What are herbs and how are they classified in TCM?

Herbs are natural plant products with therapeutic properties to help restore balance in your system. Chinese medicine have been harnessing the power of herbs for healing for thousands of years. While you may be familiar with herbs found in your kitchen for cooking, there are a plethora of herbs used in TCM to address the underlying causes of various conditions. They can be found in different shapes and forms (even garlic and ginger are herbs)! Other forms of herbs include:

  • Roots and rhizomes
  • Stems and barks
  • Flowers and leaves
  • Fruits and seeds
  • Pearls and shells
  • Mushrooms

Herbs in TCM are described by 5 basic flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, spicy (or acrid), and salty. Each flavor has unique properties that provide therapeutic benefits to a particular organ in the body (corresponds to one of the five elements of Chinese philosophy). Incorporating each of the different flavors help to correct imbalances and support healthy functioning of the body's organ systems. 


Sweet herbs harmonize other flavors and form the center of our diet. Sweet herbs strengthen the digestive system and nourishes the body and restores fluid. It's traditionally associated with a tonic effect to help nourish the spleen, which intakes, processes, and distributes nutrients from food in the TCM perspective.  


Sour herbs are relatively rare but is common in fruits like schisandra berry. Sour herbs stimulate contraction and absorption. They are astringent and tightening in nature to prevent the loss of fluids like sweating or excess bleeding. Sour flavors are associated with the liver (responsible for the smooth flow of energy and blood throughout the body), and counteract the effects of greasy foods. 


Bitter herbs balance the heart, clearing heat and drying dampness. The bitter taste correlates to the heart (responsible for blood and circulating it through the vessels to nourish the cells). The alkaloids and glycosides found in bitter plants affect the nervous and circulatory systems. Because of this heat clearing property, bitter herbs are often used to reduce inflammation and fight infection. 


The spicy flavor also known as acrid/pungent helps to open the lungs. Ever eaten something spicy and broken a sweat? Spicy flavors promote blood circulation and energy in body to support the respiratory system. Spicy herbs like ginger simulate digestion and help with clearing mucus in the lungs, and research shows that ginger has anti-viral effects in the body.


Salty herbs like seaweed help to dissolve masses, reduce phlegm, and soften hardness. To understand the softening action, observe what happens to fresh vegetables after they are sprinkled with salt -- they will wilt quickly. Salty herbs regulate moisture balance, and are often used to treat constipation, abnormal growths, and accumulations. This flavor correlates to the kidney (storehouse for energy, responsible for removing waste products and excess fluids from the body).