Rice, Barley, Wheat and Millet are all Chinese Medicine!

What do you eat when you get sick or have an upset stomach? In Chinese medicine, one of the most common foods to soothe cranky digestion is a thick, grain-based soup called a congee*. It’s traditionally made with rice, but it can also be make with other grains, such as barley, millet and even wheat. Essentially, congee is like a porridge in which the grains have been boiled until they’re soft and easy to digest. Protein, well-cooked vegetables and flavoring can be added, or it can be lightly sweetened and eaten for breakfast. The beauty of a congee is that it’s the perfect comfort food; it can calm down your digestion, is appealing when your appetite is off and is gentle when you’re recovering from an illness.

It’s not surprising that there are a handful of grain-based herbs in the Chinese formulary that have similar actions to the grains that may be used in a congee. In fact three herbs that are derived from barley, rice and millet treat something called food stagnation. In Chinese medicine, the term food stagnation is similar to indigestion. Essentially, the food you’ve eaten is hanging around in your stomach or small intestine and making you feel ill. Like indigestion, the symptoms of food stagnation include feeling uncomfortably full after eating, upper abdominal pain, heartburn or acid reflux, belching, bloating, rumbling sounds, nausea or a loss of appetite.

Sprouted grain-based herbs in the Chinese herbal formulary include:

  • Barley sprouts, which is the same as malted barley. In Chinese this herb is called Mai Ya and is used for indigestion and to move the build-up of undigested starchy foods. It works by helping to repair your digestion, improve your energy and is good in cases where stress and emotional upsets have affected your digestion and appetite. May Ya may also be used to inhibit lactation in women who are trying to discontinue nursing and in babies who have problems digesting milk.
  • Rice sprouts, or Gu Ya, is also used for poor digestion, food stagnation, especially of starchy foods and poor appetite.
  • Millet sprouts, also called Su Ya, have actions similar to barley and rice sprouts. It’s used in formulas to move food stagnation and repair your digestion.
grain-based herbs - fu xiao mai - geng mi - nuo dao gen xu - TCM

Another group of grain-based herbs that work to stabilize and bind. This simply means your body’s ability to hold substances and organs in place. When your energy is low and your body is depleted, the lack of this holding function can show up as spontaneous sweating, easy bruising, chronic diarrhea and prolapse of organs. The following grain-based herbs work in two ways; they help to rebuild your health and they strengthen your body’s ability to bind substances and hold organs:

  • Fu Xiao Mai is wheat grain that’s just a little under ripe. It’s used in formulas to treat spontaneous sweating and night sweats due to depletion. This herb is also helpful in nourishing your Chinese heart system and calming your emotions to reduce palpitations, insomnia and irritability.
  • Non-glutinous rice, called Geng Mi, treats spontaneous sweating, too. However it’s also used when depletion causes chronic diarrhea. Geng Mi may also be added to an herbal formula to promote fluids and control thirst.
  • Roots from the sweet rice plant, Nuo Dao Gen Xu, is an herb that may be added to formulas to treat sweating from deficiency. Interestingly, sweet rice is also known as sticky rice. It’s a short grain rice that contains only one starch component. In contrast, more common non-glutinous rice that makes up Geng Mi contains two starchy components, which actually makes it less sticky.

Grains sometimes get a bad reputation as being unhealthy food, but the bottom line is that grains, whether eaten as a food or used in an herbal formula are used to rebuild and strengthen your health. As food, they’re easy to digest and a good choice when you’re feeling ill. As herbs they work to support your digestion, restore your appetite, rebuild your energy and promote your body’s ability to contain important body fluids. If you’d like to know more about using herbs as a way to enhance your health, please contact us at BodaHealth.


*Congee is easy to make! Combine one part rice (or other grain) and seven parts water. Simmer on low heat until the grains are soft and the consistency of the water is thick. Add broth or seasonings to taste, a protein of your choice (tofu, chicken, pork, fish or egg are good choices) and vegetables. If you’re fighting off a cold, make your congee with broth, ginger and scallions—then take it easy for the rest of the day.

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Dr. Jeda Boughton

Dr. Jeda Boughton

Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.

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