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Completing Your Plant-Based Diet with Herbs

Whether it is for better health, a greener planet, or ethical beliefs, more and more people are integrating vegetarian or vegan diet into their lives.  

A vegetarian and vegan diet can bring healthy outcomes such as lowering the risk of obesity and heart disease and improving fiber intake and many other vitamins and minerals.  

In Chinese medicine, eating less meat and more plants could clear phlegm and dampness. Adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet can also detoxify our bodies.  

When we talk about Chinese herbology, plants are always the first thing that comes to mind, such as roots (e.g. Ge Gen), barks (e.g. Gui Pi), twigs (e.g. Sang Zhi), seeds (e.g. Suan Zo Ren) and flowers (e.g. Ju Hua). However, we sometimes forget that Chinese herbs also contains animal products, such as Mu Li (Oyster Shell), Gui Ban (Turtle Plastron), Quan Xie (Scorpion), Long Gu (Fossilized bones of mammals), and Lu Rong (Deer Antler Velvet), and many more. These are the herbs that should be avoided by vegans or vegetarians and be mindful of formulas that may contain them. 

However, any eating pattern not well planned could lead to nutrient imbalance. Due to the large consumption of cold fruit and salad, many vegetarians or vegans are prone to have Yang/Blood/Qi deficiency in the perspective of Chinese medicine. And here are some of the common nutrient deficiencies related to an unbalanced plant-based diet: 

  • Calcium and Vitamin D (muscle cramps, brittle bones, weak and brittle nails, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet) 
  • Iron (anemia, fatigue, shortness of breath, palpitation)  
  • Vitamin B12 (fatigue, memory problems and numbness) 
  • Zinc (hair loss, lack of alertness, eye and skin lesions, delayed skin healing, frequent cold symptoms, diarrhea, abnormal taste and smell sensation) 
  • Omega-3 fats (Skin irritation and dryness, depression, dry eyes, joint pain and stiffness) 

In this article, we will discuss how Chinese herbs can help building a more balanced and nutrient rich diet for veggie lovers.  

Single Herbs Beneficial for Nutrient Deficiency  

Dang Gui  (Radix Angelicae Sinensis, Chinese Angelica Root) 

As a famous blood tonic in Chinese medicine, Dang Gui can treat conditions related to Heart and Liver blood deficiency, such as anemia, pale complexion, dry hair, dizziness, blurred vision and palpitation. Dang Gui is also an important herb for treating menstruation disorders such as amenorrhea (loss of menstruation), dysmenorrhea (irregular menstruation), premenstrual syndrome and menopausal symptoms. Research has shown that Dang Gui has anti-anemic function and improves iron availability1. 

Shu Di Huang (Radix Rehmanniae Preparata, Prepared Rehmannia Root) 

Shu Di Huang is a strong tonic that nourishes Blood and Jing (your life essence) according to Chinese medicine. It helps with pale complexion, dizziness, palpitation, and insomnia. Shu Di Huang is also a good anti-aging herb that targets prematurely grey hair, forgetfulness, blurry vision and other signs of aging. Research shows that Shu Di Huang has neuroprotective properties2. 

Da Zao (Fructus Jujube, Jujube) 

Widely used in Chinese formula and daily cooking, Da Zao offers digestive support for people with weak metabolism and digestion. For people on vegetarian/vegan diet with shortness of breath, chronic diarrhea, fatigue and lack of appetite, Da Zao can provide gentle boost in their digestive system and absorb nutrients more effectively.  

Huang Qi / Bei Qi (Radix Astragali, Astragalus Root) 

Huang Qi is known to tonify Spleen and Lung Qi to treat respiratory and digestive dysfunction. The Lungs in Chinese medicine controls the skin and immune system. Huang Qi can help with non-healing skin and frequent cold symptoms related to zinc deficiency. Common conditions treated by Huang Qi include Spleen deficiency (fatigue, diarrhea, prolapse, bruises and bleeding), Lung Qi deficiency (edema, excessive sweating, cold and flu), Blood and Qi stagnation (chronic non-ulcerating sores, non-healing sores, muscle pains and numbness). 

