It should be noted that warming herbs may have a tendency to produce dryness by overheating the fluids. This in addition to the dryness produced by winter (both from the cold outside and from heating inside one's house) makes attention to yin tonics important. Herbs like Slippery Elm, Solomon's Seal, and American Ginseng can help generate and protect fluids.
The difference between sweet-warm and pungent-warm is similar to a fire. If we want to fix up our fire, we might add wood and employ the bellows to produce a better flame. The wood is like the sweet flavor. It has substance. It takes time to release it's energy. The bellows are like pungent herbs. The fire flares up with the air, but there is no substance. This is similar to coffee and breakfast. The food you eat for breakfast (cereal, eggs, etc) is like the firewood. These foods have a sweet taste, just as most of our other sources of carbohydrate, fat, and protein, and are like the firewood and the sweet-tasting tonic herbs. Coffee is a stimulant and is like the bellows - coffee flares up your energy as the bellows flares up the fireplace. But if you were to merely pump the bellows without adding wood, you would find that your fire extinguishes faster. Similarly, if you were to only throw on a lot of wood without allowing for air, your fire would smolder. Too much sweet produces damp.
I use this fireplace metaphor quite often when teaching and talking about how foods and herbs affect yang because it is important to understand that herbs like Cayenne do not really tonify yang but are warming in the same way they are stimulating. In Western Herbs According to Traditional Chinese Medicine Thomas Avery Garran lists only Cayenne in the category "Herbs That Warm the Interior and Expel Cold", with the warning that "It is excellent for treating cold, but due to its acrid and thus scattering nature, it must be used with care in vacuity patterns." In a true American fashion (consider Thomson and Dr. Christopher), Garran places Cayenne as the quintessential warming herb. In the next chapter, "Herbs that Supplement", Garran mentions Elecampane as a chi-supplementing warming herb.
In The Energetics of Western Herbs Peter Holmes examines a much larger selection of herbs for warming the body. The class of herbs headed as "Tonify Yang, Dispel Cold, and Generate Warmth / Stimulants" Contains four sub-categories outlined here:
Stimulate Circulation, Dispel Cold, and Relieve Exhaustion
Pungent, warm, arterial and cardiac stimulants (cardiovascular stimulants)
Stimulate Circulation, Dispel Wind/Damp/Cold and Relieve Joint and Muscle Pain
Pungent, warm, muscular stimulants (diaphoretic antirheumatics/antiarthritics)
Stimulate Digestion, Warm the Middle, Resolve Mucous Damp, and Relieve Abdominal Fullness
Pungent, warm digestive stimulant (carminatives)
Stimulate Digestion, Reduce Liver Congestion, Clear Damp Heat, and Relieve Epigastric Fullness
Bitter, cool digestive stimulants (liver decongestant, cholagogue laxatives)
As my teacher Ellis Peterson used to say, "first define your terms". Contradiction forms when attempting to categorize and sub categorize the various kinds of herbs that warm the body (just as with other general category of herbs), particularly regarding the use of the words "tonic" and "stimulant". Of course, making it even more complicated to define and tease out the differences, there is simply a large overlap with these two terms. Consider Ginseng and Licorice, for example. These two famous tonic herbs are more-or-less nourishing or stimulating depending on dose.
Of those herbs already mentioned, I would like to select a few that I feel are most important. Ginseng, American Ginseng, Licorice, Astragalus, Calamus, Cinnamon, Ginger, Burdock, Wild Cherry, Valerian, Cayenne, Rosemary, Juniper, Prickly Ash, Sassafras, Angelica, Dong Quai, Garlic, and Elecampane. We can begin to classify these herbs by flavor, organ affinity, and general properties.
So, Ginseng, American Ginseng, Licorice, Astragalus, Burdock, Dong Quai, and Elecampane all have a sweet taste. Some sweet herbs have other strong flavors evident - American Ginseng is bittersweet. Dong Quai and Elecampane are aromatic as well as sweet. Sweet, being the flavor of stored energy (calories), helps us to understand that the nature of these medicinals is nourishing, or building to tissue and vital reserves.
Calamus, Cinnamon, Ginger, Garlic, Cayenne, Rosemary, Juniper, Valerian, Sassafras, Angelica, Dong Quai, and Elecampane all have a pungent flavor, which could be teased out into sub-divisions of pungent: acrid, floral, aromatic, hot, spicy... If you think back to a time when you put some Cayenne, Wasabi, or the like in your mouth, it is easy to understand that the nature of pungent herbs is dispersing - they move chi, blood, and fluids. They stimulate digestion (fortunately many taste good), promote circulation, clear out the lungs, and have a number of specific uses. These herbs are warming like the bellows to the fireplace.
