Tonic Herbs Traditional Chinese Medicine TCM- Root & Bones

The Difference Between Tonics and other TCM Herbal Categories

Tonic herbs refer to a very special category in TCM herbology that purposefully forms the backbone of our offerings at Root + Bones, but there’s a lot more to discover in this tradition of medicine. While absolutely capable of supporting people dealing with specific health issues, the focus with tonic herbs is not on curing disease, but on nourishment so intelligent that it fortifies our innate capacity for vibrant health. Through consistent and long-term use, these herbs are tasked with facilitating the perfect harmony of mind-body-spirit as the ultimate defense. For acute health issues, however, TCM offers herbs with more targeted effects, enlisted to cause a rapid and powerful biological shift. It’s important to note that these other herbs are not safe for long-term use and have drug-like qualities, including side effects to consider. 


As a whole, TCM herbalism is holistic, individualized, and operates at the root cause level. Despite including many herbs with drug-like qualities, this tradition of medicine is not allopathic, meaning we avoid a “this herb for that symptom” approach. However, beyond the tonic herbs, the actions of TCM herbs are so strong and specific that they require professional support from a trained practitioner—not only to ensure safety within the context of one’s unique inner terrain, but to create balance and comprehensive support as part of a personalized formula. Conversely, tonic herbs are essentially medicinal foods—safe enough to be self-administered, while still capable of meeting bio-individual needs as each herb holds specific organ affinities, energetic qualities, and tonifying actions.


Despite often being the most well-known of the TCM herbs, tonic herbs actually constitute a small fraction of our rich tradition of herbalism. Indeed, this category of so-called “superior” herbs is made up of less than one hundred substances, while there are several thousand others in TCM practice. These other herbs can be divided into two broad categories that, together with the tonic herbs, create a spectrum. On one end are the safe “superior” tonics and on the opposite end are the “inferior” drug-like herbs that are concerned with curative actions. In the middle are the “general” herbs that contain both qualities of the superior herbs (preventive, harmonizing actions) and the inferior herbs (strong, curative actions), which also require professional dispensation. For our purposes, we can divide the TCM herbs into those that are safe for long-term, experimental use and those that require a practitioner’s guidance for dosage and duration. 


Of course, TCM’s heightened attention to complex energetic patterns means that there are many sub-categories of herbs, intimately connected to the elemental forces that govern life. The “superior” herbs can be further classified as tonifying to overarching Yin/Yang energies, nourishing to at least one of the treasures and vital substances of Jing/Qi/Blood/Shen, and associated with specific organ-meridian channels, creating a rich map for optimal use. The sub-categories of professional-grade herbs relate to hyper-specific prescriptive use, though they also have energetic and organ-meridian affinities to take into consideration. For example, diaphoretic herbs are those that induce perspiration in order to release invasive “evil-Qi,” but being generally warm and pungent in nature, they can disrupt the body’s balance of fluids and Yang energy if used in excess. Other prescriptive herbs include purgatives, anesthetics, hemostatics, antidotes, emmenagogues, emetics, and many more. 


The ancient tradition of TCM herbalism is as intricate as it is effective, which is precisely why it’s important to proceed with care. Especially for those who are experiencing acute illness, it’s advised to seek out individualized support from a trained practitioner. Although acupuncturists in California are required to receive comprehensive herbal training as part of our studies, in most other states one can choose whether to learn TCM herbalism or not. Though we wish we could answer every health inquiry we receive, the personalized assessment required in our tradition means it would be irresponsible to do so. Just the comparatively tiny category of tonic herbs can be quite complex, demanding much awareness-raising around each of the herb’s multitudinous functions and qualities so that the best results can be experienced! Our choice to specialize in tonic herbs that are generally safe and supportive across personal needs is part of our quest to empower as many people as possible in optimizing their health, vitality, and longevity goals.