What is Chinese Herbal Medicine? How Does It Work?

Chinese Herbal Medicine

What is Chinese Herbal Medicine ?

As ancient as acupuncture, Chinese Herbal Medicine (CHM) is another important and major aspect of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Most Chinese Herbal Medicine are of plant origin, which often incorporate ingredients from all parts of plants, such as the leaf, stem, flower, seeds, root etc. A small portion of CHM are from animals, minerals and marine products.

Chinese herbs has been used for thousands of years, and has an unbroken tradition since 3rd century BC . It is one of the great, and possibly most complex herbal systems of the world, with more than 3000 herbs, 300 minerals and animal extracts still being used in more than 400 different formulas. Over the centuries, it has undergone continual development and not only still stand strong in today’s world, it also emerges as an untapped ancient wisdom.

How does it work?

How does Chinese Herbal Medicine actually work? This probably is one of the most challenging aspects for patients to grasp. Here I will go through some basic ideas and theories behind, so to give you a slightly better understanding.

Herbs are learned through endless trial and error, and perfected through thousand years of practice

During the ancient times, Chinese Herbal Medicine was an experiential medicine. This means that it has been learned and perfected by practice rather than theory.

Over the past 3000 years, Chinese have been meticulously experimenting with thousands of herbs and documenting the effects that they have on the body. Chinese Medical doctors have been testing how herbs work in combination and looking at how different herbs have different reactions to different people depending on their physical and psychological make up. It is through this endless trial and error,  the medicinal value of herbs were learned, and the complex theories of the medicine were developed slowly over time.

It is all about Harmony and Balance

Chinese’s understanding of herbs is very different from Western Medicine. While Western Medicine learns about drugs throught their effects on the chemicals in the body, or its binding to receptors on cells; Chinese classsified herbs according to the  effect it has on the body’s temperature, its tastes and the channel/meridians it travels in the body.

Does the herb make you feel warmer or colder? Chinese also discovered that herbs with different tastes (not the actual flavour) have different actions. For instance, herb that is sour can cause the body to gather in and hold things – think of what happens if you bite into a lemon, your mouth sucks itself in and shrivels.

In terms of their medicinal use, for example,  if you are suffering from a cold condition, herbs that have warming effect will be prescribed for you. If you constantly feel warmth inside the body, and manifested symptoms that are classified as ‘heat’ (eg mouth ulcers, sore throat, dry and smelly stool etc), then cooling herbs are used.  If condition is caused by deficiency in the body, herbs that have tonifying effects are used to replenish and strengthen the body . If Qi and blood flow are becoming sluggish, then herbs that can enhance Qi and Blood circulation are added to the formula.

You may now begin to understand how Chinese Herbal Medicine work in the body. In a nutshell, the basic principle of Chinese Herbal treatment is all about balance.

Each herbal treatment is specifically formulated for you

Chinese Herbs rarely use singly. In contrast, a formula that consist of as few as 2-3 herbs to more than 10 herbs are formulated carefully specially for you and for your particular health condition.

A trained and qualified Chinese Herbal Medicine Practitioner able to make an accurate  ‘TCM diagnosis’ based on your medical history, signs and symptoms, tongue picture and pulse, and other physical examination. Then, she/he will construct a herbal formula as treatment. Progression and responses to herbs are monitored closely, and your herbal formula will change and modify accordingly.

It is longer lasting but it takes times

Although Chinese Herbal Medicine works slower than pharmaceutical medication, it is known CHM able to treat the roots of the condition, and alleviating them for longer time with minimal to no side effects.

Due to the holistic nature of TCM, you may find not only your main compliant gradually getting better, your other symptoms and overall health will also show signs of improvement.

TCM believes in the body’s own ability to heal itself. Chinese herbs are used to strengthen and nurture your body’s constitution to respond better to the demands of daily life. They are also used to strengthen your body to fight a particular ailment or a chronic condition. The philosophy of CHM is the reliance on your own body’s abilities rather than the use of strong medication as a gradual path to better health.

Gaining Recognition and Becoming More Common

Chinese herbs are slowly gaining their recognition and some you might have heard of before. For example, the ‘newly discovered’ super food Goji Berries (Gou Qi Zi 枸杞子) are of Chinese Herbs origins. Other commonly seen and commercially available products, like Gingko (Bai Guo 白果 for memory), even the Horny Goat Weed (Yin Yang Huo 淫羊藿 for libido) that you can find easily in pharmacies and health food stores, are also Chinese herbs. Food ingredient we use daily like ginger and cinnamon were recorded for their medicinal uses in ancient Chinese Herbal Classics. For centuries, these herbs have been used frequently in Chinese Herbal Formulae or in Chinese cuisine for health benefits.