For thousands of years, winter has been the season when Chinese take gaofang herbal paste tonic to build up and store their energy so it can "sprout" in the spring.
Millions of people take two spoonfuls a day, morning and night, mixed with warm water.
Traditional Chinese medicine pharmacies are filled with gaofang jars of herbal pastes of many kinds, compounded with 40 different herbs and animal parts. Ginseng, velvet deer antlers, tortoise belly, donkey hide, ganoderma or lingzhi fungus are among the ingredients. Dates, lotus seeds, sugar and other ingredients are added to improve the taste.
Gao means paste and fang is short for chufang or prescription.
TCM hospitals are filled with people seeking consultations so they can get the perfect gaofang for their constitution. Some is specially compounded.
Winter, according to TCM, is the yin (cold energy) season in the universe when we should store yang (hot energy) that can grow in the spring.
Many people take reinforcement all year round, but the gaofang is best absorbed in the winter, according to Dr Zhou Duan, vice president of Longhua Hospital attached to Shanghai University of TCM.
Gaofang reinforces both yin and yang energy as needed and is known in Western medicine as an adaptogen.
A clay jar (about 2,700 grams) usually costs about 1,500 yuan (US$220) and usually lasts for one and a half months.
Rejuvenating herbal paste first appeared in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) and was a well-developed reinforcing therapy in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It was widely used among royal families in Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Modern gaofang has been extremely popular in Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Guangdong provinces where people are relatively rich and concerned about their health.
The regimen has spread to other regions, like Beijing and Yunnan Province, in recent years.
As the body is supposed to be in tune with the universe, the optimum time for gaofang is said to be from the Winter Solstice (or Dongzhi, usually on December 21-23) through Spring Begins (or chunfen, on February 3-5).
People buy ginsengs and other herbals at Tonghanchun Tang, a centuries-old TCM pharmacy, in Yuyuan Garden, for their gaofang. According to TCM doctors, the gaofang is best absorbed in the winter.
Since mid-October, gaofang consultation has been offered at Shanghai TCM hospitals, including Shuguang Hospital, Longhua Hospital and Yueyang Hospital.
So far Longhua Hospital has received around 20,000 people for consultation, 10 percent more than last year. Similar increase is reported in the other two hospitals.
Most of the patients have high-blood pressure, diabetes and stomach problems or are sub-healthy people with problems of long-term fatigue, weakness and dizziness. TCM doctors add particular herbs to their tonics.
Some healthy patients also are asking for prescription tonics to strenghten themselves for heavy work (physical/mental) next year, says Dr Zhou. Gaofang also helps them but its effects may not be as obvious as for people with chronic ailments and general sub-healthy conditions.
Pregnant women, mensturating women, women in menstrual period, infant, patients with acute ailments or chronic ailments in flareup should not eat gaofang.
Gaofang is prescribed to adjust the long-term energy balance but it can aggravate the energy imbalance and damage the health if it is taken while a person is suffering serious ailments or flareups.
Some ingredients, such as ginseng, increase blood flow so it should not be taken while women are menstruating or pregnant.
Patent gaofeng is available in pharmacies and online at lower cost but some may not be effective or could damage health, TCM doctors say. Always consult pharmacists before buying gaofeng.
"The strategy is to reinforce deficient energy and dispel the excessive excessive energy, which differs from person to person. "Blindly taking a tonic may aggravate the energy imbalance and cause health problems," says Dr Zhou.
Those people with chronic problems should first consult relevant TCM specialists, he says.
As for online recipes, he recommends caution as most people don't really understand their own energy situation.
As for "beauty gaofang," there are not such TCM consultations as yet, but it is feasible to add herbs to improve complexion and delay signs of aging.
How to eat gaofang
Most healthy people should take 30 grams (a spoonful) of gaofang twice a day on an empty stomach. It can be eaten straight, followed by warm water, or dissolved in warm water. More is not better.
People with digestion problems should eat gaofang five to 10 minutes after meals.
It is generally prescribed only if children are weak. Children aged from five to 10 take a third of an adult dose. Those 10 and above can take half, 15 grams.
A clay jar is the traditional and best container. As the freshly made paste is usually hot, it can react with plastic or metal containers, but not with ceramics.
Always use a clean, dry spoon, otherwise it can be contaminated, promoting growth of bacteria and mold. Throw out moldy gaofang - it can make you sick.
Store it in the refrigerator at 0 to 10 degrees Celsius.
Avoid irritating and hard-to-digest foods, including seafood, greasy and spicy food. Avoid alcohol, strong tea and coffee as they can interfere with absorption of gaofang.
Stop taking gaofang if you get very sick or have a flareup, such as rheumatism.
Don't take it if you're pregnant or menstruating.
Do not eat turnips with gaofang.
Don't drink milk, juice or other beverages with gaofang - wait half an hour.