Herbs & nutrition in Chinese medicine

by | June 11, 2012

Learn how herbs and nutrition can be combined to ensure good health and prevent illness using the principles of TCM.


Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a form of health cultivation, illness prevention and treatment of diseases using the innate powers of the human body and working in harmony with the forces of nature.

Chinese medicine has existed for over 5,000 years, since the beginning of Chinese history. Before the medical classic “Huangdi Neijing” (also known as “The Inner Canon of Huangdi” or “Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon”, it is an ancient Chinese medical text that has been treated as the fundamental doctrinal source for Chinese medicine for more than two millennia) appeared in the Han dynasty some 2,000 years ago, illnesses were often attributed to demons and spirits.

The Neijing rejected spiritual aspects of medicine and focused on external natural causes and internal imbalances, emotional factors and unhealthy living habits as the root causes of illness. It therefore put Chinese medicine on a sound empirical scientific footing.

Some basic principles of TCM are:

  • Holism – Viewing the body as a whole rather than focusing on a part of it that appears uncomfortable or diseased.
  • Harmony (balance) inside and with environment – the yin and the yang.
  • Treat the root imbalances and disorder rather than the symptoms.
  • There must be flow (movement) – “Where there is pain, there is no flow; where there is flow, there is no pain”, hence – “A door that is opened regularly will not have creaky hinges” (a quote by the ancient Chinese physician Hua Tuo).


Balance in the body


Keeping in mind these principles, here are some foods that can help to improve the body’s balance:

  • Cooling foods ­– Fruits and vegetables like watermelon, bitter gourd, watercress, pear, barley, mangosteen, green bean, chrysanthemum tea, water chestnut, green tea, bean curd, lotus root and eggplant.

    Mangosteen, a cooling food.

  • Warming foods – Durian, mango, raisins, cherries, lychee, longan, ginger, dried cinnamon and green pepper and chillies.
  • Qi tonics – Chinese yam, peanuts, hyacinth bean, millet, potato, carrot, date, chicken, pork tripe and beef. Some qi herbal supplements that are often used in cooking are Huang Qi (astragalus), Dangshen, Baizu, Gancao (liquorice), Fuling and ginseng.
  • Blood tonics – Pork liver, lamb, sea cucumber, raisins, red dates, blackstrap molasses, spinach and carrot. Some blood herbal supplements for cooking: Dang Gui, knotweed, E-gelatin and dried longan.
  • Yin tonics – White fungus, bird’s nest, pear, wolfberry seeds, turtle, black sesame, black beans, millet and duck. Some yin herbal supplements used in cooking: Yuzhu and Maidong.
  • Yang tonics – Lamb, shrimp, walnut and Chinese chive. Some yang herbal supplements used in cooking: Lurong, sea horse, eucommia bark and cordyceps.
  • Improvement of blood circulation/reducing blood stasis – Black fungus, raw hawthorn, wine and vinegar.
  • Calming foods – Lotus seeds, lily bulbs, pig’s heart and wheat.
  • Improvement of bowel functions – Almonds, prunes, seaweed, black sesame, banana, spinach and bamboo shoot.
  • Removing dampness/water retention – Barley, Job’s ears (Chinese barley), seaweed, papaya, Chinese cabbage, corn and French beans.


Chinese herbs

Herbs are generally more powerful and act faster than food. However, most of them should be used with medical advice as some can cause side effects and allergic reactions. Tonic herbs are the most common category in Chinese herbs, and also the most relevant for the middle aged and the elderly. These include:

  • Qi tonics – The most common include: American ginseng, Chinese ginseng Dangshen, Astralagus and Shanyao. Other qi tonics: Gancao and Baizhu.
  • Blood tonics – Danggui and Shudihuang.
  • Tonics to reinforce yang ­– Lurong, Dongchongxiacao and Duzhong.
  • Tonics for nourishing the yin – Maimendong, Yuzhu and Gouqizi.


Food chosen correctly to suit your constitution and health condition is the best medicine and is preferred to herbs for long-term use. Herbs should be regarded as supplements and consumed in limited quantities, preferably in combination with food.


** This article was written by Professor Hong Hai. He is a senior fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies and a professorial fellow at Nanyang Technological University. He is a registered TCM physician and practises at the Renhai Clinic and the Public Free Clinic.  His clinical interest is in health cultivation and prevention of serious illnesses. He recently co-authored a book on “Cancer Management with Chinese Medicine”, which has introductory chapters on TCM as well as a detailed list of herbs and foods for health and the prevention of cancer.

(* PHOTO CREDIT: mangosteen 5, garytamin, stock.xchng; ginseng root, provided by Professor Hong Hai)



  1. Esther

    Thank you for the info on Chinese Herbs. It would great if there are links to websites for those interested to go more indepth.

    • agelessadmin

      Thanks, Esther for your comments. I will ask Professor Hong Hai to include some websites.

    • agelessadmin

      Hi, Esther, I got an answer from Professor Hong Hai. Here is an English website link which has a herbal medicine database for you to learn more about the herbs – http://www.yinyanghouse.com/theory/herbalmedicine/tcm_herbal_medicine_database. Alternatively, if you prefer a Chinese website, you can go here – http://www.pharmnet.com.cn/tcm/zybb/.

      He also advised that you should not take any herbs or formulations without consulting a Chinese medicine physician as the body constitution and medical condition of each individual differs. The information on these websites are mainly to help provide a basic platform for you to understand TCM and herbs better.

      Hope this helps.

  2. Esther Heng

    Appreciate the prompt info, Thank you.

    • agelessadmin

      You are most welcome and I am glad to help 🙂 I hope you like the information on the site. Do spread the word about the site. Thanks so much.

  3. wong sw

    can i add in a few pieces of gan cao into a pot of green bean and barley soup? I have minor heart artery blockage and valve leak. At the same time, I failed my liver panel test. Please advise

    • Eleanor Yap

      Thanks for your comment. We provide information. For your specific medical condition, we would advise that you check with a TCM physician on this so you can get better clarification.


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