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Chinese Herbal Medicine
The Dominant TCM Intervention in China

Herbal medicine is by far the oldest and most richly foliated branch on the tree of Chinese health and healing. More than three hundred herbs that are commonly used today 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 their clinical applications. According to Chinese clinical studies, these herbs, and others that have been added to the list of useful items over the centuries, can greatly increase the effectiveness of modern drug treatments, reduce their side-effects, and sometimes replace them completely.

In China, the two most common methods of applying herb therapies are to make a decoction (a strong tea that must be simmered for about an hour or more) and to make large honey-bound pills. Both of these forms meet with considerable resistance in Western countries. The teas are deemed too time-consuming, smelly, and awful-tasting to justify their use, and the honey pills (boluses) are sticky, difficult to chew, and bad tasting. Thus, modern forms that are more acceptable have been developed for most applications.

The two popular forms to replace the standard Chinese preparations are extract powders (or granules) and smooth, easy-to-swallow tablets or capsules. The extracts are made by producing a large batch of tea and then removing the water and producing a powder or tiny pellets; the resulting material is swallowed down with some water or mixed with hot water to make a tea. Tablets and capsules contain either powdered herbs or dried extracts or a combination of the two. Despite the convenience, one must take a substantial quantity of these prepared forms (compared to the amount of drugs one takes). For example, doses of the dried extracts range from 1-2 teaspoons each time, two to three times per day, and the tablets or capsules range from about 3-8 units each time, two to three times per day.

The herb materials used in all these preparations are gathered from wild supplies or cultivated, usually in China (some come from India, the Mid-East, or elsewhere). There are an estimated 6,000 species in use, including nearly 1,000 materials derived from animal sources and over 100 minerals, all of them categorized under the general heading "herbs". Herbs are processed in various ways, such as cleaning, soaking, slicing, and drying, according to the methods that have been reported to be most useful. These materials are then combined in a formulation; the ingredients and amounts of each item depend on the nature of the condition to be treated.

In some cases, a practitioner of Chinese medicine will design a specific formulation for an individual patient, which might be changed frequently over a course of treatment. In other cases, one or more formulas already prepared for ingestion without modification are selected for use. The outcome is monitored, and the determination of whether to continue the current formula, change to another, or discontinue use is made on the basis of actual versus desired outcomes and the obvious or subtle effects of using the herbs.

As a general rule, acute ailments (those that arise suddenly and are to be treated right away) are treated for a period of 1-30 days. If an outbreak of influenza or eruption of herpes virus is caught early enough, a one or two day treatment will prevent further development of the disease. In the case of acute active hepatitis causing jaundice, a treatment of 15-30 days may be necessary. For chronic diseases (those that have persisted for several months or years), the treatment time is often dependent on the dosage used and the ability of the individual to undertake all necessary steps to overcome the disease (perhaps changing diet, lowering stress, and increasing exercise). When a high-dosage therapy is applied, most chronic ailments can come under control (and some are cured) by a treatment of about three months duration. If the daily dosage is lowered (because of inability to take the higher doses), the treatment time increases-perhaps to 6-12 months. Examples of chronic ailments are autoimmune disorders and degenerative diseases associated with aging. In some cases, herbs are taken daily, for an indefinite period, just as some drugs are taken daily. This is typically the situation when there are genetic disorders or permanent damage that cannot be entirely reversed, problems of aging, and ailments that have been left for too long without effective treatment.

The main reason that more Westerners are turning to Chinese herbs rather than local herbs is because of the vast scope of experience in using the Chinese materials. In every province of China, there are large schools of traditional Chinese medicine, research institutes, and teaching hospitals, where thousands of practitioners each year gain training in the use of herbs. The written heritage of Chinese medicine is quite rich. Ancient books are retained, with increasing numbers of commentaries. New books are written by practitioners who have had several decades of personal experience or by compilers who scan the vast diverse modern literature and arrange the results of clinical trials into neat categories.

The Difference between Chinese and Western Herbal Medicine

A key difference between Chinese and Western herbal medicine is that Chinese herbs are selected and balanced in formulas. Chinese herbs are rarely prescribed as single herbs or even as a group of herbs with the same actions. It is not uncommon in English and Western herbal protocols to prescribe a single herb, or if multiple herbs are used, using herbs with similar functions to treat one aspect of a disease or pattern. In Europe and somewhat in the United States, it has become increasingly common to use standardized herbal extracts. In this way, herbal medicine approaches pharmaceutical drug usage in effect. With standardized extracts there is an extraction for one single alkaloid out of the dozens that might be represented if the entire herb were used medicinally. For example, the herb Goldenseal is a very popular and powerful herb with approximately 200 known alkaloids. A standardized extract might select one of these alkaloids, which creates a specific and non-holistic utilization of Goldenseal. In contrast, Chinese herbs are prescribed as formulas which may include up to 20 or more single herbs. It is the synergistic effect of the combined herbs that bring about a desired effect on the body, mind and spirit. The goal of Chinese herbal therapy is to balance and restore the body's overall health. Therefore, an herbal formula for the common cold will contain herbs that not only treat the symptoms of a cold such as coughing and sneezing, but it will also contain herbs that strengthen the immune system and harmonize the Qi. With each herbal treatment, the body will become stronger and more balanced so that you are less vulnerable to diseases in the future.

Indications

The Chinese herbal medicine treats the full range of human disease. It treats acute diseases, like intestinal flu and the common cold, as well as chronic diseases, such as allergies, gynecological disorders, autoimmune diseases, chronic viral diseases, and degenerative diseases due to aging. In particular, Chinese herbal medicine is especially good for promoting the body's ability to heal and recuperate.

Precautions

The primary precaution for Westerners in using Chinese herbal medicine is to respect its complexity. Problems do not usually result from combinations of Chinese herbal therapy and western medicine as such -- in contemporary China, the so-called "new medicine" blends western laboratory equipment and biochemistry with traditional Chinese theories of disease. Difficulties can arise, however, when Westerners ignore the differences between Chinese herbal therapy and European folk medicine, Native American medicine, homeopathy, and other alternative treatments that use herbs, and attempt to medicate themselves with mixtures of herbs from a variety of recipes. Many books that discuss traditional Chinese medicine as a treatment option advise readers to consult a qualified practitioner and use his or her herbal prescriptions consistently, without making arbitrary substitutions.

ARTICLES:

  • About Chinese herbal medicine (Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine)
  • An Introduction to Chinese Herbs (Dharmananda)
  • Dosage and Form of Herbs (Dharmananda)
  • Chinese Herbology (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
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    This website is certified by Health On the Net Foundation. Click to verify.This site complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information: verify here. This site was compiled by the Chinese Medical Centre of Cyprus and its mission is to inform the general public about the Chinese medical practices offered by the staff of the centre. It is for information only. If you feel unwell you should seek advice from a qualified health care professional. Our mission is to provide effective holistic health care using acupuncture, herbs, and massage. We do not actively collect any data about website visitors. This site is entirely funded by the Chinese Medical Centre of Cyprus, without any sponsorship or advertisement, and we do not host any form of advertising. This site contains links to external sources. We try to ensure we only link to reputable websites but we cannot guarantee the quality and accuracy of information contained on internet pages not compiled by the Chinese Medical Centre of Cyprus. This page was last updated in 20/04/2015 by Dr. Charis Theocharous.