Herbal Tonics – How to Use Them to Strengthen Blood and Qi and Build Vitality ( with a recipe for tonic soup)
To tonify means to strengthen and support. Chinese herbalism classifies tonics into 4 categories, depending on whether they strengthen and reinforce Yin, Yang, Qi or Blood. Ayurveda describes a category of tonifying treatments as rasayanas, meaning rejuvenation. As described by KP Khalsa in The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs, rasayanas “promote strength, immunity, vitality, and youthfulness.” They are primarily used for antiaging.
Today we have an epidemic of chronic disease largely perpetuated by high levels of stress, fast-paced lifestyles, poor dietary choices, and other miscellaneous contributors like microorganisms and genetic tendencies. The Western allopathic model of medicine excels at treating medical emergencies but historically performs poorly when used (or misused) to treat chronic disease. It is perhaps more critical today than ever before to tap into more Traditional time-worn methods of supporting the body to heal during these periods of stress.
There are many different herb choices and methods of preparing herbs for tonification, depending on what in the body needs supplementing and support. When we tonify, we are effectively correcting a deficiency. In Chinese medicine, Qi and Blood are considered 2 important fundamental substances that contribute to proper formation and functioning of the body, and deficiency of either causes imbalance.
“Qi is the fundamental activating force and energy of life…Qi is the all-pervasive animating force of nature”, says herbalist and OMD Michael Tierra. Qi transforms, transports, holds, raises up, protects and warms the body. It is present and vital to all bodily biochemical and physiological processes. Sometimes it is referenced together with Yang (Yang Qi), the energetic properties of the body that are its vital force responsible for movement, functional processes, and catabolism. There are various classifications of Qi and different influences on its formation. One important influence that we can work with is what we acquire from our environment, namely air, water, and food (including herbs and medicine). This is called Food Qi or Grain Qi.
Blood in Chinese medicine includes the red nourishing fluid referenced by Western medicine, but its definition is much broader. It is considered a denser, more material form of Qi than Yang Qi, and is one constituent of what is known as Yin. Yin is associated with cool, fluid, dense, anabolic, and nourishing properties of the body. Blood’s primary physiological function is nourishment of the body and mind.
The relationship of Blood and Qi is one of mutual benefit and reliance. “‘Qi is the commander of Blood. Blood is the mother of Qi’” as quoted by Michael Tierra succinctly describes this relationship. Qi moves Blood and brings it to life, and is also one of the essential constituents that make up Blood. Blood, in turn, provides the nourishment and foundation for the creation of Qi.
Blood and Qi deficiencies often co-exist and can be treated simultaneously. It is difficult to link aberrant TCM patterns to specific Western diagnoses, as TCM patterns can exist in multiple and varied Western disease states. However, symptoms of each pattern can be readily identified.
Today we have an epidemic of chronic disease largely perpetuated by high levels of stress, fast-paced lifestyles, poor dietary choices, and other miscellaneous contributors like microorganisms and genetic tendencies. It is perhaps more critical today than ever before to tap into more Traditional time-worn methods of supporting the body to heal during these periods of stress.
Blood Deficiency Signs:
- dry hair, skin, and nails
- lethargy and tiredness
- scanty menses
- poor memory
- numbness in limbs
Blood deficiency is sometimes seen with conditions like anemia and menopause.
Qi Deficiency Signs:
- general tiredness and weakness or exhaustion
- spontaneous sweating
- inability to cope with stress
- frequent colds and flu
- frequent urination
- edema or swelling of the face
- shortness of breath
- weak cough
- loose stools
- prolonged menses with light flow
- sinking or collapsed Qi (causing organ prolapse, hemorrhoids, urgency or incontinence, urinary frequency)
Qi deficiency is common in the West and can be seen in conditions like adrenal exhaustion amongst others.
A very common and efficacious method of formulating Qi and Blood tonics is to add them to food. Since Blood and Qi production both rely on food, using Blood and Qi promoting foods strengthened by herbal tonics is a good way to habituate healing behaviors. Generally, warm and sweet tasting herbs and foods tonify and build Qi. Blood is strengthened by heavy and moist Yin building properties and assisted to circulate by the moving properties of the bitter and pungent tastes. Tonic formulas should be balanced so that neither Yin nor Yang predominates to the point of being overbearing and damaging to the other, and traditionally small amounts of qualities opposite to the primaries are added to achieve this. Also, helper herbs are often included to harmonize the formula and assist with its circulation and absorption in the body.
