Here's the second installment in my series about Chinese herbal medicine and the herbs that traditional Chinese and Western herbal remedies have in common. I hope that many fruitful conversations will grow from seeing these two traditions work side by side.
Qi, sometimes explained as vital energy or life force, is the energetic current of the body, and we acupuncturists spend a lot of time talking about it. It’s our version of electricity, so to speak. From a biological perspective, I like to compare it to ATP, the force driving our cellular machinery. Qi is moving, immaterial, and heavenly.
Many of the Qi tonics in Chinese medicine are seen as adaptogens and immunostimulants in the Western herbal tradition.
Regardless of what you call it or how you classify it, these herbs are seen as tonics addressing deficiencies of various degrees. Because we’re discussing Qi tonics, these herbs will go to the Lungs, the Spleen-Stomach, or both. These organs are the source of Qi production in the body. This means, they have a particular affinity for the Chinese medicine concept of these organs, not the organs themselves.
Asian Ginseng, known in Chinese as Ren Shen, is one of the most famous herbs. Even people who know nothing about herbs have heard of ginseng. In my opinion, this is well deserved. Ginseng has some miraculous properties.
In Chinese medicine, we say it tonifies the Source Qi, the basis of all metabolic functions in the body. It also benefits the organs responsible for making Qi, the Lung and Spleen-Stomach, ensuring future creation of Qi. It can calm the Spirit-Mind and nourish fluids, too. It is usually used in cases of collapse (cold limbs and the desire to curl into a ball, spontaneous sweating, shortness of breath and the like), digestive insufficiency, and palpitations with insomnia or anxiety.
In addition to the traditional contraindication of avoiding eating turnips or drinking tea (all caffeinated beverages nowadays) while taking ginseng, it is best avoided in patients with signs of excess Heat (red face, fever, bleeding, headaches or dizziness accompanied by a feeling of the top of the head being about to pop off, etc.) or excess phlegm (copious phlegm with a hacking cough). Signs that you’re taking too much ginseng are headaches, insomnia, irritability, anxiety, hypertension, nausea and vomiting.
A more modern contraindication is in the case of parasitic infection. There is a concern that the ginseng would tonify the parasite while it also tonifies (or instead of, perhaps) the patient. In its place, we favor Eleuthero / Ci Wu Jia Shen, which I discuss below.
Ginseng is one of the few herbs in the Chinese materia medica that is considered appropriate for use without other herbs. This is a stark contrast to other herbs in a system based on poly-pharmacy. It is used singly as a rescue measure when someone is on the verge of collapse or grave illness. This, plus its other properties and unique growing needs, has made ginseng very expensive. Accordingly, since ginseng is so precious, we recommend double decoction to make sure all of its medicinal constituents are extracted.
You can also break off the ginseng "tails" or rootlets to make a good cup of tea rather than a medicinal decoction. Used this way with cinnamon bark, you have a great way to fend off the cold chill from air conditioners during the summer. You can also make medicinal wines (or alcohol tincture) from the tails, and drink a shot-glassful daily. Another use for the tails is an addition to your favorite soup stock to “kick it up a notch”.
One final note, American Ginseng (Xi Yang Shen, Panax quinquefolius), of Wisconsin fame, is totally different in the Chinese materia medica from Ren Shen. They are both tonics, but American ginseng is seen to nourish Fluids to moisten Dryness more than Ren Shen, which tonifies the Qi strongly. That aside, it’s also a great addition to soup stocks during the summer when a cooling, moistening effect is desired.
Eleuthero is one of my favorite herbs. I believe it is deeply underappreciated by Chinese medicine herbalists. That said, proper combining of this herb is required for maximum benefit. I wouldn't use it as the only Qi tonic in a formula for this reason; instead it should be combined with other herbs to accentuate certain properties.
Also known as "Siberian ginseng", from a Chinese medicine perspective eleuthero tonifies the Spleen and Kidneys, which is very different from the other herbs mentioned here. This means that there’s a tonification happening at the root of the body’s physiology in addition to the splenic level of day-to-day Qi production. The kind of fatigue that eleuthero would be good for according to these functions is a fatigue that comes with sore, weak, aching low back and knees, and a sense of heaviness in the body.
Eleuthero also calms the Spirit-Mind and invigorates the Blood, so it is good for insomnia, profuse dreaming and mild depression accompanied by fatigue.
As I mentioned above, eleuthero has the unique property of tonifying the host without the risk of tonifying parasites at the same time. This makes it a good herb to use in cases of deficiency during treatment of parasitic infections.
Traditionally, rhodiola is a medicinal in the Tibetan materia medica. In Tibet, it is widely used for altitude sickness. Rhodiola has only recently gained popularity in Chinese medicine for its incredible adaptogenic effect. There has been much research on the topic, as a quick Google search will reveal. Personally, I found it useful when I was running daily and needed to improve my recovery time.
Like Ren Shen, rhodiola tonifies the Spleen-Stomach and Lung. It has the additional actions of engendering and activating the Blood, making it a good addition to formulas for physical traumas or burns. These two actions point to why it is such a good herb for athletes and people living very stressful lifestyles.
Sources disagree about rhodiola’s ability to have an effect on the Heart. In this instance, the “Heart” is actually referring to the Spirit-Mind. Some believe that the herb is calming and others that it has no effect on the Spirit-Mind at all.
Since it is a cooling medicinal (like white Ren Shen, but unlike red Ren Shen), it can be used more readily in cases where there are signs of Heat.
Astragalus has three particularly important functions as a Qi tonic. First off, it’s lifting, which means it’s great when there are cases of prolapse due to deficiency and low energy (we say, "when the Clear Yang Qi is not rising to the head." I think the phrase is a good metaphor.
Secondly, with other herbs to tonify the Blood, it has the ability to build Qi to make Blood. This may be anemia, or it could be a sallow complexion, brittle nails and hair and dry skin. One of my teachers used to say that Dong Quai was the blueprint for the blood and Huang Qi (astragalus) was the energy to build the building. This is a classic pair for treating blood deficiency in Chinese medicine.
Thirdly, it strengthens the Defensive Qi, our version of the immune system. Because astragalus has an up-bearing nature, it is able to reach the most superficial Qi in the body. This is called Defensive Qi because it is the first Qi to encounter pathogens invading from the Exterior through the skin (see my first post’s section about 6 Stages Diagnosis). Being active in the exterior, astragalus is also useful for cases of spontaneous sweating.
Since astragalus has an affinity for the Lungs and Spleen, it is also able to affect water metabolism in the body for edema due to deficiency. This kind of edema will be relatively superficial in the skin layer rather than deeper edema in the flesh.
Astragalus is another common addition to soup stock. It is commonly used with Dong Quai, but adding Goji berries would be appropriate, too.
In my next post, I will write about blood tonics that Chinese and Western herbal medicine share...
About Dylan Stein
We’re excited to share a bit of the Chinese herbal medicine perspective from acupuncturist Dylan Stein. Dylan specializes in dermatology, men’s health, and pain management. In addition to acupuncture, he also passionately practices Chinese herbal medicine and will be joining us over the next few months to introduce us to this ancient healing practice!
For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by
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