Scared to Take Chinese Herbs? Here Are the Basics!
September 28, 2010 by Dr. Mark Wiley
Herbology is the study of the properties of herbs, their collection, preparation, effects, dosage, administration, combination and contraindication. Chinese herbs are a main feature of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The study, use, gathering, preparation and administration of herbs for the treatment of illness and disease is thousands of years old.
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.
Homeostasis and Chinese Herbs
The goal of TCM is to return the body to homeostasis: That is, 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 (something is deficient, excessive or stagnating) that pain, illness or disease can occur.
It is for this reason that the Western application of synthetic drugs and natural herbal supplements can never hope to cure disease. Their application is based not on returning the body to homeostasis (removing the problem and balancing the body) but rather on dealing with the symptom (e.g., pain, vitamin deficiency).
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.
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. Examples include taking You Gui Wan for Kidney Yang Deficiency or Tao Hong Si Wu Wan for Blood Stasis or Bu Zhong Yi Qi Wan for Uplifting of the Central Qi. 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.
Just keep an open mind and remember, they will be less effective if used in the allopathic way — that is, taking them to remove a symptom as opposed to correcting an imbalance.
— Dr. Mark Wiley