Chinese have taken the herbal paste tonic gaofang during winter for thousands of years to build up and store their energy so it can “sprout” again in spring. The concept is akin to that of farm- ers the world over who rely on springas the season when everything starts to grow; summer is their season of rapid growth and maturing; autumn is for harvest, and winter is the time to store.
The human body responds similarly to changing conditions and energy bal- ance and there are traditional Chinese medicine therapies for all seasons to treat ailments and keep you healthy.
“Winter, the season for storing energy, is the best time for jin bu, or reinforcing therapy, in the form of gao- fang, a herbal paste taken orally once a day to help you store energy and pre- vent particular ailments,” says Li Bin, chief physician of the Dermatological Department of Yueyang Hospital at- tached to Shanghai University of TCM.
Li says there’s an old TCM saying: “If you get good gaofang in winter, you can kill the tiger in spring.”
The herbal paste is a jelly-like medicine made from condensed liquid herbs and other ingredients, like honey and brown sugar. The paste has been used in TCM for more than 2,000 years.
It was first applied externally to heal wounds but was also later taken orally as it is easy to consume and store. Traditionally, it is kept in an earthen jar in a cool place. Now, small vacuum packages help make it easier to store. A spoonful of the paste mixed with hot water is advised to be taken each day before breakfast and at night before sleep. It is not as bitter if taken with honey or brown sugar.
Gaofang is not a cure, but it can strengthen the immune system and help those with chronic conditions; it can make regularly prescribed medi- cine work more effectively, but it is not a substitute, according to TCM doctors.
The main ingredients for traditional gaofang products at TCM pharmacies include ginseng, deer antler velvet, tortoise belly, donkey hide, ganoderma or lingzhi fungus. Dates, lotus seeds, sugar and other ingredients are added to improve the taste.
Many people seek consultations at local TCM hospitals so they can get a doctor’s prescription for tailor-made gaofang based on their individual problems.
Specific gaofang clinics at these hos- pitals usually run from late October to early January. And the optimal period to take it is from dong zhi (winter solstice) on December 22 to chun fen (spring solstice) on March 23.
People with chronic problems like high-blood pressure, diabetes, stom- ach problems and those suffering from long-term fatigue, weakness and dizziness have been among the major gaofang users.
Some new variations of gaofang are also gaining in popularity, including using it to treat chronic skin problems, particularly, according to Dr Li, those resulting from energy deficiency.
Symptoms can include chronic itchiness due to dry skin, hair loss due
Above: Doctors check the ingredients of gaofang at Yueyang Hospital. — Wang Juliang Right: The main ingredients for traditional gaofang products include ginseng, deer antler velvet, tortoise belly, donkey hide and ganoderma.
— Zhang Xinyan
to either psychological pressure or overactive sebum secretion, chloasma in middle-aged women, and psoriasis that is usually considered not curable by Western medicine.
Dr Li says an increasing number of female patients are seeking rem- edies to remove wrinkles and skin blemishes.
“TCM always believes in a close connection between external skin symptoms and the internal energy con- dition,” says Dr Li. “Without restoring the energy balance inside, the external treatment can only work temporarily.”
Herbs that help reinforce energy in the liver, kidney and spleen are commonly used in gaofang prescrip- tions for chronic skin problems. They include fu ling (Tuckahoe), lily’s root, shu di (treated rehmannia root), and bai shu (white atractylodes rhizome). However, there can be big differences in prescriptions for patients with vari- ous problems.
“One man’s meat is another man’s poison and it is especially true in TCM,” says Dr Li, who emphasizes the importance of identifying the patient’s constitution.
Though tui-na and acupuncture are widely believed to be the only effec- tive treatments for problems like stiff neck, aching lower back and old joints, using a reinforcement of gaofang in winter can actually help reduce or even prevent a relapse the next year.
“Malnutrition in bones and tendons due to fatigue or simply aging is a universal cause of most bone prob- lems, though not necessarily the only reason,” says Dr Zhou Chun, associate chief physician of the Orthopedics and Traumatology Department of Yueyang Hospital.Herbal tonics that help reinforce the liver and kidney while nourishing ten- dons and bones are widely prescribed for patients with these problems. They include gou qi (wolfberry), dang gui (angelica), mai dong (lilyturf root) and sang ji sheng (mistletoe). Additional herbs will be prescribed based on the TCM doctors’ diagnosis.Though helpful, Dr Zhou warnspatients against using gaofang therapy for bone and other ailments during the acute pain period. He says some of its reinforcing herbs may conflict with other medicines being taken and counteract their effectiveness.Weeks or even months of kailu fang, or “pioneer medicine” therapy, is usu- ally needed to prepare these patients for a return to full strength.