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15 Top Chinese Herbs & Superfoods to Boost Health
September 9, 2021
Herbal medicine is an integral part of Chinese culture and the practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine that has been used for thousands of years, and there are specific Chinese herbs used the most often. The emperor Shennong is said to have tasted 100 herbs, which allowed him to teach the Chinese people how to use them in their diets and treatment for illness.
These top Chinese herbs help the body stay in balance — nourishing the qi, or energy force that’s essential for overall health, and the jing, which is known as our essence.
Luckily, today we have access to these top Chinese herbs and gaining health naturally, using a holistic approach to healing, is essentially at our fingertips. By working to strengthen and nourish your vital organs and help your body maintain balance, even when faced with emotional and environmental influences, we can use Chinese herbs at home to stay healthy and vibrant.
What Are TCM Herbs?
Descriptions of herbal therapy using the top Chinese herbs occurs in the earliest texts of Chinese medical practice. It’s common for practitioners of Chinese medicine to prescribe herbs for physical and psychiatric symptoms.
These therapeutic herbs are known to help coordinate the natural balance of the yin and yang. This is the main principle of Traditional Chinese Medicine that has been practiced for thousands of years.
Disease in TCM is the result of interactions among different parts of the body and the environment. There’s the idea of the three treasures: qi, shen and jing.
Qi is our life source or bodily energy. When we experience too much stress, both mentally and physically, it can affect our qi and lead to problems such as stagnant energy within organs, like the liver and kidneys.
Shen is our spirit or mind. It’s what allows us to think and feel, and it’s responsible for our cognitive and emotional presence.
The final treasure is jing, which is our essence that determines our physical and energetic characteristics. Just like our qi, jing can also be diminished when we undergo too much stress. To keep our essence and vitality, we need to maintain a healthy, holistic lifestyle, eat a nutritious diet and turn to Chinese herbs when we need to restore balance.
How do you know that your jing is draining and needs to be “replenished” with Chinese herbs and lifestyle changes? You may notice signs of early aging, like bags under your eyes and hair loss, and you may begin to feel tired, unable to focus and even lifeless.
Practitioners of TCM believe that when your jing is deficient, your immune system suffers, and you are more likely to get sick. We need to manage stress with practices like acupuncture and time outdoors, eat well, and get enough rest in order to fuel our three treasures and keep them working harmoniously.
Another well-known and researched concept of TCM is the yin and yang, which are two opposing but complementary energies that must be balanced in order to achieve good health. If the body is too cold, too hot, too damp, sluggish, overwhelmed and the list goes on, Chinese herbs are used to restore balance and alleviate these symptoms.
Chinese medicine doesn’t separate the mind and body but believes, instead, that these two forces interact with each other. This is why Chinese herbs are often used to improve symptoms related to issues of both mental and physical health — or suffering from a qi deficiency.
Instead of targeting one specific symptom and possibly even masking the cause of the problem, these top Chinese herbs are meant to address the root of the issue.
For example, instead of treating depression as only a physiological issue, practitioners of Chinese medicine believe that depression has a somatic linkage that’s caused by a disruption of normal emotional activity and therefore causes excess stress and damage to the internal organs. Do you see how the emotional and physical symptoms are connected and need to be treated as a whole, interrelated issue?
Clearly, using Chinese herbs has a long history in TCM. It was once customary for Chinese families to have a repertoire of household herbal formulas that were used to treat a number of medical problems and address life changes (like pregnancy and menopause) and the seasons.
This practice continues today. Research published in the Western Journal of Medicine suggests that a typical practitioner of Chinese medicine may routinely use between 200 and 600 herbs or substances to treat his or her patients.
Oftentimes, physicians practicing TCM combine several herbs. One herb serves as the principal component, and the others work as adjunctive agents that assist the medicinal effects.
A practitioner assesses his or her patient’s signs and symptoms and then prescribes an herb or herbal combination with an overall goal to restore the person’s balance of yin and yang.
Top 15 Chinese Herbs and Superfoods
Chestnuts, or Castanea, are a group of trees that produce an edible nut. We call these nuts chestnuts and enjoy them for their mildly sweet taste.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, chestnuts are considered a warming food that nourishes the qi of the kidneys, spleen and digestive system.
Chestnuts contain antioxidants and fiber that help protect the heart and aid digestions. They are also excellent sources of manganese, vitamin C and B vitamins.
