The How, What & Why of Chinese Herbal Medicine

If you’re reading this post, you probably already have some cursory knowledge of non-Western medicine and holistic healing. But with Western medicine increasingly embracing Eastern and “non-traditional” practices, there is an explosion of information out there and it’s important to learn about the history as well as the appropriate way to approach a holistic healing practice.

I see many patients who come into acupuncture and are familiar with how it works, but when I suggest herbal medicine to complement their acupuncture treatments, there can be hesitation, fear, and even resistance. But herbal medicine doesn’t have to be scary! It’s a wonderful, natural, and powerful practice that promotes deep healing. I hope this post will ease some fears around natural medicine and bring more understanding about how Chinese herbal medicine works.

The Foundations of Herbalism

Chinese medicine has existed for more than 3,000 years. In fact, according to the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, writings about qi, yin, and yang have been found from as early as the 15th to the 11th centuries BC. From these earliest writings on bone and tortoiseshell to the modern practitioners of acupuncture and herbal medicine, the focus has always been on balance—within the body system and between the body and the outside environment. In TCM, a symptom is not just a singular event that you throw a generic drug at and move on with your life. A symptom is actually just one small, visible part of a bigger picture of imbalance. Jamie Starkey, LAc, an acupuncturist and Chinese medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine, puts it succinctly, writing that herbalism—and TCM in general—treats the “patterns of disharmony.”

Chinese medicine encompasses many different practices: acupuncture, gua sha, tai chi, herbalism, cupping, tuina, moxibustion, and qigong are just a few, and a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner will often recommend that patients try a unique combination of these, based on a personalized diagnosis. Herbalism is an important facet of Chinese medicine and one that I’m especially excited about right now, given my new herbal pharmacy right at my office, thanks to Five Flavors Herbs.

What is Herbalism?

Herbalism is the practice of prescribing certain medicinal herbs in order to get the body system back into balance. Unfortunately, herbalism is also one of the Eastern practices most likely to be misinterpreted or misused. One big mistake I see a lot of people making is reading an article online and then “prescribing” themselves a certain herb. Again, Chinese medicine is about taking a holistic approach to health: an herb that you read about that is supposed to ease one symptom could also have negative or unintended effects on some other part of your body, or even on your mental and emotional state. A trained herbalist like myself will take into account everything: your eating, sleeping, work, and exercise routines as well as past conditions, current medications and emotional and psychological factors as well as your energy systems (tongue and pulse diagnosis).

We call our prescriptions herbal formulas because they are not just one herb, but rather a combination of very specific herbs prescribed in a specific order to address your specific needs. I may prescribe a formula for insomnia that contains heat-clearing herbs when a patient is exhibiting more signs of heat in the body, for example, and recommend that the patient take the formula at a specific time of day and at a specific dosage based on their needs. On the other hand, I may prescribe another patient with insomnia a completely different formula that has more blood- and yin-nourishing herbs if that is what they need.

What Can Herbalism Treat?

Chinese herbal medicine has been shown to treat a wide variety of conditions and is most commonly effective in the treatment of depression, common cold and flu, chronic fatigue, sinusitis, insomnia, female hormonal issues such as those associated with infertility and/or menopause, and in the reduction of side effects resulting from chemotherapy. Herbs are most effective when taken in conjunction with other therapies.

There is an entire materia medica of hundreds of Chinese herbs that Chinese medicine practitioners like myself are trained in using. A few of the most common herbs used to treat different disorders/imbalances are:

  • Astralagus: boosts the immune system, benefits digestive function and treats skin disorders
  • Cinnamon: warms the body, boosting circulation
    • A popular and very effective formula is Cinnamon Twig Decoction, or gui zhi tang: it’s great to take at the first sign of a cold or when feeling depleted
  • Ginger: counteracts nausea and treats cough and cold
  • Ginseng: regulates blood pressure and blood sugar and enhances immune function
  • Licorice: neutralize toxins, relieve inflammation, and boost digestive function
  • Ma-huang: boosts metabolism and respiratory function
  • Rhubarb: has laxative properties, boosts appetite and improves circulation

How Are Herbs Prescribed?

Herbal formulas can take the form of loose herbs, tinctures (my personal favorite), granulated herbs (powders), or patent herbs (pills/capsules). Loose herbs are generally the most potent because you are getting the herbs in their natural state, but again, your herbalist will have a recommendation for how and in what form to take the formula as well as where to get it. I advise my patients to choose the form that they will take more consistently. If you don’t think you can drink a tea two or three times a day on a regular basis with your schedule, then I would recommend a pill or tincture, for example.

While not an exhaustive look at Chinese herbalism (as I mentioned, the materia medica has hundreds of herbs in it—not to mention herb combinations!), I hope this article brings some clarity and eases any fears about trying Chinese herbal medicine. As long as you are in consultation with a licensed acupuncturist or herbalist, following their instructions and checking in regularly, herbalism can be an exciting new tool and perspective to add in your journey towards healing.