tonic herbs, Michele Vergara, Andres Vergara, VoiceAmerica



In Chinese medicine and Taoist traditions, there is a rich and nuanced understanding of how herbs can be used to prevent disease and promote radiant health, in much the same way we might use vitamins in the west.  These herbs are referred to as tonic herbs or adaptogens because they can be taken regularly and consistently, as a result, often used as super foods.  These herbs promote health and longevity and help the body to adapt to emotional, physical and chemical stressors.  They can help people recover strength and vitality after chronic illness or health issues, such as cancer.  On the March 19th episode of Holistic Healing with Herbs and Chinese Medicine, we devote the entire show to discussing tonic herbs, how they work, and their benefits.

Herbs can and have been used for many millennia to heal the body and promote longevity.  In Chinese medicine, this tradition of using herbs in formulation to tonify the body and its vital organs and processes was developed and honed by the Taoists.  There are legendary stories about Taoist masters, typically hermits who resided deep in the mountains, who lived to be 200 or even up to 500 years of age.  There is a documented case of one man, named Li Ch’ing Yuen who lived to be 252 years old and used herbs, food, and Taoist nei gong (inner meditation practices).  For more information about nei gong, you can listen the February 19th episode of Holistic Healing with Herbs and Chinese Medicine, titled Qi Gong: The Spiritual Science Behind Chinese Medicine. 

Official Chinese government records date his birth to 1678 in the southwest of China and document his death in 1930.  He was told when he turned 50 to consume a soup of goji berry or lyciium chinensis by an old man he met who, despite his advanced age, seemed to be in better health and could out walk Yuen.  He consumed this until he was 130 years old. At the age of 130 he met a Taoist hermit who claimed to be 500 years old.  The Taoist hermit suggested he consume panax ginseng or red ginseng (ren shen) combined with polygonum multiflorum (he shou wu) daily, as well as taught him nei gong.  Yuen ate little meat, few root vegetables, and limited whole grains, instead eating steamed above ground vegetables and herbs.  He lived another 122 years, dying at 252 years of age, reportedly after a banquet honoring him held by a government official. Ron Teeguarden shares this excellent story in his book Tonic Herbs, which is a great resource on Chinese tonic herbs (or his newer version Radiant Health: the Ancient Wisdom of Chinese Tonic Herbs).

In countries like China there are persistent stories of extreme longevity due to the consumption of herbs and the practice of internal meditation qi gong practices. The Taoist art of longevity is known as the art of radiant health. In Chinese culture herbs were traditionally used daily as a preventive medicine by the elite classes, much in the same way we use vitamins in the west.  Specific herbal blends can be tailored to the season to promote health and prevent illness.  There is a traditional Chinese saying that mirrors this, which is “Treating someone who is sick is like making weapons after the war has started.” This saying sums up the idea that by maintaining the health of the physical body illness is prevented.  Not everyone in our culture has the foresight to think 30 or 40 or 50 years ahead in terms of their health.  This is the wisdom of tonic herbalism and qi gong – focusing daily on cultivating radiant health naturally prevents illness and dis-ease which in turn increases longevity.

Chinese medicine overall as a healthcare system has a much greater sensitivity to the precursors of illness and disease, the subtle indicators in terms of emotional, mental, and physical health, which is a reflection of it’s Taoist influences. In western medicine, health problems are often not acknowledged and treated until the issue reaches the point of diagnosis.  This is one of the rich gifts of Chinese medicine, that it focuses not simply about preventing illness but about the specific ways you can cultivate health and wellness.

How Do Tonic Herbs Work

Herbs are classified as tonic herbs because they have no negative side effects and can therefore be taken in large doses over long periods.  All traditional systems (that we are familiar with) classify herbs according to their effect on the body in terms of moisture and temperature, their energetic quality. Does the herb makes the body hotter, colder, dryer, or moister?  This is probably one of the most important contributions that traditional systems bring to practice of herbal medicine, as well as one of the key things that differentiates it from western medicine in terms of  how herbs are applied to specific conditions.

In Chinese medicine, herbs can be classified in various ways.  One way is the level of the body’s substances that it affects, either the yin, yang, qi, blood, or jing levels.  A second is the the empirical action of the herb, such as herbs that stop cough, alleviate pain, or stop bleeding. Thirdly, specific herbs are also described by their directional influence or part of the body they target (ie directing energy upward or to the lower body or to the head). Herbs are described by the organs and meridians they act on, as well, such as the kidney or heart or gallbladder meridian. Lastly, herbs also have a flavor that corresponds to the organs they target, with five flavors of salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and bitter.  In this article, we will mainly be describing tonic herbs according to the level of body substance that they affect.

