Yin and Yang in Ancient Chinese Herbs

Chinese Medicine BookTraditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) recognizes that a harmonious balance throughout the body is optimal for health. Rather than focusing only on relieving symptoms, TCM seeks to understand the underlying causes of those symptoms and then use herbs and other modalities to restore an overall balance. As balance is restored, symptoms naturally disappear.

The two factors of yin and yang (rhymes with “gong”) were first mentioned in the I Ching, or Book of Changes, a Taoist divination manual written around 700 B.C. Unlike a purely binary system, where something is either one thing or the other—but not both—the factors of yin and yang represent the interdependent balance of opposites. Far from being diametrically opposed, the symbol of these factors exhibits the seed of the opposite factor nestled within, while both factors are ever flowing and ever changing. The balance of the opposite natures of the two factors works synergistically to produce bodily and emotional health, along with beneficial energy.

A very simplistic explanation of yin and yang in the body is that, while the two factors are interdependent, too much of either yin or yang causes imbalance, which leads to distress and disease. When this happens, a TCM practitioner will prescribe herbs and other modalities such as acupuncture, nutritional corrections, and massage to correct the balance in order to lessen or eliminate the symptoms.

The Nature of Yin and Yang in Herbs

Everything that exists on earth contains elements of both yin and yang, though some things naturally fall into one or the other category. Overall, yin is inward-looking and descends to the earth, while yang is outward-looking and ascends to the heavens. A cool and shady grove of trees along the banks of a stream on the Yin Yang Symbolnorth side of a mountain is very yin, while a bright, south-facing, sunny meadow full of vibrantly colored flowers is very yang.

In herbal TCM, some herbs carry yin qualities and some herbs carry yang qualities.

Yin herbs are cool and cold (referring more to quiet energy and passivity than to literal temperature), meaning that they eliminate excess heat, detoxify the body, and promote structural functions in the body.

Yin herbs are sour, bitter, or salty, with each flavor creating specific actions in the body that calm movement (i.e. hiccups or vomiting) and excess heat (such as that from a fever, inflammation, or toxicity).

Someone with too much yin energy might appear to be listless or depressed, drawing inward and becoming isolated. Diseases that create this low-energy imbalance are associated with low thyroid function, adrenal gland fatigue or exhaustion, lower than average basal temperature, poor blood circulation, malnutrition, muscle weakness, and diseases of the intestines, colon, heart, lungs, liver, spleen, kidney, and vagina.

Yang herbs, on the other hand, increase heat, and promote physiological functions in the body. Yang herb flavors are sweet or pungent, with the flavors working to open up the body in various ways.

When the body has too much yang energy, you see health issues related to inflammation of tissues, organs, and tendons; spastic movements; and hard or acute conditions. Kidney and gall stones, calcification of the tissues that produces arthritis or back pain, and emotional disturbances that lead to anger and violence are considered yang conditions.

Using Herbs to Balance and Promote Yin and Yang

Yin and yang are complementary and neutral, with neither factor being “good” or “bad.” You may find that you tend to have a more yin or yang personality or body chemistry, but you aren’t just yin or yang. If you are too deficient in either yin or yang, problems arise.

While it might seem logical to take yang herbs and tonics in order to correct a health issue associated with too much yin, TCM practitioners apply a far more subtle, complex, and holistic approach. They believe that a deficiency in either factor also represents a deficiency in the other. Therefore, a yang deficiency also means there is a yin deficiency. Someone suffering from a health issue represented by too much yin energy will be treated first to boost and support the yin energy and then to correct the imbalance of yang energy.

In short, TCM herbal applications seek to do four main things:Chinese herbs on wooden plate

  • Tonify yang
  • Tonify yin
  • Disperse excess yang
  • Disperse excess yin

Practitioners usually focus on correcting more than one of the above imbalances at the same time rather than addressing just one.

As a general rule, yang herbs (those that are hot and warm) are used to treat yin conditions (cold and cool), and vice-versa. Yang herbs work to bring energy upward (the upper half of the body) and outward to the surface. Yin herbs bring energy downward (to the lower half of the body) and to the interior.

In addition, each herb used in TCM has an affinity to a certain organ, while each taste (sour, sweet, salty, bitter, or pungent) has an affinity to a certain meridian or meridians.

If you visit a TCM practitioner, chances are that you will be prescribed an herbal combination that contains both yin and yang herbs to treat the underlying cause of your symptoms. While utilizing single herbs is certainly an option, herbs can have powerful effects on the body, and even beneficial herbs can become toxic in the body if overused. A practitioner with a deep knowledge of herbal properties combines herbs to eliminate such toxic effects while boosting the beneficial properties.

When herbs are combined properly, they are generally safe to take on a long-term basis in the prescribed dosages.

Supplementing with Chinese Herbs

Chinese Herbs from Nature's Sunshine

The key to supplementing with Chinese herbs and herbal combinations is to find quality sources. Herbs must be pure and free from contamination so that they can benefit the body without causing harm.

In addition, herbal combinations must be balanced with proper proportions of both yin and yang herbs. Unless you are very educated in herb qualities, it’s best to seek out a highly recommended TCM practitioner or rely on supplement manufacturers with a known history of quality.

Nature’s Sunshine seeks to eliminate the guesswork when it comes to herbal quality and proportionate herbal combinations. When taken according to package directions, each of our TCM combinations work to support healthy bodily functions, such as

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