These nutrients give chestnuts the power to support bone health, improve brain function and boost the immune system.
Research also suggests that chestnut extract has a positive effect on the strain of beneficial probiotics that are found in the gastrointestinal tract. This can help improve gut health.
Chestnuts are commonly consumed after they are roasted. This promotes their warming and nourishing properties.
Schisandra berry, or wu wei zi, means “the fruit of five tastes” in Chinese because it has five distinct flavor properties: bitter, sweet, sour, salty and hot. Schisandra has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years, and it’s valued for its ability to work in multiple “meridians” within the body to help restore internal balance and health.
According to TCM practitioners, schisandra helps balance the three treasures, or cornerstones within the body — the jing, shen and qi. These treasures have shown to be essential energies for sustaining human life and balance.
Schisandra is also known for its “qi-invigorating” action. This is due, at least in part, to the berry’s ability to fortify our antioxidant status and protect us from both internal and external threats.
Schisandra is available in many forms, such as a tincture, powder, extract, capsule and tea.
Chinese people have used seaweed and marine organisms for their potent pharmacological activities for more than 3,600 years. Seaweed is widely present in the Asian diet, and observational studies show that it has a range of health benefits against chronic diseases, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.
There are actually 171 species of medicinal seaweeds in China, but some species are particularly popular in Chinese medicine. Kelp, a type of brown algae, works as a natural anti-inflammatory agent and contains iodine, a mineral that supports thyroid and cognitive health, while protecting you from certain kinds of cancer.
Different kinds of kelps are often used in Chinese medicine, like kunbu (or kombu in Japanese), which is used by practitioners to reduce phlegm, soften hardness and cleanse heat from the body.
Sargassum is a type of brown seaweed that’s been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for nearly 2,000 years. Research indicates that practitioners use it to treat a variety of conditions, including Hashimoto’s disease, inflammation, bacterial and viral infections, and cancer.
A 2021 study found that seaweed polysaccharides have significant neuroprotective and reparative activities, and they may even provide the next breakthrough in neurodegenerative disease treatment, according to researchers.
Foods that come from the sea, including seaweed and sea vegetables, are known to replenish your jing, increase your vital energy and support your immune system.
12. Eggs and Fish Roe
Eggs from birds and fish are commonly consumed in Chinese medicine to build jing, or your “essence.” Like your DNA, your jing determines your physical and energetic attributes.
As mentioned before, practitioners believe that your jing can leak from the body when you live a life with too much stress and anger or when you lack sleep.
Eating poultry and fish eggs is said to help preserve and even replenish your jing.
Consuming eggs helps promote your reproductive health, according to practitioners of Chinese medicine. Eggs are nutrient powerhouses, packed with important vitamins for reproduction, like vitamin B12, folate and vitamin D.
Research published in Clinical Interventions in Aging indicates that components of fish roe possess antioxidant and anti-aging activities, as it contains vitamins, proteins and unsaturated fatty acids.
11. Royal Jelly
Royal jelly is produced by young nurse bees and acts as a main source of food for the colony’s queen. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, royal jelly is used to fight respiratory conditions (including cough, sore throat, cold and flu), aid digestion and build endurance. It’s known to support the liver, kidneys and pancreas.
Royal jelly is also known for its protective effects on reproductive health, wound healing, neurodegenerative disorders and aging. In Chinese medicine, it’s used to normalize and regulate all body functions and nourish your jing, resulting in increased vitality and overall health.
Royal jelly is very potent, so you only need about half a teaspoon per day to obtain its many benefits. It can be eaten raw or mixed with honey to make a spread.
Miso paste, which is made from fermented beans, has been used traditionally to help battle a range of health conditions, including inflammation, fatigue, gastric ulcers, high blood pressure and digestive issues. Traditionally, miso is made by combining cooked soybeans and other legumes with a bacteria called koji.
Because miso is fermented, it’s brimming with probiotics that work to balance our good and bad gut bacteria. Studies show that this helps improve digestive energy and nourish qi so the digestive system can focus on breaking down foods, absorbing nutrients and promoting immune function.
In Chinese medicine, soup made with miso paste is used to boost the immune system and treat respiratory conditions, like sinus congestion or the common cold. It’s known as a warming food that energizes the body, and sometimes, seaweed is added to the soup to help expel phlegm.