Blood and Qi Tonifying Soup (adapted from The Tao of Nutrition)
1 lb chicken legs (or 1/4 cup beans as a vegetarian option)
1/2 cup brown basmati rice
3 cups chopped vegetables (like celery, carrots, parsnips, sweet potato, onion)
sprig of fresh thyme
sprig of fresh sage
salt and pepper to taste
2 garlic cloves chopped
6-8 cups herbal decoction (as base)
Add all ingredients except any leafy vegetables to slow cooker. Cook on high for 3-4 hours. Leafy veggies may be added in the last 30 mins. (After 1-2 hours, chicken legs may be removed and meat cut off, and returned to pot)
Blood and Qi Tonic Decoction:
Mix 30 – 90 G of tonic herbs in a formulation. Add to 8-10 cups of cold water. Bring to low boil and then gently simmer. Reduce to 6-8 cups over at least 1hour. Strain herbs, and reserve decoction liquid as base for soup. Herbs and water can also be added directly to the soup pot with other ingredients and decocted with the soup while it cooks. However, make sure you are using herbs that are easily separated for removal after the soup is finished.
Herbal formulations should be based on individual assessment and treatment goals. The amount of each herb used will vary according to standards for its usage.
Below I give a brief summary of some Blood and Qi
Panax Ginseng (Ren Shen): Perhaps the most well known Qi tonic, generally used for low energy and digestive imbalance due to weakness. This herb is used with caution and is contraindicated for heat signs and high blood pressure. Dosages are relatively low.
Lycium Chinensis (Lycii Berry): Blood and Qi tonic. Protects the liver, nourishes Blood, improves eyesight. Also used for diabetes. Do not use in cases of diarrhea, dampness or excess heat.
Angelica Sinensis (Dang Gui): Blood tonic and demulcent. Moves and nourishes Blood. Tonic for anemia (especially when combined with Astragalus root). Helpful in menstrual irregularities, traumatic injury, and constipation. Do not use in cases of diarrhea.
Polygonum Multiflorum (Fo-Ti Root): Blood
Codonopsis Pilosula (Dang Shen): Tonifies Qi. A substitute for Ginseng, but milder, so higher doses are recommended. Useful for prolapsed organs, or any condition where Qi is depleted.
Glycyrrhiza Uralensis (Licorice Root/Gan Cao): Used in small amounts to harmonize other herbs in the formula. A demulcent Qi tonic, beneficial for Qi and Blood. It is anti-inflammatory and soothing. Do not use in edema, high blood pressure or fluid retention. Women should use in small doses.
Zingiber Officinale (Ginger/Sheng Jiang): Acts as a catalyst that promotes circulation and absorption of other herbs. Supports deficient kidney yin and yang caused by exhaustion.
Amomum Villosum (True or Black Cardamom/Sha Ren): Acts as a catalyst and promoter like Ginger.
If you are Qi deficient, and sensitive to change, taking Qi tonics earlier in the day is probably a good idea. They can tend to have energy boosting effects which are not necessarily what you want later in the evening. Winter time is the perfect season for enjoying a warm cup of
Always discern your patterns of imbalance before using tonic herbs (or any herbs for that matter). You only want to
- Tierra, M. & Tierra, L. (1998). Chinese Traditional Medicine Vol. 1: Diagnosis and Treatment. Wisconsin: Lotus Press.
- Tierra, M. & Tierra, L. (2011). Chinese Traditional Medicine Vol. 2: Materia Medica and Herbal Resource. Wisconsin: Lotus Press.
- Ni, M. & McNease, C. (2012). The Tao of Nutrition. Los Angeles: The Tao of Wellness Press.
- Khalsa, K. & Tierra, M. (2012). The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs. Wisconsin: Lotus Press.
- Tierra, M. & Tierra, L. (2011). East West Herb Course Book: Section 3. California.
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