Chinese herbs are an incredible healing tool that falls under the umbrella of Chinese Medicine. Some people may tell you that they’re uncomfortable taking Chinese herbs, but the reality is that these herbs are everywhere. People take ginkgo for their memory, licorice as candy or a digestive aid, and ginseng for energy. In fact, the little bit of ginger you get when you order sushi is there because ginger helps your digestion and prevents seafood poisoning. (Okay, it tastes really good, too!)
You can buy Chinese herbs almost anywhere, from the grocery store to the farmer’s market. Sometimes they work for their intended purpose and sometimes they don’t…for a reason. Chinese herbal medicine is both a beautiful thing and a very complicated healing art. Here are some things to know:
-Perhaps the most important thing you should know about Chinese herbs is that one size does not fit all. Your body is unique, you have health conditions specific to you, and you need herbs that are carefully matched to your needs. So when you buy a bottle of ginseng capsules in the hope that it will help your energy, it may be that ginseng isn’t exactly what you need.
-Herbs have an inherent temperature, which means that their effect is to warm your body up or cool it off. For example, ginger is a hot herb. You can feel its heat when you eat a piece in a dish that you’ve prepared. If you eat enough ginger, it will actually warm you up, so it’s a good herb to use for someone who is chronically cold.
-Herbs also have an inherent action, and some herbs have more than one action. For example, there are herbs to drain dampness (edema), build up the nourishing quality of your blood, and help you fight off a cold.
-In Chinese herbal medicine, herbs are almost always combined with other herbs to create a formula. This is because in most cases, no one herb can do everything that a particular patient needs. For example, if you are very stressed out and have lost your appetite, you might need a formula that includes herbs to help calm you and deal with the stress as well as herbs that support your digestion. Herbs are also combined for their effects on other herbs in the formula. For example, herbs can be used to offset a very strong herb, to moderate the temperature of the formula, or to increase the effects of the other herbs in the formula.
-Some of the formulas that we practitioners of Chinese medicine use are very old. These classical formulas (not the herbs themselves!) have been around for as long as a thousand years, but they continue to work very well and be appropriate for modern health conditions.
-In fact, Chinese herbal formulas are meant to be adapted. As mentioned above, your needs are unique to your health. As your condition changes, your practitioner is likely to change or modify the herbs you are taking—sometimes as frequently as every week.
-Chinese herbs are prepared and can be taken in a variety of ways. If you have access to an herbal pharmacy, you may be able to get raw herbs that you boil up and take like a tea. Taking herbs this way ensures the greatest potency, but it’s time consuming. Herbs can be boiled and then dried to create a powder that is taken in hot water. They can also be made into a tincture, tablets, or teapills (small round pills made from the cooked and compressed herbs). And for those who struggle with the taste, herbs can also be ground up and put into gelatin capsules. Skin conditions? Chinese herbs can also be made into lotions, ointments, and dermal patches.
-Chinese herbs can be very powerful, and as a result they can also be incredibly effective. That said, many people assume that because they are taking “something natural” that herbs are completely safe. The truth is that when prescribed by an acupuncturist who has studied Chinese herbs, they are safe. When Chinese herbs are taken without any information about the correct herbs to take or dosage, they can ultimately do more harm than good.
-Many prescription medicines were discovered and are made from Chinese herbs. For example, aspirin, malarial drugs, and some pain medications are derived from Chinese herbs—but with one big difference. When these drugs are made, usually only the most active ingredient is extracted from the plant, giving you a very powerful medication. The problem with this is that by using large amounts of only one ingredient, you have lost the synergy of all the active ingredients and micronutrients that are contained in the plant. The other issue is that with very powerful drugs come side effects. You know this is true every time you have to sit through a drug commercial on TV or read the literature that comes with a newly prescribed medication.
-Speaking of side effects, if you experience a side effect from your Chinese herbal formula, it is a sign that you are taking the wrong formula and some adjustments need to be made.
-Another safety issue related to Chinese herbal medicine is the integrity of the herbs and formula that you’re taking. Many people will buy a bottle of herbs off the shelf in the drug, grocery, or health food store assuming that what’s on the label is what’s in the bottle. In some cases that’s just not true. In addition, if you can’t read the label because it’s in Chinese, it can be difficult to know that you’re taking what you intended to take. This is where your practitioner comes in. There are many companies that take pride in their quality control, testing, and processing of herbs. Your practitioner has done the homework for you, in that they have chosen a company that tests herbs, assays ingredients, and complies with government standards to guarantee that the herbs they are prescribing you safe, contain no additives, and are prepared in the correct dosages.