It’s easy to find miso paste or miso soup in your local grocery store, but there are a few things you should keep in mind when looking through the products. Buy miso that’s been fermented for at least 180 days, and make sure that it’s certified organic miso that’s been refrigerated.
9. Organ Meats
Organ meats, or offal, can be enormously healthy and have been valued in Traditional Chinese Medicine for more than 3,000 years. Practitioners of TCM believe that when you consume organ meats, especially liver and kidney, from animals, it supports the same organ in your own body.
They help optimize the function of your organs and promote their repair when needed.
Organ meats are some of the most nutrient-rich foods on the planet. They provide B vitamins, vitamin A, selenium and folate.
Organ meats can reduce inflammation, support the immune and cardiovascular systems, promote proper brain functioning, prevent anemia, and boost fertility.
Remember, never eat meat organs that come from animals that weren’t free-range and appropriately fed. Look for organ meats from organic, grass-fed beef, organic, pasture-raised chicken and wild venison.
8. Goji Berries
Since 200 B.C., goji berries have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. In China, goji berries are known as “wolfberry fruit,” and they were mentioned in the oldest book of Chinese herbs in existence, “Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing.”
Practitioners of Chinese medicine view goji berries as calm and sweet. They are known to act positively on the liver and kidney because of their detoxifying properties, thereby contributing to qi and essence.
Goji berries have proven to be an excellent source of antioxidants, amino acids and 20 other trace minerals, including selenium, potassium and iron. The list of goji berry benefits is extensive and includes its ability to boost immune function, promote healthy skin, protect eye health, regulate blood sugar levels, improve mood, boost fertility, detoxify the liver and fight cancer.
In China, goji berries are commonly cooked and added to recipes like rice congee, tonic soups and dishes made with chicken, pork or vegetables. They are also used to make various teas, juices and wines.
7. Bone Marrow and Bone Broth
Bone broth has been used as a traditional healing food for thousands of years. A stock made from the bones and marrow of an animal, it was often consumed for its healing compounds in order to nourish the kidney, liver, lung and spleen, as well as to reduce inflammation.
In TCM, bone marrow and broth is known for its warming, calming and nourishing effects. This is why they are used to promote immune function, boost energy levels and support a healthy mood.
Bone broth is valued for its ability to strengthen qi, warm the yang and build blood.
Bone broth benefits also promote liver function, helping the liver detoxify heavy metals and other toxic exposures that can make you sick.
Rehmannia, or Chinese foxglove, is an herb that’s commonly used in herbal combinations to treat a range of health concerns, such as diabetes, allergies, weakened bones and fever. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, rehmannia is believed to regulate kidney and liver function and improve blood circulation. It’s used to purify the kidneys and treat adrenal fatigue.
For patients with diabetes, rehmennia root has been proven to work as a tonic that has beneficial effects on blood glucose, neuropathy and kidney damage. There’s also evidence of rehmannia having anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
It’s used by practitioners of Chinese medicine to treat skeletal diseases, like osteoporosis, as well.
Reishi, or Lingzhi in Chinese, is known as the “king of mushrooms” because of its incredible list of health benefits. In TCM, reishi mushroom is commonly dried, cut into slices, boiled in hot water and steeped to make a healing soup or tea.
Practitioners of TCM use it to nourish the heart, preserve liver health, promote calmness, slow aging, and enhance vitality, strength and stamina. It’s known to symbolize well-being, longevity and divine power — nourishing our three treasures and helping us maintain our health.
Reishi is packed with antioxidants and healing compounds like polysaccharides, triterpenes and complex sugars known as beta-glucans.
Today, it’s easy to find reishi mushroom in powder, capsule and extract forms, as it has become a popular remedy for fighting health conditions naturally. It’s used to reduce inflammation, prevent heart disease, stabilize blood sugar levels, balance hormones and even work as a natural cancer treatment.
Panax ginseng has been used as an herbal remedy in China for thousands of years. It’s one of the most valued medicinal herbs, with the name panax meaning “all healing.”
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, ginseng is valued for its ability to improve a number of pathological conditions and illnesses, like diabetes, fatigue, anorexia, palpitations, shortness of breath, insomnia, impotence and hemorrhage.
Ginseng is recommended for patients with low qi, coldness and a yang deficiency. It can help alleviate digestive conditions, improve mental activity, enhance longevity, induce calming and sedative effects, and nourish or tonify five vital organs of the body: the spleen, lung, heart, kidney and liver.
