Chinese Herbal Medicine

By Natalie S. - Feb 27, 2020 9:45:00 AM


Herbs are one of the many branches of Chinese Medicine. The others include acupuncture, massage, exercise, and dietary therapy. All of these practices work in slightly different ways. However, they have one common aim – restoring a state of healthy balance to the body and mind.

In this article, we explain everything you need to know about Chinese herbal medicine. Read on to find out more.

What Is Chinese Herbal Medicine?

Chinese herbal medicine is the practice of using herbs to treat disease by harmonizing body and mind. The word ‘herbs’ usually refers to plants, but in Chinese medicine, it can include minerals and animal ingredients too.

Chinese medicine classifies these herbs according to their properties. For example, some herbs are good for clearing away external pathogens, while others are good at nourishing blood, qi, yin, or yang. Some herbs’ main use is to improve the circulation, while others can help to tranquilize the mind.

A Chinese herbalist will select different herbs depending on their properties and each patient’s individual needs. They will usually combine several herbs together, in what is known as a formula.

What Is the Difference Between Chinese and Western Herbal Medicine?

The main difference between Chinese and western herbalism is that Chinese herbal medicine works on the principles if TCM (traditional Chinese medicine). This means that rather than saying “this herb is good for headaches” we would tend to say “this herb is good for calming yang” or “this herb can help to clear wind.”

Unlike western herbalism, in Chinese medicine, there is little focus on the active chemicals inside each herb. This is because Chinese herbal medicine developed thousands of years ago, before doctors knew anything about biochemistry. Instead of isolating individual compounds, ancient doctors discovered an herb’s properties by observing how it occurs in nature. They also relied a lot on trial and error.

According to TCM, each herb’s unique properties depend on its flavor and nature. The flavors of herbs can be described as:

  • Sweet
  • Salty
  • Bitter
  • Pungent
  • Sour

These flavors determine how an herb will influence the body. For example, sweet herbs are nourishing and bitter herbs are cleansing. Furthermore, the nature of an herb can be described as:

  • Hot
  • Cold
  • Warm
  • Cool
  • Neutral

Again, these words describe how the herbs influence the body and the type of diseases they can treat. For example, hot herbs are used to treat cold conditions, and so on.

Another key difference between Chinese and western herbal medicine is that western herbalists often prescribe a single herb. This is very unusual in Chinese herbal medicine and herbs will almost always be prescribed as part of a formula.

Chinese Herbal Medicine Benefits

The exact benefits of Chinese herbal medicine depend on each patient and the condition they are trying to treat. If a patient has excessive heat in their body, herbs can help to cool them down. If someone has pain due to qi or blood stagnation, herbs can help these vital substances to flow freely again.

Because Chinese herbs are usually combined to create a formula, the ingredients can be tailored to suit a patient’s individual needs. You could say that Chinese herbal medicine is a kind of ‘personalized medicine.’

Moreover, there are several benefits to prescribing Chinese herbs as part of a formula. On one hand, the ingredients can work together, synergistically, to enhance one another’s effects. On the other hand, they can help to make formulas safer by detoxifying each other and reducing the risk of side effects.

How Do You Take Chinese Herbal Medicine?

The traditional method of taking Chinese herbal method is known as a decoction. This is a kind of strong tea that you make by simmering the herbs for a long time and then straining off the liquid. Unfortunately, this method is quite time-consuming and inconvenient, not to mention that most decoctions taste extremely bitter.

Therefore, Chinese herbalists have had to develop more modern and user-friendly methods of taking herbs. Nowadays, it is common to find Chinese herbal medicine in the form of pills, powders, and granules. You can also find herbal preparations that you apply directly to the skin such as ointments, oils, and medicated plasters.

Although some practitioners still consider decoction the most effective way of taking herbs, most agree on one thing; It is essential that a patient takes their herbs regularly, and so it is best to use whichever form makes this easiest.

Is Chinese Herbal Medicine Safe?

In the western world, Chinese herbal medicine has received a lot of bad press over the years. Critics have often claimed that it is unsafe due to toxic ingredients.

It is true that some traditional Chinese herbs do contain toxic compounds. However, the use of these herbs is banned in the United States, meaning that herbs bought here, from a reputable supplier, should be safe.

Of course, like any medicine, you do need to exercise some caution when taking Chinese herbs. Firstly, only take herbs that were prescribed for you and not a friend or family member. Even though your symptoms might seem similar, there is a good chance that the root cause of your issues is different. Taking the wrong herbs could end up having a negative effect on your body and doing more harm than good.

Secondly, ensure that you take your herbs exactly as directed by the practitioner who prescribed them. Be sure to tell your provider about any changes in your symptoms or side effects that happen while taking your herbs. They will be able to modify the formula if necessary.

Finally, it is essential to tell your practitioner about any other medication you are taking, whether it be prescribed or over-the-counter. Likewise, you should let your primary physician know that you are planning to take Chinese herbs. These qualified healthcare professionals will be able to ensure that you remain safe throughout the course of your treatment and beyond.

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