What is Chinese Herbal Medicine?
Chinese herbal medicine is a sophisticated system of diagnosing disease and treating with complex formulae of medicinal substances. Some herbs are unique to China, such as Chai hu (bupleurum) whilst others are well known in the West, such as Gan cao (licorice). Only plants and fungi are used; animal products are banned in the UK and Europe.
History of Chinese Herbal Medicine
While it is likely that all early cultures used plants as medicine as well as food, Chinese medicine has the longest recorded history, with the first book found by archeologists in the Mawangdui Tombs in China dating back to before 168 BC.
There has been constant development since then, with new theories added in response to changing conditions, such as epidemic illness. New herbs were added to the pharmacopeia as China expanded it’s trade routes along the Silk Roads.
How does Chinese Herbal Medicine work?
From a modern perspective medicinal plants work pharmacologically. That is, they contain biologically active substances which change how the body is working, as do all drugs. This is different to therapies like homeopathy which don’t contain any biologically active substances. Drugs are single chemicals which produce a standardised response, but are highly likely to have side effects. Herbs contain a wide spectrum of chemicals with a broader action which are less likely to produce side effects whilst having a more holistic effect.
In ancient Chinese medical terms, the herbs have a taste and temperature and affinity to particular internal organs and channels. For instance a cold herb will clear heat, e.g. “Sheng Di Huang (Rehmanniae radix) can reduce Heart-Fire in order to treat restlessness and insomnia” (1). In contrast, “Hot or warm herbs are used to warm the body and to treat cold syndromes. For example, Gan Jiang (Zingiberis rhizome) is able to warm the Middle Jiao and treat abdominal cramps and diarrhoea” (1). Gan Jiang is dried ginger and the Middle Jiao refers to the whole of the upper abdomen.
A lot of research has been done both in and outside of China, which attests to the efficacy of Chinese Herbal Medicine.
What Can Chinese Medicine treat, and how does it compare to acupuncture?
While acupuncture enjoys more popularity in the UK, Europe and America, in China and South East Asia herbal medicine is far more popular. I’m a massive fan of acupuncture and it is great for regulating Qi and Blood and stimulating the body’s natural self-regulation and healing. It is great for many conditions as can be seen in many of the posts on this website. But herbs can actually add energy to the body where there is a deficit of Qi, Yin, Blood or Yang. This can be invaluable for some sorts of infertility, Chronic Fatigue states like Long Covid and so on.
In China herbs are thought of first for skin issues and digestive problems. And often acupuncture and herbs are used together to treat different aspects of the same condition.
Chinese herbal medicine is very safe when prescribed by a qualified practitioner. Herbs are usually given in combinations which are balanced and harmonised. A couple of chief herbs may produce the main therapeutic effect, some deputy herbs may then treat any possible side effects of the chief herbs, and envoy herbs guide the herbs to the site of the body which needs treatment.
- Herbs can be safely given to children, but obviously at a lower dose
Pregnancy and Breast Feeding
- If you are pregnant, trying to conceive, or are breast feeding then please do tell your practitioner. Herbs can still be given safely, but there are certain substances which must be avoided. Otherwise, Chinese herbal medicine is safe in pregnancy and can be used to treat problems arising from a pregnancy, such as morning sickness, risk of miscarriage and so on.
Apart from not tasting very nice, there a few side effects from herbs. If there are it is usually because the wrong herbs have been given though mis-diagnosis. Occasionally herbs can cause digestive upset, but prescriptions can then be adjusted to avoid that.
How is Chinese Herbal Medicine taken?
Traditionally dried herbs were boiled for around 20 minutes to make a decoction which was then drank. I still use this method but mostly I use granulated herbs, which is an easier and cheaper option. With this method a herb is decocted in the traditional manner and then dried and made into granules. To make a prescription, granules of different herbs are measured out to make the same percentages as the traditional formula. To take the herbs around 5 g of this prescription is added to hot water; much like making a cup of instant coffee.
I did a year long course with the Phoenix Academy of Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine.
I am currently studying Classical Chinese Medicine with Heiner Fruehauf.
(1) “Chinese Herbal Medicines, Comparisons and Characteristics” by Yin Yang, Churchill Livingstone.