When to use honey-processed Huang Qi?
By Eric Brand
Huang Qi is one of the most commonly used herbs in Chinese medicine. In fact, American herb companies often report that Huang Qi sales outpace all other single herbs, and data from 1997 in Taiwan suggests that Huang Qi was the #1 herb by total import volume (just ahead of Gou Qi Zi and Dang Gui). Given its popularity, it is important to know when to use the honey-processed form and when to use the raw form.
If we look at granule herb sales by rank, it appears that the crude form of Huang Qi outsells the honey-processed form by a five-fold difference. This discrepancy suggests that many practitioners simply use a single “Huang Qi” product and do not clinically differentiate the crude and honey-processed forms from one another. When is each form preferred? Does it really matter?
Huang Qi was initially processed by simply discarding the “neck” of the root, a practice that dates back to the Jin Gui Yao Lue (“Essential Prescriptions from the Golden Cabinet”). Steaming was added a few centuries later in the Lei Gong Pao Zhi Lun (“Master Lei’s Treatise on Drug Processing”). Honey-processing for Huang Qi developed in the Song dynasty (960-1280 CE). Other adjuvants for Huang Qi processing came later, such as wine, ginger juice, rice water, and even human breast milk. Today, the two most popular forms of Huang Qi on the market are the crude form and the honey-processed form.
Honey-processed Huang Qi is made by mixing purified honey with water (in Chinese medicine, honey is often boiled before use to make “purified honey,” known as Lian Mi). The water-honey mix is used to briefly soak the Huang Qi, and then the Huang Qi is dry-fried until it becomes deep yellow and is no longer sticky. A toaster oven is often used in the modern day; the honeyed astragalus is simply baked at a low temperature until it becomes deep yellow and dry.
Unprocessed Huang Qi, called Sheng Huang Qi or simply Huang Qi, is the best form for boosting the defense qi to secure the exterior. It is also preferred for drawing toxin and engendering flesh. Finally, unprocessed Huang Qi is best for disinhibiting urination to reduce swelling. It is generally used for spontaneous sweating or the tendency to catch common colds easily due to insecurity of the exterior with weak defense qi (wei qi). It is also indicated for qi vacuity patterns of water swelling and for flat- and welling-abcesses that fail to rupture or rupture and fail to close. Exemplary formulas include Yu Ping Feng San (Jade Wind-Barrier Powder), Fang Ji Huang Qi Tang (Fangji and Astragalus Decoction), and Tou Nong San (Pus-Outthrusting Powder).
Honey-processed Huang Qi, called Zhi Huang Qi or Mi Huang Qi, tends to be moistening and is best for boosting qi and supplementing the middle burner. It is used for spleen-lung qi vacuity with reduced food intake, sloppy stool, shortness of breath, and lack of strength. It is also indicated for center qi fall manifesting in enduring diarrhea, rectal prolapse or uterine prolapse. For bleeding due to spleen qi failing to contain the blood, the honey-processed form is also preferred. Exemplary formulas include Gui Pi Tang (Spleen-Returning Decoction) and Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang (Center-Supplementing Qi-Boosting Decoction).
Jiao Shu-De sums up the differences succinctly in his Ten Lectures on Medicinals text: “used raw, Huang Qi moves in the exterior…used mix-fried its emphasis is on the interior.” Despite these stated differences and the emphasis from pao zhi texts, there are a few discrepancies around. For example, multiple pao zhi texts state that the action desired for the formula Yu Ping Feng San is best accomplished with the crude product, but the original source text for the formula specified honey-processed Huang Qi. Just when I thought I had it down…