chinese herbsChinese Herbs are one of the five treatment modalities of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In a TCM clinic, Chinese herbs are often employed alongside acupuncture, massage, therapeutic movement, and nutritional therapy to treat a wide range of health complaints. Clinical efficacy is well documented with more than 350 herbs that are commonly used today that have a history of use that goes back at least 2,000 years. Over that time, a vast amount of experience has been gained that has gone towards perfecting the clinical applications of herbs. According to Chinese and Japanese clinical studies, these herbs, and others that have been added over the centuries, can greatly increase the effectiveness of modern drug treatments, reduce their side-effects, and sometimes replace pharmaceuticals all together.

One of the reasons that Chinese herbs are gaining in popularity today over Western herbs is because of the vast scope of clinical experience in safely using Chinese medicinals. In every province of China, there are large schools of traditional Chinese medicine, research institutes, and teaching hospitals, where thousands of practitioners each year are given herbal training. The written heritage of Chinese medicine is quite rich. Ancient literature is retained, with increasing numbers of recent commentaries. New books are written by practitioners who have had several decades of personal experience or by compilers who search the vast amounts of diverse modern literature and arrange the results of clinical trials into categories. For this reason, Chinese herbology remains a living, growing system of medicine that continues to daily add to its body of knowledge.

Tastes, Temperatures & Channels Entered

Chinese herbs come in many shapes and sizes. Most Chinese herbs are truly herbs botanically speaking, and utilize the leaves, stems, flowers, bark, roots, or rhizomes from a vast array of plants from all over China and Asia. Other “herbs” which are sometimes used are animal substances such as bone, shells, insects, and minerals

The classic view is that the therapeutic effects of an herb are determined by its temperature, taste and the acupuncture meridians that it enters. An herb’s temperature is classified as hot, warm, neutral, cool, or cold. Cool and cold herbs are used to treat hot conditions, while warm and hot herbs are used to treat cold conditions. The tastes ascribed to herbs include sweet, sour, bitter, acrid and salty. Sweet herbs are used to tonify qi. Sour herbs have an astringent effect in the body. Bitter herbs are used to dry damp and clear heat. Acrid herbs have the power to disperse cold and move stagnation. Salty herbs are used to soften growths and for purgation. The herbs actions are said to target specific organs and acupuncture meridians.

Today, herbalists recognize the pharmaceutical aspects of herbs and incorporate that knowledge into the practice of modern herbalism. Herbs are often chosen for their effect on symptoms and well as their ability to positively impact disease and metabolic processes.

Herbal Formulations

Rarely, a single herb is prescribed for a patient’s condition. Far more common, however, is that several herbs (6-12) are combined into an herbal formula. In the context of an herbal formula, a single herb acts not only according to its own taste and temperature and channels entered, but also in concert with the other herbs in the formula. The overall effect of a formula is the result of the synergy or alchemy created by the combination of the single herbs.

Formulas come in the form of decoctions (teas), pills, granules, powders, alcohol or oil based infusions, liniments, lotions, salves, and poultices. The type of formula you are prescribed is dependent upon the most effective form and what will best address the health issue. For instance, acute issues involving the internal organs will most likely be prescribed an internal remedy in the form of a tea as they are usually the most potent. A chronic issue might be treated with a pill or granule as they are easier and less time consuming to prepare, and might be a better treatment choice as they keep a consistent amount of active ingredients from the herbs in the body.

Efficacy and Safety

Chinese herbs are very effective and extremely safe when used correctly under the supervision of a trained herbalist. Herbal formulas can be very potent and should be treated with care, especially when used alongside other herbs or medications. That being said, the vast majority of Chinese herbs have no toxicity associated with them even if taken in absurdly large dosages. Mild side effects such as digestive complaints or skin reactions have been associated with some Chinese herbs. Allergic reactions are occasionally noted, a problem that often cannot be predicted in advance since these are idiosyncratic responses. Additionally, there are few possible interactions with Western medications such as blood pressure or anti-clotting medicines that need to be considered. For this reason, I would highly recommend working with a trained herbalist if a person is concurrently using pharmaceutical medicines to treat a serious illness.

Another potential concern with any herbal substance is its source. A qualified herbalist will make sure that all herbal substances, their cultivation, preparation, formulation, and packaging is safe by their conforming to Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) standards. Also, reputable herbal companies will make sure that all herbs are free of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, heavy metals, bacterial or pathogen contamination, and preservatives.

Chinese herbalists have extensive training in their fields. All complete a 4 year course in the theory, philosophy, and practical application of herbs. They are knowledgeable of possible side effects, contraindications, and interactions with other medicines or foods. Many now have additional certification in herbal medicine by national accreditation boards that qualify and quantify a practitioner’s experience and knowledge. These measures ensure that standards remain high for herbalists.

Why Use Chinese Herbs?

Now that you know some of the history, theory, training, and knowledge of Chinese herbs and those you use them, are they the right choice for you? My professional opinion is that if one can safely and effectively substitute herbs for pharmaceuticals or surgery, than that is a superior choice for treatment. The reasons being that herbs have: far fewer side effects, and are safer, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly. Using herbs develops awareness, connection, and understanding of one’s personal journey through an illness. As a result, people are often inspired to make positive life changes that support their new found health. This is truly a holistic approach to illness and for that matter, health as well.

If you have questions regarding Chinese herbs and if they might be right for you contact your local Chinese herbalist. If you are in the Greater Fort Collins, CO area you can contact me at Hugh’s Acupuncture Clinic (970) 215-7419 or at .

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