Pharmacological basis of Chinese tonifying herbs

Chinese medicine has a long history that goes back thousands of years, but the concept is still relatively incomprehensible to modern medicine. While some may consider the two medical systems being distinct, they do share some common ground. Prof Robert Ko, an expert in pharmacology, has had years of experience in studying both Chinese medicine and modern medicine. His latest research focuses on the investigation of pharmacological basis of Chinese tonifying herbs and how they work in preventing age-associated diseases in the context of modern medicine, hence bridging the knowledge gap between the two medical systems.

Chinese herbs can be roughly divided into two categories, tonifying herbs for preventive health and curative herbs which are therapeutics. The most distinct element of Chinese medicine is the idea of prevention of disease (治未病), according to the Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Medicine (《黃帝內經》). There are four main categories of tonifying herbs, namely Yang-invigorating herbs(補陽), Qi-invigorating herbs (補氣), Yin-nourishing herbs(滋陰) and blood (circulation/production) promoting herbs (補血). The modes of action of dietary supplements in modern medicine mostly include antioxidation, immunomodulatory action and hormonal regulation, which are also likely produced by tonifying herbs. The fundamental difference between Chinese medicine and modern medicine in preventive health lies in the holistic concept of Chinese medicine in restoring a balance of body function through treating various deficiencies (Yang Qi, Yin, Blood) in preventing diseases.

The Chinese medicine theory has a clear take on its explanation of the aging process. The amount of Zheng Qi (or simply Qi) inside human body declines with age progressively and once it is completely depleted, it signifies the end of life. Based on the Chinese medicine theory, Qi is a vital energy that flows through the meridian and collateral system which are the channels of energy flow, thereby enabling the functional activities of various organs. Qi has two major functions, defensive Qi (衛氣) to protect the body against disease and nutritive Qi (營氣) to maintain physiological functions of various organs by nourishment. Qi is produced in the human body by combining prenatal Qi (腎氣) (inherited from parents upon conception that cannot be replenished) and ancestral Qi (宗氣) (which is formed by combining air Qi (清氣) acquired through inhaling fresh air and grain Qi (穀氣) absorbed as nutrients resulting from the digestion of food). Therefore, the key to anti-aging is to preserve the former (i.e., prenatal Qi) and make sure the latter (ancestral Qi) is sufficiently produced. In other words, maintaining a healthy balance of Yin and Yang, which can be achieved by using tonifying herbs, is instrumental to retard the aging process.

In modern medicine, there are numerous studies showing the connection between mitochondria and aging. Research findings point out that in addition to producing energy, mitochondria perform many specific functions within a cell. When mitochondrial dysfunction occurs and the human body fails to produce enough energy, it can accelerate the aging process. With this in mind, it should not be hard to associate running out of cellular energy with the depletion of Qi in the context of Chinese medicine, indicating the overlapping part in the concept of the two medical systems in the understanding of aging.

Prof Ko is enthusiastic in applying research findings into practice. As a pioneer in developing proprietary Chinese herb-based health products, he continuously works on developing targeted anti-aging products that keep up with the needs of modern society. Prof Ko also launched a self-serve software to help users analyse their deficiency in Qi and look for corresponding products, giving a hand to promoting health awareness.