal teas and formulations because it is said to harmonize all the ingredients in an herbal formula. Pure Licorice root is very powerful and should be used in small quantities.
Ron Teeguarden has been practicing daoism and a variety of specific Daoist healing arts for over 30 years. Ron has spent many years studying in China and Japan. He studied with the legendary Daoist master Sung Jin Park in the 1970s, and as Master Park's primary student, took a vow to spread daoism in America. He was the co-founder of the Acupressure Workshops in Venice and Berkeley, Calif. Ron co-developed the acupressure technique known as Jin Shin Do. Ron has taught the Daoist healing arts to thousands of people. He wrote the classic book Chinese Tonic Herbs published by Japan Publications in 1985. His most recent book, "The Ancient Wisdom of the Chinese Tonic Herbs", published by Warner Books is available from our Qi Catalog. Ron is the developer of the Dragon Herbs line of superior tonic herbal products, which are also available through Qi Catalog.
© Qi Journal, Winter 2001-2002 issue