Today, you can find ginseng in dried, powdered, capsule and tablets forms, but for 5,000 years, the Chinese people have been using ginseng roots to make tea. In fact, in Chinese medicine, practitioners recommend that all adults over 40 years old drink one cup of ginseng tea every day.
Fo-ti (or he shou wu) is one of the top Chinese herbs that’s used in TCM to support liver and kidney health, induce calmness, nourish the heart, and fight the effects of aging. It’s known as a “youth-giving tonic” that’s valued for its invigorating and adaptogenic properties.
It’s also believed to balance the yin and yang energies by treating a yin deficiency that can lead to health issues like stress, anxiety, aging and fatigue.
Researchers at China Pharmaceutical University in Nanjing found that various clinical studies provide evidence of fo-ti benefiting sleep disorders, neurodegenerative diseases and high cholesterol.
Traditionally, fo-ti root is used by itself or cured in a soup of black bean sauce, but it’s also available raw and steamed. You can also use fo-ti in supplement, powdered, tea or tincture forms.
Cordyceps are a class of ascomycetes fungus that are more commonly known as medicinal mushrooms. Practitioners believe it to be one of the top Chinese herbs because it has the power to treat kidney disorders, improve respiratory infections, promote reproductive health, stop bleeding, boost energy and soothe the lung.
This time-honored superfood, which first originated in TCM at least 5,000 years ago, is mentioned in old Chinese medical books and used by folk healers to treat over 20 different ailments, from heart disease to bronchitis.
Wild cordyceps are difficult to obtain, but scientists are now reproducing the fungus synthetically in lab settings so they can be more readily available to the public. You can easily find them in tablet, powder and capsule forms.
1. Deer Antler
Deer antler is the immature tissues that surround the bone and cartilage found inside the tips of live deer antlers. It has been recorded in Chinese medical classics from 2,000 years ago and is believed to nourish the yin, invigorate the spleen, promote blood flow, strengthen the bones and muscles, and tone the kidneys.
Research shows that in TCM, deer antler is used to treat a variety of diseases, such as uterine fibroids, menstrual disorders, osteoporosis, arthritis and mastitis. It’s also used to heal chronic wounds and reduce physical fatigue.
Today, deer antler spray products are available online or in health food stores. They are commonly used as supplements in the fitness and sports industries to increase muscle mass and support recovery from injuries.
Related: Top 20 Anti-Inflammatory Herbs and How to Use Them
How to Use
You may not find all of these herbs on the menu at your local restaurant, but they can be purchased at health food or specialty stores in many forms, such as powders, teas, capsules and dried herbs.
It’s not uncommon for these ingredients to be used in special formulas made to fight or prevent prevalent issues like inflammation and weakened immune system. Mushroom powder, for example, has become increasingly popular and can be added to coffee or smoothies.
A holistic doctor or practitioner may also recommend these herbs to his or her patient as a natural therapy protocol. Along with consuming these herbs, other forms of TCM therapy include acupuncture and breathwork.
Looking to incorporate these herbs into your diet? Try these recipes at home to get you started:
- Beef Bone Broth Recipe
- Raw Superfood Carrot Salad with goji berries
- Miso Soup Recipe with Mushrooms
Risks and Side Effects
The main concerns about the use of Chinese herbs and any herbal medicine are the potential interactions with prescribed medications and the adulteration of herbs with pharmaceuticals — meaning when herbs are mixed with other unknown ingredients that can cause side effects.
When purchasing Chinese herbs, make sure to read the ingredient label carefully. Look for the scientific names, and when available, choose organic options from a reputable company.
Read the label carefully, and follow the dosage recommendations. Whenever you use a dietary supplement or medicinal herb for the first time, it is wise to consult your health care provider beforehand.
Related: Dong Quai — 6 Benefits of an Ancient Chinese Remedy
- Practitioners of Chinese medicine use these 15 top Chinese herbs, and others, to help their patients nourish their bodies, absorb qi, which is their vital energy force, and maintain jing, which is their essence.
- Chinese herbs, along with other forms of TCM therapy like acupuncture, promote the health of our organs, relieve pain and help us sustain balance, keeping us healthy and energized.
- These top Chinese herbs for nourishing your qi and jing have been used by Chinese physicians and families for thousands of years. Luckily, they are readily available today, so everyone can take advantage of their many health benefits.