A couple of these herbs have a bitter taste, though in none is it dominant. We don't find it here (except in Holmes "Bitter, cool digestive stimulants") because, as a rule, bitter is a cooling flavor. It is worth mentioning, however, that Ginseng and American Ginseng both have an element of bitter; and that Elecampane definitely has bitter among pungent and sweet (ah, Elecampane is emerging from our list as distinct in its combination of these three flavors). Calamus is often considered bitter. Holmes describes it as "a bit pungent, bitter, and sweet". But Michael Tierra in The Way of Herbs considers Calamus, "acrid, slightly warm, aromatic". Sometimes herbs like Elecampane and Calamus are described as "aromatic bitters" because their effect, particularly relating to digestion, is similar to bitter herbs but they are more aromatic. For me, Calamus is a particularly pungent herb, and this is much more characteristic than the slight presence of bitter. It is also noteworthy that Calamus is much more potent when fresh and that in time the dried rhizome loses its pungency and develops sweetness.
Let's consider Astragalus, as it is emerging from Chinese medicine as a popular herb for the immune system. As a sweet tonic, Astragalus presents a different standard compared to the American "immune tonic" Echinacea. By our classification here, Echinacea is actually not a tonic; rather it is an antibiotic, or heat-clearing herb. Before Chinese medicine rapidly began taking hold in this country Echinacea and Goldenseal, being used to treat infections, were regarded as herbs to boost the immune system. Because their nature is more directly antiseptic (antibiotic, antiviral, antifungal) and because they are not particularly nourishing, they are not tonic herbs by our definition. (Goldenseal, like other berberine-containing herbs such as Barberry and Coptis, is quite bitter and not at all delectably sweet.)
According to Michael Tierra in The Way of Herbs, "Astragalus is used to increase the energy and build resistance to weakness and disease. It has warming properties and is tonic to the spleen, kidneys, lungs, and blood.
Astragalus is combined with other herbs to promote their effects. It is a valuable diuretic.
Astragalus balances the energy of all the internal organs. It helps neutralize fevers and improves digestion.
It is one of the most valuable tonics, being used especially for those under thirty-five years of age. It is specific for all wasting and exhausting diseases because it strengthens the body's resistance."
In Healing with Chinese Herbs Lesley Tierra list uses: "Astragalus relieves lack of appetite; fatigue; diarrhea; prolapse of the uterus, stomach, or rectum; uterine bleeding caused by weakness; spontaneous or excessive sweating; shortness of breath; frequent colds or flu; postpartum fever, caused by loss of blood and energy; symptoms associated with a severe loss of blood; and edema. It also helps heal undrained sores and wounds that are slow to heal, numbness of limbs, and paralysis."
It is easy to see why Astragalus is a predominant ingredient in some of the Shaolin training and injury treatment wines (discussed elsewhere in this blog). Considering the nature and properties of Astragalus, one can understand why it is a common ingredient for the treatment of chronic and acute diseases relating to lowered immunity and vital energy. Mothers have found that Astragalus can be used in making soup stock and remains agreeable to taste. This is one great method for introducing Astragalus to your family during seasonal changes, back to school, holidays, and other times immunity can use a boost.
Astragalus also makes a nice ingredient for decoctions (herbal preparations prepared by simmering herbs in water, often used for roots and other thick ingredients). The sweet flavor and mild nature of Astragalus, along with the desirable benefits, allow this ingredient to become the primary in formulas for colds. Decoctions, as well as soup broths, provide nice large doses of Astragalus. For this reason decoctions are preferred to tinctures and capsules. Licorice, Elecampane, Ginger, and Angelica make nice additions to an Astragalus decoction, according to indications. When we add aromatics to sweet herbs we can address mucus, infection, and blood stagnation. To return to our fireplace metaphor, it is like adding logs and using the bellows. Along the same line, if we overuse Astragalus, particularly without the other flavors to balance the heavy, sticky, sweetness, dampness and congestion (smoldering fire) can result.
I will continue to explore this topic in more detail in the near future. For now, I offer this up for some food for thought to encourage your consideration of how to best warm up the body to counter the cold of winter and to treat diseases caused by "cold stagnation" in the body. For more information on the herbs and diagnostics mentioned above, Contact me or see my schedule of classes.