WTF is Chinese Herbal Medicine?
By Sarah Welsh
Plants make potent and effective medicine. Because they can’t fight or run away from pests and disease, they have developed sophisticated chemistry to defend themselves.
Since the beginning of life on Earth, plants and animals have evolved in cooperation with each other; all life forms benefit from maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Humans, as a species, have nearly always had a close relationship with plants. Archaeological evidence suggests that people have been using plants as medicine since, at least, the Paleolithic era around 2.6 million years ago.
Today, most people’s connection to plants has become less immediate. The average American seeking herbal medicine can be found in the grocery store aisle trying to diagnose themselves and figure out which supplement is right. Capsules and powders come in plastic bottles, unrecognizable for the lives they once lived. While some savvy people will find success with this guessing game, others will have no luck and will conclude “herbs don’t work”.
Phytochemistry, medicine, and the human body are complex. Herbalists are doctors who specialize in knowing how plants and bodies interact. An experienced herbalist can guide you to the plants that are most appropriate for you and in what dosage and will make sure to prevent unintended side-effects and interactions with pharmaceuticals.
What can herbs treat?
Chinese herbs can treat a wide variety of conditions. Here are a few of the most common:
Stomach ache/abdominal pain
Symptoms of diabetes
Low Back Pain
Are herbs safe?
Herbal medicine can be safe and effective when used appropriately, but just because they are “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean they are safe. Your herbalist keeps safety as the first priority when writing your prescription. Some major factors that must be considered:
The herbal formula must be appropriate for the patient. While the latest trendy supplement or “superfood” may be effective for certain conditions in some people, there is no herb or supplement that is right for everyone all the time. Even though your friend/partner/neighbor had great success, taking the wrong herb at the wrong time can potentially make a patient worse. Anything strong enough to work as a medicine is also strong enough to potentially cause harm.
Care must be taken to avoid negative interactions with pharmaceuticals. Many patients have already sought medical treatment from an MD before they ever make it to the herbalist’s clinic. Thus, they come to us with pharmaceuticals already in their system. Because pharmaceuticals change the way a body is functioning, care must be taken to make sure that the herbal prescription will not counteract or exponentiate the drugs’ effects.
Additionally, it is crucial to make sure that the medicinal herbs have been identified correctly and are free of adulterants. Herbal medicine is regulated by the FDA not as food or drug, but as a “supplement”. Under these rules, products may be put on the market without prior FDA approval. The FDA is tasked with pulling a supplement off the market if problems arise, but this usually only happens after complaints have been made. Thus, the burden of monitoring quality, safety and appropriateness rests on the consumer. Further, with modern agricultural practices, some plants are grown with pesticides or are contaminated with other environmental pollutants. It is an herbalist’s job to ensure that the herbs they are providing are indeed the plants they claim to be and that they don’t contain any toxic adulterants. Your herbalist should be able to tell you where the plants in your prescription came from and provide verification that the product has been lab-tested and is free of adulterants.
How is herbal medicine different from pharmaceuticals?
Plants are alive. They are sophisticated and dynamic beings. Just as animals do, plants survive harsh environmental factors, disease, and predation. But they can’t move around to fight or flee from a predator, they have no hands with which to get food, tend to wounds, or swat away pests. In order to survive, plants have evolved some of the most complex chemistry known to humans. The number of “constituents” in any given plant is usually in the hundreds or thousands. Compared to pharmaceuticals that usually have only one or two active constituents, plants represent biodiversity.
In nature, biodiversity indicates health. Any individual part of an ecosystem – a plant, animal, or chemical – will play a role in the system in its own particular way. The health of the whole ecosystem requires dynamic tension between the individual parts, each pulling in their own unique directions. By pulling in different directions, and sometimes even against each other, the individual parts of the ecosystem maintain the balance of the whole. The more variety of plants, animals, and chemicals each leaving their own mark, the more stable the whole system will be.