Shan Yao (Rhizoma Dioscoreae, Chinese Yam)  

The sweet-tasting Shan Yao tonifies Spleen function, making it a perfect food/herb for digestive conditions such as poor appetite, loose stools and diarrhea, fatigue and weight loss due to anorexia, and food stagnation. Research has shown that Shan Yao has antidiabetic function that balance glucose levels. The combination of Shan Yao and Huang Qi (Radix Astragali) has excellent effects of lowering plasma glucose levels to treat diabetes mellitus3 

Suan Zao Ren (Semen Zizyphi Spinosae, Sour Jujube Seeds) 

Known for its sedative and hypnotic function, Suan Zao Ren is commonly used to treat irritability, insomnia and palpitation due to Liver blood deficiency and Heart Yin deficiency. The jujuboside, total flavone, total alkaloid and unsaturated fatty acid in Suan Zao Ren could work as sedation and improve sleep4. Research has shown that the famous formula Suan Zao Ren Tang has beneficial effects on improving daytime dysfunction in women with poor sleep quality5 

Bai Shao (Radíx Paeoníae Alba, White Peony Root)  

Bai Shao is traditionally used for gynecological conditions such as amenorrhea, premenstrual syndrome, dizziness, and headache related to Liver blood deficiency. Bai Shao is an excellent choice to relieve numbness of extremities, muscle spasms and tremors due to blood deficiency. Bai Shao has antibiotic, antipyretic and anti-inflammatory functions based on its pharmacological effects6 

Du Zhong (Cortex Eucommiae, Eucommia Bark) 

Du Zhong is used in treating Kidney Jing (essence) and Liver (blood) deficiency. It is known in Chinese medicine to strengthen bones and sinews. Paired with Xu Duan (Radix Dipsaci), this herb can promote healing of the bone. Du Zhong is a good choice for those who have bone fractures and are on a vegetarian diet. Du Zhong also treats lower back pain and knee soreness. 

Xu Duan (Radix Dipsaci, Japanese Teasel Root) 

Similar to Du Zhong, clinically Xu Duan tonifies Liver and Kidney to treat musculoskeletal disorders, lower back and knee soreness. Xu Duan has a strong function in promoting blood circulation and reducing swelling, abscesses and sores. It can alleviate pain from traumatic injuries, fractures, or broken bones. In addition to calcium supplements, Xu Duan can be a good turn-to herb for bone strengthening especially in the process of healing.  

 

Formulas That Treat Symptoms and Patterns Related to Nutrient Deficiency 

From Chinese medicine perspective, the majority of deficiency symptoms related to a vegetarian or vegan diet can be summarized into followings: 

  • Spleen Qi deficiency (bloating, diarrhea, fatigue) 
  • Liver Blood deficiency (dry eyes and skin, muscle cramps) 
  • Kidney Qi deficiency (brittle bone, decreased memory, joint pain) 
  • Lung Qi deficiency (compromised immune system, skin lesion) 
  • Heart Qi deficiency (depression and anxiety) 

Many of the healing strategies for vegan/vegetarian diet deficiency focus on “nourishing and tonifying”. The following chart will show how different formulas could be selected to treat symptoms related to these deficiencies.  

Common conditions related to nutrient deficiency 

Chinese medicine etiology 

Healing principle 

Chinese Herbal Formula 

1.  “Junk food vegetarian”: 

too much refined carbs: pasta, bread, bagels, cake, crackers-poorly planned vegetarian diet 

Dampness 

Spleen Qi deficiency  

Tonify Spleen 

Reduce dampness 

Tonify Spleen yang  

 

-Xiang Sha Yang Wei Wan  

-Er Chen Wan  

-Jian Pi Wan 

-Xiang Sha Liu Jun Wan 

-Da Shan Zha Wan 

-Shenling Jianpiwei Keli 

2. Vitamin B12 deficiency: 

*Fatigue 

*Memory problems *Numbness, *Megaloblastic anemia 

 

