What are Chinese herbs?
The term "herbal" medicine is actually not quite correct. Although about 80% of the medicinal substances used are of plant origin, another 16% are animal substances and 4% are derived from minerals. The newest Chinese "Materia Medica" (the complete listing of medicinal substances), compiled in 1977, lists a total of 5,767 substances. Of these, about 300 are widely used with 150 of them considered indispensable for a well-stocked pharmacy. Not all of these substances are native to China, about 20% were introduced through trade from other Asian countries, India (e.g. frankincense and myrrh) or the Americas (e.g. American ginseng).
What is "special" about Chinese herbs?
Chinese herbal medicine has a long history of at least 2,500 years of written accounts. It developed from folk medicine into a complex medical system that shares its theoretical background, its diagnosis and treatment plans with acupuncture and other branches of Chinese medicine.
Of all professional medical systems still practiced today in the world Chinese medicine has the longest continuous history. It is also important to note that Chinese herbal medicine has developed a complete system of classification of medicinal substances describing their therapeutic qualities that is unequaled by any other herbal practice of other cultures.
What is special about Chinese herbs for you is that - because Chinese medicine treats the whole person and not the disease - each prescription will be matched exactly to your condition and needs!
What do Chinese herbs treat and when are they indicated?
Chinese herbs treat the full range of human illnesses. An acupuncturist will use herbs to enhance the acupuncture treatments on an individual basis.
How does the practitioner pick the right herbs for me?
Chinese medicine diagnosis is made based on "discrimination of patterns of disharmony". The practitioner will take a thorough health history, ask questions regarding all body functions, feel the wrist pulse, look at the tongue and palpate certain body areas. The various findings are combined into a composite diagnosis regarding which body systems are in disharmony, based on Chinese medical theory. All medicinal substances as well as foods are classified and described according to several categories, e.g. their flavor, their energetic temperature and their therapeutic properties.
Why are Chinese herbs combined instead of being given individually?
Chinese herbs are usually combined into a "formula" of two to twenty different substances. They are combined in such a way that they enhance each other's beneficial effects and eliminate potential side effects.
In addition, complex conditions or a variety of problems can all be addressed with just one formula instead of various different supplements. Both the symptoms and the underlying pattern of imbalance can be treated with the same formula.
Hundreds of "classical" formulas have been described in the literature that were composed by famous doctors. A practitioner can select one that fits that client closely and, if needed, can also modify it by adding or subtracting ingredients and adjusting dosages. The result will be an individually matched prescription.
What is the training for Chinese herbal medicine in the USA?
Chinese herbal medicine in the United States was long practiced in Asian immigrant communities, while acupuncture colleges have added herbal programs only for the past decade or so. A majority of colleges now offer herbal training with a minimum of 450 hours, which is prerequisite for taking the national certification exam in herbology given by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). While the NCCAOM acupuncture exam is standard requirement for licensing in most states, the herbal exam is only mandatory in a few. It is not required in Maine, therefore many practitioners may not have opted to take this exam, although they have the required training. Those who have passed the exam have earned the title Dipl. C.H. (NCCAOM), Diplomate of Chinese Herbology of the NCCAOM.
A number of acupuncture colleges offer an herbal track only as elective. Some older practitioners who studied acupuncture before herbal programs were introduced have taken short postgraduate programs of 150 or less hours. So make sure to inquire regarding herbal training when seeking out a practitioner.
"Prescribing" of Chinese herbs is not limited to licensed acupuncturists; other health professionals may recommend Chinese herbal supplements, and health food stores offer them over-the-counter for self-prescribing. Although this may be helpful for day-to-day problems, for more complicated or chronic conditions I strongly advise that you consult with a trained and qualified practitioner.
Are Chinese herbs being researched?
Since the Chinese revolution and the founding of the people's republic the body of medicinal substances has been subject to chemical analysis and ongoing research on medical efficacy. New therapeutic effects have been discovered based on this research and many traditional herbs are now being used for contemporary diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, Aids and many more.
Are Chinese herbs toxic and do they have side effects?
If Chinese herbs are prescribed by a qualified practitioner and the formula matches the pattern, they are virtually without side effects. Most Chinese medicinals have very low toxicity. Toxic parts of plants are removed or processed to eliminate toxicity. Herbs with potential side effects are combined appropriately and given in small doses only (e.g. Ma Huang or Ephedra, a very controversial herb due to its abuse in overdose for weight loss is very safe in the dosage and combination within a Chinese herb formula).
The most common side effect may be some bloating because of the cloying nature of tonic herbs. This can easily be corrected by adding digestive herbs into the prescription.