What Is Chinese Herbal Medicine?

Chinese Herbal Medicine is one of the therapeutic methods of Classical Chinese Medicine. Classical Chinese Medicine is a 2200 year old written tradition, created by the literate intelligentsia of ancient China. The people that invented paper, silk, gunpowder, and the compass, also developed a system of medicine that reached a high level by the Han dynasty.

We use Chinese Herbal medicine to treat both the causes and symptoms of disorder. We do this with what are pre-modern drugs–natural substances. mostly plant based herbs, but also minerals and animal products, like dried earthworm to cuttlefish bone. The use of Chinese Herbs is used in China together with Acupuncture, Moxabustion, Cupping, Gua Sha, Bloodletting, Massage, Diet Therapy, Qi Gung practices to treat all the diseases we use BioMedicine for. How are Chinese Herbal Medicine and Acupuncture Different?

How does Chinese Medicine Differ from BioMedicine?

Chinese Medicine is a premodern system of Medicine that, like BioMedicine, is rational, logical, and systematic. It has its own language for describing diseases and the underlying imbalances that cause disease. We have a rational system of describing these imbalances which we call the “pattern of disharmony.”

How We Make a Diagnosis in Chinese Medicine

Over the millenia Chinese physicians developed a very effective and scientific (empirical) model for assessing health and disease.

Pulse and Tongue Diagnosis and the Ten Questions

Practitioners assess a person’s health by feeling the quality of the pulses at each wrist, and by observing the color and form of the face, tongue, body, voice, and manner of expression. This information gleaned from looking, touching, listening, and smelling (The Four Pillars of Diagnosis)  is integrated with an elaborate series of questions (asking, or The Ten Questions) about digestion, elimination, sleep, mood, body temp, pain sensations,  menstrual cycle, relationships, work habits, living habits, and prior health history that, considered together,  portray the specific expression of health and disease that manifest in a given  individual at a specific moment in time.

Patterns of Disharmony At the Root of Symptoms

This specific expression of illness in an individual is called the Pattern of Disharmony, called Bian Zheng in Chinese Herbal Medicine.  Each specific Bian Zheng corresponds to  a specific base  therapeutic protocol of  acupuncture, herbal formula, diet and or lifestyle modification that is, in turn, specially tailored  to accommodate and improve the individual’s unique ecology and terrain.

Diagnostic Methods Are Empirical–Signs and Symptoms

  • looking at your face, your body shape, and especially your tongue shape, size, color, coating, and distinguishing marks
  • feeling the qualities of the pulse at different positions on the two wrists
  • listening to the quality of your voice and your breathing
  • noticing any particular odors such as sour breath
  • asking a series of questions about your sleep, appetite, digestion, elimination, menstrual cycle, and the history of your pain or disease.

Treatment then follows the pattern we discover through this process. We always strive treat the causes of your disorder and not just the symptoms. And treatment  is personalized, its always designed to match the needs of a specific individual in a specific point in time.

Why Choose Chinese Herbal Medicine?

While BioMedicine is excellent at surgery, and saving your life from severe trauma, its hamstrung by its very strengths.

Since the invention of the microscope and miracle drugs in the 1940s, the emphasis in Western medicine has been on the disease, and not the person the disease occurs in. This has led to real shortsightedness. A classic example is the prescription of diabetes or cholesterol drugs without first referring to nutritionists for lessons in diet change. 

Treating the Whole Person.

I love Chinese Medicine because it is  interested in treating the roots of disease and not only the symptoms.

Example: Tension headache

My treatment of tension headache might include

  • do Acupuncture and Massage to release accumulated tension in the Muscles and Fascia of the jaw, head, and neck; to give you the experience of deep relaxation
  • do Acupuncture to release Liver Qi stasis and move Liver Wind out of the upper body, another words to calm and cool the nervous system
  • Give you Chinese Herb formulas for migraine or tension headache that systematically change the way your body produces muscular tension in the head
  • help you organize improved stress management skills, or refer you to someone that can, depending on your case of course.

Biomedicine, on the other hand, will have a treatment that is solely drug based. And the worse the headache pain the stronger the drugs. If you are lucky, and that is a big if; at a place like Kaiser, they might refer you to the pain management clinic, eventually, after months of drugs, where they will try and teach you to notice how you carry tension in your muscles with biofeedback.

The Classics of Chinese Medicine

The Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor–Chinese Medical Theory

The “Bible” of Chines Medical theory dates to somewhere between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E.. This is called the Huangdi Neijing  黃帝內經  or, Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor dates. It describes everything from how the Acupuncture channels work and where to puncture them  to Living with the Seasons and the use of foods to prevent disease. This is the theory we have inherited and still use.

The Shang Han Lun–The Beginning of Classical Herbal Formulas

The Bible of Chinese Herbal Medicine is called the Shang Han Lun, 傷寒論 or Treatise on “Cold Damage” Disease from the same period. The Shang Han Lun and its companion,The Jin Gui Yao Lue, 金櫃要略,  Essentials of the Golden Cabinet, together form a clinical textbook that describes over 200 herbal formulas, more than 100 of which are still regularly in use today.

