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HoloSapiens - the TCM "Food as Medicine" Project


Introduction to the disharmony


Major symptoms:

  • cold hands and feet, feeling cold at all times, aversion to/fear of cold
  • shallow, pale complexion
  • lack of energy, general tiredness


  • Kidney Yang deficiency symptoms – sensation of cold in the back, cold knees, loose stools, frequent urination, edema, clear vaginal discharge and/or irregular menstruation in women, sterility and/or lack of sexual desire in both men and women, lassitude, mental lethargy
  • Spleen Yang deficiency symptoms – coldness in the abdomen, lack of appetite, loose stools that contain undigested food, edema
  • Heart Yang deficiency symptoms – coldness/stuffiness in the chest, heart palpitations, excessive sweating, listlessness


Herbs that tonify Yang are used in instances of Yang deficiency. To understand what Yang deficiency is we need to quickly review how the concept of Yin and Yang is implemented in traditional Chinese medicine.


Since Yang in nature represents activity, light, warmth it logically represents energy/warming faculty in the human body. Since Yin in nature represents rest, quiet, slowness it translates to structure, substance, matter in the human body. In other words Yin represents matter, blood, body fluids, while Yang is the force that brings them to live.


Falling Sun 960


When Yang – the warming faculty of the body - becomes deficient the major symptom that will manifest is coldness – cold hands and feet, feeling constantly cold, aversion to cold, fear of cold. Depending on what organ is specifically affected there is coldness in different parts of the body. The three organs that usually manifest with Yang deficiency are the Kidney, the Spleen and the Heart. When the Yang of the Kidney is deficient there is a sensation of cold in the back, when the Yang of the Spleen is deficient there is sensation of cold in the abdomen, and when the Yang of the Heart is deficient there is feeling of cold/stuffiness in the chest.


In traditional Chinese medicine the Kidney governs not only the urinary system, but also the reproductive system. Thus Kidney Yang deficiency manifests in frequent urination (not enough energy to hold and contain) and edema but also in clear vaginal discharge and irregular menstruation in women, as well as lack of sexual desire and sterility in both men and women. As there is lack of energy and warmth there is mental lethargy and lassitude. Both Kidney Yang and Spleen Yang deficiency manifest with diarrhea (not enough energy to hold and contain), the only difference is that with Spleen Yang deficiency there is undigested food in the stool (in TCM the Spleen governs the transformation of food into "food essence").


Heart Yang deficiency manifests in Heart palpitations (the chief symptom when the Heart is not in balance), sweating (the Heart governs the sweat), shortness of breath, and tiredness.


The treatment principle in all three disharmonies is to tonify Yang. The herbs that tonify Yang are warm/hot and drying.


Major Chinese Herbs


One of the strongest Yang tonics in traditional Chinese medicine is the animal herb Lu Rong (Cornu Cervi Parvum) – velvet of deer antler. Besides tonifying Yang and addressing symptoms such as fatigue, lightheadedness, impotence and infertility it also tonifies Kidney Essence, and is used for children with physical or mental disorders and poor physical and mental development.


Deer Antlers Wall Decal A09


Another animal herb that tonifies Yang is gecko – Ge Jie (Gekko gecko). Not as strong as the velvet of deer antler (but stronger than the other herbs in this category) gecko also tonifies Kidney Yang and Kidney Essence, and additionally tonifies the Lung.


The rest of the animal herbs that tonify Yang come from the sea – Hai Long (Sygnathus acus L.) – pipe fish, Hai Ma (Hippocamous kelloggi) – sea horse, Hai Shen (Stichopus japonicas) – sea cucumber, and Hai Gou Shen (Callorhinus ursinus L.) – the sexual organs of male seal. As Chinese believe in the “like cures like” principle of healing the last herb is obviously very effective for impotence and decreased sexual drive.


Minerals and stones usually have cold nature as they are dead substances thus do not own energy. Yet the following two herbs – Yang Qi Shi – actonolite and E Guan Shi – stalactite - have respectively slightly warm and warm nature with the former also having warming the womb property and the latter - promoting lactation property. Having stones and minerals in the tonify Yang class of herbs is certainly fascinating.


A big chunk of the remaining herbs are plant herbs that enter both the Kidney and the Liver and strengthen the bones and sinews (the Kidney governs the bones and the Liver governs the sinews). Such herbs are Xu Duan (Dipsacus asper), which translates to “restore what is broken” Gu Sui Bu (Drynaria fortune) – “mender of shattered bones”, Gou Ji (Cibotium barometz) – “dog spine” and the interesting looking Du Zhong (Eucommia ulmoides) that has the appearance of a belt and is specifically used for weak, sore, or painful lower back (and knees).




Tu Si Zi (Cuscata chinesis) is another herb that enters the Kidney and Liver but its function is to improve the vision (the Liver opens into the eyes) and ringing in the ears (the Kidney opens to the ears) among other Kidney deficiency symptoms such as nocturnal emission, premature ejaculation, and impotence.


Couple of herbs that enter the Kidney and Liver channels but are specifically good for wind-damp-cold painful obstruction manifesting in joint pain, spasms or cramps in the hands and feet, sense of weakness in the lower back, and knee pain are Ba Ji Tian (Morinda officinalis), Xian Mao (Curculigo orchioides) and Ying Yang Huo (Epimedium grandiflorum) (3) with the last one owning the prominent name “sexual plant for goats”(4) The name was given by a Chinese shepherd back in the days who couldn’t help but notice how sexually active his goats were and decided to observe what they were feeding on. He noticed that they consumed a lot of one specific plant which apparently gave them the high libido (4) He named the plant Ying Yang Huo – “licentious goat worth” (3) or “sexual plant for goats” (4)


Another part of the tonify Yang class of herbs are herbs that enter the Kidney and the Spleen. One is Yi Zhi Ren (Alpinia oxyphylla) – black cardamom. It benefits both Kidney and Spleen Yang deficiency manifesting in symptoms such as vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea, frequent and copious urination all due to Yang deficiency. Bu Gu Zhi (Psolarea corylifolia) – translated as “tonify the bone resin” is and acrid very warm herb that enters the same channels and has similar properties.


Healing foods


Foods that tonify Yang are warm, hot and/or spicy foods.


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Food Therapy


Food therapy is the most economical and non-toxic biochemical approach to health and disease. Food is something we continuously use to sustain our lives. Learning what foods are healing (and what disruptive) for each condition has the potential to convert every meal into a form of therapy.   


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(1) Maciocia, Giovanni (1989). The Foundations of Chinese Medicine. Nanjing: Harcourt Publishers Limited

(2) Pitchford, Paul (2002). Healing with Whole Foods. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books

(3) Benski, Dan & Gamble, Andrew (1993). Materia Medica, Revised Edition. Seatle: Eastland Press, Incorporated

(4) Lu, Henry (2005). Chinese Natural Cures. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc.

(5) Holmes, Peter (1998). The Energetics of Western Herbs. Boulder: Snow Lotus Press, Inc.


Related Articles:

Yin and Yang in Chinese medicine

Kidney Yang deficiency

Spleen Yang deficiency

Heart Yang deficiency

Warming Herbs



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