How Chinese herbal medicine works

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has many methods of treatment that offer natural benefits, including acupuncture, bone setting, bodywork, energy medicine and herbal medicine.

Herbs complement most treatments, taken in teas, used in cooking, applied as plasters for bruises or to heal wounds or as herbal decoctions or capsules.

While Chinese herbal medicine is a mainstay, and, in fact, a bedrock, of TCM, many Westerners are skeptical or afraid of it. I have heard many arguments to the contrast from patients and other (non-TCM) healthcare professionals. And the real reason for this fear stems from a lack of information about what Chinese herbal medicine is and how it works.

It would be ashame to miss out on the benefits of TCM, so I’d like to help you get to know it better…

Chinese Herbology

Herbology is, in a nutshell, the study of the properties of herbs, their collection, preparation, benefits and how to use them. Chinese herbs have been used for the treatment of illness and disease in TCM for thousands of years.

Traditional Chinese medicine is concerned with the theories of Yin and Yang, Five Elements, Meridians and Pathogenic Factors causing disease. Specific methods are used to treat disease, such as acupuncture, massage, energy work, muscle scraping and herbal medicine. In China, herbs are clinically used to treat diseases according to the basic theories of TCM.

And because Chinese herbs by themselves or combined into herbal formulas (known as patent formulas) are sold internationally, the manufacturing and packaging is at pharmaceutical levels. All Chinese herbal companies that sell overseas or export their products to the United States, for example, must be GMP (good manufacturing practices) certified. Here is a good resource to learn more about GMP; and their labels are affixed to the bottles or boxes of all Chinese herbal products that meet the requirements. This alone should dissolve much of the fears of “not getting what it says is in the product.”

Homeostasis: The goal of Chinese herbal medicine

The goal of TCM is to return the body to homeostasis — its optimal, balanced functioning state. When the body is at homeostasis there is no room for disease. It is only when the body is out of balance (through lifestyle, habits, or external force) that pain, illness or disease can occur.

The application of Chinese herbal therapy is able to balance the underlying cause(s) of pain, illness and disease, but only after a proper pattern identification has been diagnosed by a competent TCM practitioner. Patterns of disharmony (imbalance) include such things as Spleen Qi Deficiency, Heart Blood Stagnation, Liver Qi Stagnation, Excess Phlegm Damp in the Channels, Interior Heat Syndrome and so on.

These patterns describe syndromes occurring in the body, not merely the symptoms associated with disease. They refer to underlying imbalances in the body causing the body to manifest symptoms you may be experiencing. And many seemingly unrelated symptoms can be caused by the same underlying pattern of disharmony.

Let’s take “Interior Heat Syndrome” as our example. Symptoms associated with this syndrome include diarrhea, eventual constipation, abdominal distension, eczema, acne, bloodshot eyes, urinary tract infection, genital herpes, cold sores, insomnia and eventual blood stasis, among other things. By recognizing that this list of things is, in whole or in part, caused by too much heat in the interior of the body (as opposed to a fever, which is heat that has moved to the exterior of the body), they can then be treated at the same time.

Once the Interior Heat is resolved, that is, once the body’s internal temperature is balanced, the symptoms associated with the problem will go away. This happens because the body has been returned to homeostasis and no longer supports an environment conducive to prolonging the symptoms.

Chinese herbs are also frequently taken for such things as cough and congestion (learn more here) and even cancer (learn more here).

How to take Chinese herbs 

There are many ways to take Chinese herbal medicine. Raw herbs can be prescribed, decocted and drank. This method generally offers the strongest effects, as the herbs are fresh and their grams and combination can be precisely decided by an herbalist to match your syndrome. Moreover, the liquid is easily absorbed into the body. However, the preparation generally has a bad smell and the taste is often not liked by Westerners.

Herbal powders are also available in single form or in common formulas. These are like instant coffee in that a measured spoonful will dissolve in a mug of hot water to be drank in one sitting. Again, this is effective and fast, but leaves much to be desired in the area of taste.

Perhaps the most common way of taking Chinese herbs in the West is what is known as the Patent Herbal Formulas. These are prepackaged herbal formulas that have been found effective for specific syndromes. These are little black pills the size of BBs that are generally taken in quantities of six, eight or 12 pills at a time, three times per day.

There are several ways of determining how long it takes the herbs to work. Since we are talking about changing an underlying condition in the body, as opposed to symptomatic relief, times do vary. In general, six weeks is a minimum amount of time it will take for the herbs to build up in the bloodstream to a level necessary to effect a strong change in the body. Three months’ time is about average. For some diseases, nine months is not uncommon. For chronic cases, a general rule of thumb is one month of herbs for every year the problem has been in the body.

For best results, Chinese herbal medicine should be used under the direction of a qualified practitioner. Your condition (pattern) should first be identified, and then herbs prescribed accordingly. They are a great and gentle way of balancing the body.

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Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.