Most pharmaceuticals, having isolated one single active constituent, will make focused and forceful change in bodily function; results can usually be noticed rather quickly, as if you have suddenly walked off a cliff. And, indeed, there are some conditions for which this fast intervention is necessary and can even be lifesaving. Meanwhile, though, the dynamic and biodiverse system that is your body will attempt to compensate for such a disturbance in equilibrium. As Sir Isaac Newton described, any action will have an equal and opposite reaction. The body’s attempt to compensate often manifests as “side-effects”.
Herbal medicine, by comparison, works with thousands of chemicals; their influence is less focused, less forceful. When the right herbs are chosen for a patient, the prescription overall will be weighted to move the body in the right direction over time, while still balancing and protecting the dynamic tension of the whole. The effect on the body feels more like wandering down a rolling hill than walking off a cliff. The body has time to adjust and grow into its new state of equilibrium. Thus, herbal prescriptions tend to cause fewer side-effects and achieve longer-lasting results.
In some cases, focused and forceful intervention is necessary, and pharmaceuticals will do the job. In other cases, it will be more beneficial to slowly guide the body into a new equilibrium in order to restore lasting health. In many cases, herbs and pharmaceuticals can be used together in order to make fast changes in the body while tempering side-effects and helping to restore balanced function.
Your Chinese Herbalist will customize a formula just for you. Usually, anywhere from 3 to 15 herbs are combined to focus on your symptoms and resolve the root of the problem. Your medicine will be updated to match your progress as symptoms improve and the disease is resolved. All formulas can be customized to accommodate any allergies or preferences and to avoid unintended side-effects and bad interactions with pharmaceuticals.
Will I be on Chinese herbs forever?
Chinese medicine focuses on getting to the root of the problem. Your herbalist is working not only to relieve the symptoms today, but to make sure they don’t come back once you stop taking herbs. The specific nature of the disease will determine how long herbal medicine is needed – acute conditions can usually be resolved quickly, while more severe and chronic diseases need longer term care. In the end, your herbalist’s goal is to rebalance the system so that your body maintains health on its own, without the need for ongoing medical treatments.
What are Chinese herbs exactly?
“Chinese herbs” are plants. A few animal and mineral derived substances are also recognized to have medicinal value.
Chinese Medicine is an entire framework and philosophy to explain how the human body works. Along with herbal medicine, a Chinese Medicine doctor may prescribe acupuncture, qigong, bodywork, and dietary changes.
The herbs found in the oldest medical books are native to China. Over centuries, as Chinese doctors gained access to more global trade and exchange of ideas, they adopted plants that grow further afield into their own medical practices. Conversely, plants that were originally native to China have now been naturalized in other regions, and have become part of medical traditions around the globe.
Many of the most commonly used Chinese herbs are plants that are plainly recognizable to Americans: ginger, cinnamon, peppermint, and various citrus peels, for example. Some Chinese herbs that are used as medicine in traditions outside of China (though, called by a different name): Angelica, Artemisia, Astragalus, Schisandra, Hawthorne, and Salvia, to name a few.
Thus, Chinese herbs are just plants (and, rarely, animal or mineral). It is the way they are used, the unique philosophy and medical perspective of the herbalist, that makes them “Chinese herbs”.
Do Chinese herbs use endangered species?
There is a lot of press about the use of endangered species and other unethically harvested substances in Chinese Medicine, from rhino horns and tiger bones to seahorses and bear bile. While there certainly are historical references indicating the use of now endangered species, any good herbalist today will use sustainable substitutes.
An herbalist’s life and profession are built on respect and working with nature, and their “tools of the trade,” the medicines themselves, are at stake. Herbalists take care to make sure that the medicines they are using are grown and harvested ethically, sustainably, and in the best interest of the plants, the ecosystem, and the patient.
Talk to your herbalist, ask what is in your formula, get to know where the herbs come from. Your herbalist will probably love to talk to you about conservation!
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