Chinese Herbs: Shedding Light on the Mystery
Of all the modalities I ask permission to perform as part of a treatment in my clinic- not limited to burning the herb mugwort over acupuncture points close to the skin (moxibustion), using a tool or cup to create bruises on the body (guasha and cupping), or even squeezing blood from spider veins or from acupuncture points on the tips of fingers or toes- the modality often met with the most reluctance is my recommendation of taking Chinese Herbs.
Why the skepticism?
It makes sense. If you search Chinese Herbology on Wikipedia, you’ll find a reference to an editorial in Nature that claims Chinese Herbology is “fraught with pseudoscience” and that the most obvious reason why it has not delivered many cures is that the majority of its treatments have no logical mechanism of action.
Chinese herbs are indeed mysterious; they include a variety of ingredients that are unfamiliar to us and they’re written in Chinese language (pinyin) on the bottle. You need to take a few doses per day and the effects are not immediate so, how do you know they are working? What about side effects? Will they interact with my medications or supplements?
Adding to the skepticism, doctors are not trained in Chinese Herbology so when we seek their counsel on weather or not to adhere to our acupuncturist’s advice, they often air on the side of caution and suggest not taking them.
Another problem hurting the rapport of Chinese Herbs is that they are sold over the counter in some health food stores. Without a diagnosis by a trained practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, people choose the incorrect formula, the incorrect dose, and the incorrect duration. They decide ‘Chinese Herbs don’t work’ or even worse, suffer digestive discomfort due to the poor quality of many of these over-the-counter brands.
What are Chinese Herbs?
The truth is, high quality Chinese Herbs that are properly prescribed by a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, can be a phenomenal adjunct to acupuncture, nutrition, and lifestyle. Chinese Herbs have been studied and developed for approximately 5,000 years. They are found in nature and are mostly of botanical origin (fruits, seeds, roots, stems, leaves, and flowers).
Western Drugs in comparison are synthetically created in laboratories. They are highly concentrated and have a very specific action in the body. For this reason, they work quickly, are powerful, and often cause side effects. (Sadly, the side effects are all-too-often treated with additional pharmaceuticals. Now, there are two drugs with powerful specific actions interacting in the body; this can cause additional side effects, often treated with yet another pharmaceutical drug.)
The beauty of Chinese Herbs is that they are rarely used as single herbs; instead, they’re combined in formulas, which are specific to patterns that we diagnose in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Because a formula contains many herbs at low doses, it can take anywhere from 1 week to 1 month for them to build up a therapeutic dose within our body and begin to effect the symptom. This gradual, gentle process makes them a much safer alternative to pharmaceuticals.
Best of all, after a course of Chinese Herbs, the underlying disharmony is addressed as well as, the symptom (more about that below) so, you can taper off of the herbs as your symptom improves, and ultimately, discontinue them.
The quality and purity of the herbs you take is of extreme importance, as poor quality herbs may be contaminated with heavy metals or toxins. It is also important to seek council from a practitioner licensed in Traditional Chinese Medicine when deciding what formula to take and how to take it. Some formulas are not to be used for extended periods of time and some formulas will have a similar mechanism of action as a pharmaceutical you may already be taking. For example, Coumadin, Warfarin, and high doses of aspirin are not to be used in conjunction with many formulas used to treat pain, as the formulas also have strong blood-moving properties.
How will Chinese Herbs treat the underlying disharmony of my symptom(s)?
A practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) uses patterns to form a diagnosis. In other words, we look at the symptom as a “branch” and also look for the underlying disharmony, which is the “root” or cause, of the symptom.
For example, if you go to a practitioner of Western Medicine with a headache, a likely diagnosis would be pain and you would walk away with a medication and/or regimen to treat that pain; the same goes for menstrual cramps, hip pain, shoulder pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel, and all pain conditions. To a practitioner of TCM, pain is just the symptom, or the “branch”. A practitioner of TCM will want to know where in the head the headache is located, what it feels like (sharp/stabbing, dull/achy), what makes it better or worse (pressure, heat, etc.), and they may want to know about things seemingly unrelated to the headache, too: How many bowel movements do you have a day? Are they well formed? Do you have acid reflux, high or low-pitched ringing in the ears, dizziness, numb/tingly feelings anywhere in body? How do sleep at night?
The answers to these questions, as well as, your tongue (the color, shape, presence/lack of a coating, color of the coating, presence/lack of/ location of cracks, and moisture) and your pulse, inform the practitioner of TCM of the “root” cause of the symptom. In other words, why you are experiencing it. Pain conditions like headache, carpal tunnel, and fibromyalgia may all present with a different “root” diagnosis.
The five branches of Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture, Chinese Herbs, Nutrition, Exercise, and Massage are used as treatment to address the “root” cause as well as, the symptom, or the “branch.”
Lastly, positive effects are often witnessed in other areas of the body, since groups of symptoms are related within the underlying patterns. For example, a Chinese Herbal formula for digestion may help with anxiety and trouble sleeping due to an overactive mind. A formula for energy, may increase metabolism, libido, and help with back and knee pain. Formulas for stress may alleviate acid reflux or irritable bowel symptom (IBS) and temple headaches.
What else about Chinese Herbs makes them helpful?
Unlike receiving acupuncture, Chinese Herbs can be taken daily. Aging is part of life and as everything in the universe, we are moving everyday from a state of organization to disorganization. If we don’t do something daily that brings us back to balance- be it meditation, exercise, healthy food choices, or Chinese Herbs- we will follow this motion and be less healthy, less strong, and less resilient then we were the day before.
Wait. I’m already using “Chinese Herbs”?
A lot of Chinese herbs are things you are familiar with; many western herbs, familiar fruits, and common spices, are Chinese Herbs. For example, Turmeric Root (Jiang Huang) was classified as a Chinese Herb thousands of years ago; it appears in many classical formulas that are used for pain, especially pain deriving from menstrual cramps. Goji Berries are a “new” superfood that has long been known about and used medicinally in Chinese Medicine. Other examples include, Ginseng Root (American and Siberian Ginseng have different properties and are used for different reasons), Ginger, Barley, Black Sesame Seeds, Cinnamon (the bark and twig of the tree have different properties), Clove, Licorice Root, Kelp, Nutmeg seeds, Rhodiola Root, St. John’s Wort, Vitex Fruit, Walnut, and Water Chestnut.
Albeit slowly, western medicine is catching on; Dan Shen, the Chinese herb, Salvia root, has been getting great results in clinical trials for its vasodilator effects, helping to decrease blood pressure and is now FDA approved. About a quarter of pharmaceutical drugs used in Western Medicine come from plant sources. For example, asprin is from the bark of the white willow tree, penicillin is from molds on grains, quinine is bark of the chinchona tree, and morphine is from the seeds of poppy flowers.
I hope this blog shed some light on the mystery of Chinese Herbs. If you are considering supplementing with a formula or if you have questions or concerns regarding your individual case, I am happy to help; reach out via phone or email. Thanks for reading!
Allison, BS, MS, LAc