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Chinese Herbal Medicine


Chinese herbal medicine has a continuous documented history going back thousands of years. Over this time a sophisticated and complex system incorporating hundreds of herbs was developed. These herbs are carefully selected by doctors of Chinese medicine to create formulas which are tailored to the unique symptoms and root causes of disease in each individual patient.

Chinese herbal medicine is different from western herbalism, primarily in the breadth and depth of documentary knowledge and the sophistication of the diagnostic and prescriptive models. It is these models that allow doctors to restore balance when a person is sick by preparing formulas with very specific and individual therapeutic goals.

Range of herbs

A typical Chinese herbal pharmacy comprises 200-300 herbs. The full pharmacopoeia ranges in the thousands. While we talk about Chinese “herbs”, we are referring to more than just plant substances. The pharmacopoeia includes mineral and animal substances as well. Some herbs used are very safe, others have strong action or potential for side effects and need to be used with caution. To the doctor of Chinese medicine, each herb has its own unique set of properties, functions, indications and contraindications. This allows the doctor to choose from multiple possible herbs the one or two that are best suited to a particular need in a particular patient.

Herbs combined into formulas

Chinese herbs are not often used individually. In most cases they are combined in formulas which contain a dozen or so different herbs. There are a number of reasons for this. Chinese medicine considers that diseases have branches (symptoms) and roots (causes). Effective treatment treats both the branches and the roots, and sometimes these are complex. Combining herbs into formulas allows doctors to achieve multiple therapeutic goals simultaneously for maximum effect and benefit. In addition, certain herbs can enhance each other's function, and so are often combined for maximum therapeutic effect. Finally, combining the herbs allow doctors to offset potential side effects of certain powerful herbs.

Standard formulas

Over the thousands of years in which Chinese medicine developed, certain standard formulas emerged which were particularly effective for certain conditions. These standard formulas where then used as the basis which the doctor would then modify to fit the specific needs of each case. Even without modification, standard formulas can be very effective if properly selected. The inconvenience of preparing herbal decoctions and the sometimes unpleasant taste of powders, combined with the proven effectiveness of the standard formulas, resulted in the development of manufactured medicines known as “patent medicines”.

Patent Medicines

Many of the standard formulas are manufactured in the form of pills, oils and salves for the convenience of patient and practitioner. These products, based on standard formulas, are referred to as “patent medicines”. Most, if not all, patent medicines available in the United States have been manufactured according to high quality and safety standards. The standard brands should all be considered safe to use as long as they are used appropriately.

Some patent medicines must be used by direction and supervision of a doctor, as they are strong and specific. Others are mild enough and generally applicable so that, with some basic information, people may self-prescribe. Unless you know about a formula you should not take it without consulting an experienced practitioner. Ensure that you get advice from someone with training in Chinese herbal medicine, as the system is very different from western herbal medicine.