An Introduction to Chinese Herbs

The subject of Chinese herbs is so vast and I don’t believe any blog can give you anywhere close to complete information. This first blog is just an introduction to some common herbs that you may have heard about or seen in Asian grocery stores.

A little disclaimer first: I wouldn’t want any of you to start taking herbs without talking to a qualified herbalist about your specific health issues and constitution. It is also important to note that most herbalists in the Asian tradition will give you a formula instead of single herbs. The formulas are designed to correct imbalances in health that show up for various reasons while modifying the formula to negate any side effects. Mostly we don’t recommend you take this or that herb singly because you heard it was “good for your health”.

Some herbs are more like food and can be cooked in food or made as a tea. Food can heat or cool down your body depending on the properties contained within so it is important to be aware of your internal climate before putting something in your mouth.  You may love chiles for instance, but if you are always hot and uncomfortable in the heat, they may not be the best thing for you at this time.  Just like food, herbs also have a temperature and a flavor along with specific properties that make it easier to match the herbs with a condition and a constitution.  Let us start with ginseng and some of the tonic herbs which you may have heard about.

Ginseng is an herb that is known as an adaptogen and is supposed to be good for many conditions. In Chinese medicine we are more conservative. We believe that you match the herb or the formula to what is going on in that person at the time of treatment. There are three common types of ginseng all with different temperatures and used for completely different conditions.

Panax Quinqufolium Panax ginseng or ren shen Korean Ginseng
American Ginseng White Ginseng Red Ginseng
xi yang shen bai shen hong shen
cool to cold warm Hot
Yin tonic Qi tonic Strong Qi tonic
Reduces heat promotes body fluids creates heat
for low grade fever for extreme weakness for extreme weakness/cold


For American Ginseng For Panox and Korean Ginseng:
Cold and dampness in the Stomach Headaches, anger, palpitations, insomnia,
pregnancy, manic depression, schizophrenia
Hypertension, Yin deficiency, heat signs

A safe substitute for self administration if you are not sure what ginseng to use is
Codonopsis Root or Dang Shen
Neutral temperature
Supports the Lung and the Spleen Qi
Contraindications: Viral or bacterial infection (same for most herbs considered tonics).

Another popular tonic herb is;
Astragalus or Huang Qi
Slightly warm and sweet
Builds up the immune system but once again don’t use it if you have a virus or bacteria. Huang qi is good for low energy and it helps regulate water balance in the body.
Contraindicated for deficient Yin and people with excess symptoms

Dang gui or Chinese angelica root
Angelica Sinensis
Warm sweet and spicy
Nourishes blood and invigorates blood
Action on the uterus increases contractions and also relaxes the muscle of the uterus used in painful menses and in amenorrhea (stopped menses)
No hormonal effect
Contraindicated with diarrhea or abdominal bloating or fullness

Some other herbs that are commonly found in Asian grocery stores

Aduki bean or chi xiao dou (little red bean)
Neutral sweet and sour
Helps with obesity
Contraindicated in dryness conditions

Job’s tears or Yi Yi ren
Slightly cool, bland
regulates water metabolism
Stops diarrhea
Relieves spasms and arthritic pain

Shitake mushroom
Neutral sweet
Supports the qi
Strengthens the immune system
Believed to have a strong anti tumor activity, extract used in Japan for people on cancer

Kudzu or ge gen
Neutral and sweet
Used most commonly for stiff neck and shoulders
good for colds, flu or diarrhea
cook with rice porridge

Licorice or gan cao
Neutral and sweet
Qi tonic
Detoxifies (used to modify the effect of strong herbs)
Anti spasmodic an relieves pain
Antitussive and expectorant
Used for gastric ulcers
Long term use contraindicated for people with high blood pressure