Spleen Qi deficiency, Kidney Qi deficiency, Blood deficiency  

Tonify Spleen 

Tonify Kidney Jing and Qi 

Tonify Blood  

-Gui Pi Wan 

-Liu Wei Di Huang Wan 

-Ji Gui Shen Qi Wan 

-Wu Zi Bu Wan 

-Shen Ling Bai Zhu San  

3. Iron-deficiency anemia: 

*Not enough blood cells in the body 

*Fatigue, shortness of breath 

*Palpitation 

 

Spleen Qi deficiency,  

LV blood deficiency, Heart Qi deficiency  

Tonify Spleen, 

Tonify Heart Qi 

Tonify Blood 

-Dang Gui Pian 

-Ba Zhen Tang 

-Gui Pi Tang  

-Tao Hong Si Wu Tang 

-Suan Zao Ren Tang 

 

4. Zinc deficiency:

*Hair loss 

*Lack of alertness 

*Eye and skin lesions

*Delayed skin healing frequent *Cold symptoms 

*Diarrhea 

*Abnormal taste and smell sensation 

 

Kidney Qi deficiency, LU Qi deficiency,  

Spleen Qi deficiency  

Tonify Kidney Qi 

Tonify Lung Qi 

Tonify Spleen 

-Yu Pin Feng San 

-Liu Wei Di Huang Wan 

-Shen Ling Bai Zhu San 

-Bai He Gu Jin Wan 

5. Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency: 

*Skin irritation and dryness 

*Depression 

*Dry eyes 

*Joint pain and stiffness 

LV blood deficiency, Heart Qi deficiency, Kidney qi deficiency  

Tonify Liver Blood; 

Tonify Qi 

Tonify Kidney Qi 

-Dang Gui Pian 

-Tao Hong Si Wu Wan 

-Jin Gui Shen Qi Wan 

-Shi Quan Da Bu Wan 

-Liu Wei Di Huang Wan 

 

6. Low calcium:

*Muscle cramps

*Brittle bones 

*Weak and brittle nails 

*Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet  

LV blood deficiency, Kidney Qi deficiency, Spleen qi deficiency  

Tonify Liver Blood deficiency 

Tonify Spleen 

Tonify Kidney Qi 

-Dang Gui Pian 

-Tao Hong Si Wu Tang 

-Jin Gui Shen Qi Wan 

-Nu Ke Ba Zhen Wan 

-Gui Pi Wan 

 

 

Although insects and animal products have been essential parts of Chinese herbal medicine throughout history, 80-90% of Chinese herbal medicine is still sourced from plants and minerals. This makes Chinese herbs a good option for people with vegetarian and vegan diet seeking nutrient supplements.  

Dietary Tips for Vegans and Vegetarians 

  1. Eat more roots that strengthen Qi, such as Daikon radish (Japanese for “big root”), Shan Yao (Chinese yam), and sweet potato. If you are having Yang deficiency, try Gan Cao Gan Jiang Tang. 
  2. Eat black food such as black beans and black wood fungus. Chinese medicine believes that black food can tonify the Kidney. And black fungus, a good source of iron, can help with iron deficiency. 
  3. Pungent food such as ginger, scallion, onion and pepper can tonify Yang Qi, thus warming and energizing the body.  

 

 

References: 

  1. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphar.2018.00803/full 
  2. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2018/3052058/ 
  3. Chen, J. K., Chen, T. T., & Crampton, L. (2004). Chinese medical herbology and pharmacology (Vol. 1267). City of Industry, CA: Art of Medicine Press, p.860. 
  4. Chen, J. K., Chen, T. T., & Crampton, L. (2004). Chinese medical herbology and pharmacology (Vol. 1267). City of Industry, CA: Art of Medicine Press, p.763. 
  5. Yeh, C. H., Arnold, C. K., Chen, Y. H., & Lai, J. N. (2011). Suan Zao Ren Tang as an original treatment for sleep difficulty in climacteric women: a prospective clinical observation. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2011. 
  6. Chen, J. K., Chen, T. T., & Crampton, L. (2004). Chinese medical herbology and pharmacology (Vol. 1267). City of Industry, CA: Art of Medicine Press, p.932. 
February 07, 2022 by The Herb Depot

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