Qi refers to the energy matrix within the body that animates and enlives us.  Yin refers mostly to substances such as the viscera and the fluids. Blood is an aspect of the yin that is an indicator of general health. For example too little blood will mean things like anxiety, palpitations, and insomnia because the heart and the liver will not be sufficiently nourished to provide restful sleep and a peaceful inner state of being. Blood tonic herbs tend to be moistening – literally moistening from the inside out.  Yang is on the continuum of qi the same way yin is on the continuum of blood.  The yin aspects are the fluids, organs and substances in the body, while the yang aspects are the energetic impulse that animates the body as well as aspects of the structure like the bones.This means that when one is low on qi or deficient in qi that, over time, the yang will become affected.  In the same way, long term blood deficiency will also influence the yin. Because both yang and yin are said to reside in the kidneys it is important to use tonic herbs that will provide kidney strength for longterm health and well being. The jing, also said to reside in the kidneys, is the essence, one of whose manifestations is in seminal fluids. By preserving jing through herbs and sexual practices that are non-ejaculatory and instead, focus on circulating the sexual energies, one can live a healthier and longer life.

One simple way to begin assessing which tonic herbs are best for you is to use the eight principles. The eight principles are: Yin and Yang, cold and hot, deficiency and excess, internal and external. Because herbs have different actions such as warming or cooling and can have different vectors of movement such as moving outwards or inwards, it is important to use the eight principles as a guide when deciding which herbs to use. You want to select herbs that reflect the opposite of the state of the body. For example, if you are deficient in yin energy, you will choose herbs that build the yin aspects of the body and are therefore cooling and moistening.

A person who is hot at night might have yin deficiency because this heat or yang-natured energy means there is likely not enough yin (cooling energy) to counter and balance the yang – night is the most yin time of day so if your yin is depleted you will be more aware of that at night. Likewise a very cold person may have a deficiency of yang energies. Also it is important to determine whether a person’s condition is one of deficiency which means that their reserves are low and that the organs are functioning sub optimally. Low spirit, weak pulse, low libido, sluggish memory, etc… will all be signs of deficiency. Excess refers to energy that is stuck or stagnate in the body, resulting in such a range of symptoms such as sharp or migrating pains, mograines or depression. And of course these are all also relative and will have various gradations depending on the individual. Internal refers to the health of the viscera, while external refers to the surface of the body such as a dermatological condition.

It is always best to have a trained practitioner of Chinese medicine to assess the best combination of tonic herbs, as they can assess the subtleties and complexities of the symptoms or signs to select the best combination of herbs. The tonic herbs are considered to be generally safe to take because of their ability to boost the chi, yin and yang and jing. They do have specific properties, organ affinities, and can be used in a targeted way to help someone heal, and are particularly useful in helping people recover strength and vitality after chronic illness or health issues.

We are including a short list of some of the more popular tonic herbs according to the level of body substance that they tonify or nourish, many of which can be found here in the United States.  The bulk herbs section of Mountain Rose Herbs offers excellent quality herbs and is a good source to find many of these.  This article, hopefully gives you a good taste of the benefits and possibilities tonic herbs offer for cultivating health and well being. 

Yin Tonics

American Ginseng or Panax quinquefolius or Xi yang Shen

Wild asparagus root (Chinese and ayurvedic version of this herb asparagus lucidus or asparagus raceomus or Shatavari is the Ayurvedic version– the difference is that the raceomus is not as cooling a tonic herb but has a more neutral flavor) Tian Men Dong is the Chinese version

Ophiopogon Japonici or Mai Men Dong

Yin and Yang Tonic

Schisandra chinenesis or wu wei zi

Yang Tonics

Eleutherococcus senticocus or Wu jia shen

Cinnamon bark or Rou Gui

Withania somnifera or ashwaganda (Ayurvedic herb)

Blood Tonics

Angelica sinensis or Dang Gui

Lyciium chinensis or Go Qi Zi

Paeonia lacitflora or Bai Shao (white peony)

Qi Tonics

Codonopsis Pilosula or Dang Shen

Astragalus membranaceus or Huang Qi

Zizyphus jujuba or Hong Zao (red jujube dates -nourishes the blood/yin too)

Glycyrrhizae uralensis or Gan Cao  (licorice root)

Jing Tonics

Polygonum Multiflorum or He shou wu

Royal Jelly or Feng wang (bee secretions)


Michele and Andres are both very passionate about the practice of Chinese medicine and qi gong. They have studied and practiced Chinese medicine for a combined total of over eighteen years. In 2011, they spent six months studying Chinese herbal medicine in a university hospital setting that emphasized the practice of integrated Chinese herbal and allopathic medicine. Michele and Andres both teach and write about Chinese and herbal medicine, such as speaking for the Natural Triad/Wake Forest Integrative Medicine Seminar Series and publishing in the Journal of the American Herbalist Guild. Michele, a professional member of the American Herbalist Guild (RH) and a Master of Public Health, integrates Chinese, Ayurvedic, and western herbs, nutritional therapy, and qi gong into her practice as an herbalist. She studied with Michael and Leslie Tierra at the East West School of Herbology where she is a certified herbalist. She serves on the board of the North Carolina Herb Association and is a member of the teaching faculty of the Academy of Integrated Medicine. Andres is an acupuncturist, herbalist, and teacher of qi gong, using solely Chinese herbs in his practice. He received his M.Ac. from Tai Sophia Institute in Maryland. He is currently licensed to practice in North Carolina, but has practiced in both North Carolina and Maryland.  He has studied with a variety of well-regarded teachers of Chinese medicine, including Lonnie Jarrett, Dr. Tan, and Bob Flaws. For more information, visit their website at, their Facebook page at Spirit Rising Herbs,LLC, or email them at