Over the millennia, and into modern times, literate medical professionals employed by the Emperors amassed thousands of case studies. Part of our education as Chinese Medicine physicians, is learning from real life case studies with their successes and failures. This is how you begin to learn how to prescribe Chinese herbs. Its how you learn which prescriptions to use for which diseases and how to switch herbal formulas at the right time.

What Do Chinese Herb Formulas Look Like?

You may notice I keep using the words “formula” and “prescription” when discussing Chinese herbs. That’s because we rarely use herbs by themselves, as is done in Western Herbology, where you might take Echinacea for this, or Ginger for that.

Used As Groups of Herbs

In Chinese Medicine we used herbs in groups of from 5 to 15 herbs together at the same time. This enables us to do a few things at once:

  1. Do No Harm–Minimize Side Effects of Strong Medicines
  2. Treat the Symptoms–Use the combination of medicines that will eliminate symptoms fastest
  3. Treat the Causes–Match the Prescription to the underlying Pattern causing the disease
  4. Treat the Individual–Match the prescription to the individual person in which the underlying pattern is causing disease symptoms

An Example: Xiao Chai Hu Tang in a case of Premenstrual Acne with Irritability

For example, if I were treating someone with hormonal Acne that increases Premenstrually along with irritability and constipation, I might use one of the formulas from the above mentioned Shang Han Lun, called Xiao Chai Hu Tang.

Base Formula

Xiao Chai Hu Tang contains herbs to relieve the Liver depression and Qi stagnation that is creating the pathological heat that’s rising up to her face and causing acne. It also has an herb to dry the dampness associated with the acne. And it contains herbs to to strengthen the digestive process, often overheated or weakened in cases of acne. Great.

How to Modify a Formula for a Specific Person

But what’s missing from Xiao Chai Hu Tang is something to address the constipation in this patient. So I might add an herb that acts as a lubricant if the bowels are dry, or that increases the urge to go, if they are not dry. Sometimes I wont need to do this because relieving the Qi stagnation will be enough.

If this patient is very irritable premenstrually, and loses her temper badly, then I will add another herb to calm her nervous system. Which herb I choose will be a function of what I find by looking at her tongue, by feeling her pulse, by noticing any unpleasant odors like bad breath, and by asking a series of questions about her sleep, appetite, digestion, elimination, mood, and the pattern of her menstrual cycle through the whole month.

Mixing Chinese Herbs with Foods in Cooking

There is a long history of cooking Chinese herbs with food, both to treat disease, generally in the form of nursing back to health with medicinal foods.

We cook herbs with foods, especially for their tonic, or strengthening effect, one of the famous ones being Chicken Bone Broth with Chinese Herbs. Another great one is American Ginseng cooked with Pear and Daikon to nourish and protect the Lung Qi

Relationship between Chinese Herbal Medicine and Ancient Chinese Philosophy

Chinese Medicine is rooted in ancient Chinese philosophy. Its shares concepts with both Taoism, such as the idea of Yin and Yang, and Confucionism, like the idea of natural order.

Conquering an Enemy Versus Restoring Harmony

While modern bio-medicine views disease as an enemy to be conquered and defeated, rooted out with surgery, or poisoned with drugs (which, to be fair, works really well for diseases like cancer), Chinese medicine is based on therapies that strengthen the body’s ability to fight disease on its own.

If, God forbid, someone I knew had cancer, I would definitely recommend they follow BioMedicine for treatment, but as BioMedicine offers nothing for recovery from the effects of Chemo and Radiation therapy, I would offer them Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture for the recovery phase of healing. Our tonic herbs are absolutely amazing for the recovery from serious illnesses from cancer to chronic fatigue.


Chinese Medicine Views Human Beings the Way Organic Gardeners View Plants and the Soil They Grow In

Every human being is seen as a unique terrain with its own particular eco-system. The doctor is a gardener working hand-in-hand with the patient on the soil, using acupuncture and herbs like irrigation and compost, building a plant that is healthy and able to fight disease. This is the opposite of the Western medical view in which the body is a sum of mechanical parts, to be replaced or treated at most exact micro level. There are times when surgical and drug intervention is necessary.

Natural Methods

But in America today there is a renaissance of interest in the natural methods that were jettisoned along with many other good things as the country turned Science into its modern religion with doctors dressed in white coats speaking Latin as the new priests. As our nation of immigrants turned their backs on “grandmother wisdom” and ethnic and family traditions, suddenly the media and people with Ph.d.’s became the new authorities telling us how to think, live, and die.

As a result, there are tens of thousands of unnecessary surgical procedures each year in this country, while millions of people are being administered drugs, without being informed of their toxic side effects. According to one recent scientific study, our country spent over two million dollars last year in doctor-caused illness, one of the leading causes of death is from the side effects of drugs. Large number of people could be helped, gently, safely, and elegantly with Chinese Medicine, if they only knew.


Chinese Herbal Medicine Is Natural, Safe, Effective, and Free of Side Effects

It excels at the treatment of the degenerative diseases that characterize our sedentary, but long lived lifestyles in the west.  And, unlike Western medicine, it is an antidote to stress and has the same beneficial effects as meditation and yoga on the body. Chinese medicine successfully treats internal medicine disease, gynecology or Women’s Health, respiratory disease, digestive disorders, infectious disease, dermatalogical complaints, and both acute and chronic pain conditions. . It is effective in pediatrics as well as gerontology.

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