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Frequently asked questions about Chinese Herbal Medicine. Integrative Medicine Center is lucky to have an On-Site Herbal Pharmacy and those looking for herbal remedies may make an appointment with our Chinese Herbalists to see which formula is right for them. 

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What is Chinese Herbal Medicine?

In China, with all of the massive acreage of land and long fertile coast it’s no wonder the country has a bounty of so many natural resources. Chinese herbs are harvested and collected here, in the form of roots, bark, flowers, seed, fruits, leaves, and branches. There are over 3000 different herbs that can be used for medicinal purposes, but often only 300 to 500 of these herbs are used commonly. Herbal therapy has been a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine for over 4000 years.


What are herbs used for?

Herbal therapy has three main functions:

  1. To treat the immediate problem, such as killing bacteria or a virus,

  2. To strengthen the body, helping it to recover, and

  3. To maintain health.


How are herbs categorized?

The categories for every herb can be separated into either being cool, cold, warm, or hot. Cool and cold herbs treat "hot" symptoms, such as fever, thirst, a sore throat, or constipation. Warm and hot herbs treat "cold" symptoms, such as cold hands and feet.

Herbs can also be categorized into flavors. Pungent herbs regulate and direct the flow of energy in the body, promote blood circulation, and encourage the release of toxins from the blood through perspiration. Sweet herbs have a nourishing property, we use them to replenish energy in different organs, normalize and regulate stomach and spleen activity, harmonize the properties of different herbs or drugs already used, and relieve pain and spasms. Sour herbs promote astringency in the body, and they can arrest discharge such as perspiration and diarrhea. Astringent herbs also have the same properties as sour herbs. We use bitter herbs to clear the body of excess heat, cleanse our system of toxins, control inflammation and infections, and stop the body from vomiting. Salty herbs treat constipation and dry stools, as well as softening masses such as a goiter. Neutral herbs have a diuretic function and we use them to treat dysuria and swelling.

According to the teachings of Traditional Chinese Medical, two energy forces (Yin and Yang) control all body processes. A life-force (Chi) influenced by Yin and Yang, flows through channels or energy meridians throughout the body. Each of these channels can be considered to affect a particular part of the body. In turn, each kind of herb affects a particular channel. For example, the herb bupleurum affects the liver meridian and one common use of it is to treat depression, which is a disorder of the liver. Another herb, Ma Huang, often used to treat asthma and coughs, affects the lung meridian.

The fourth way we categorize herbs is by the actions they perform in the body, known as lifting, floating, lowering, and sinking. Lifting and floating mean going up and out, while lowering and sinking mean going down and in or purging away. Lifting and floating herbs are used to send toxins out of the body through the surface. For example, they can be used to treat a cold or flu by encouraging toxins out through perspiration. Lowering and sinking herbs are used to affect internal problems. These herbs cleanse the body of heat, stop vomiting, act as a diuretic, lower blood pressure, stop coughs and wheezing, and tranquilize the mind. We normally use lifting and floating herbs when the location of an illness is at the top or surface of the body. In contrast, when we find that the location of an illness is in the lower part of the body or more internally, lowering and sinking herbs are recommended.

Why is it necessary to process herbs?

There are several reasons for processing herbs before use. First, processing reduces any possible side effects by detoxifying the herbs and removing any poisons. Processing can also change the properties of an herb to suit the symptom. For example, rehmannia raw has a cold property and is used to treat "hot" symptoms. However, rehmannia cooked (processed) has a warm property and is used to treat "cold" symptoms. Also, the raw fleece-flower root treats constipation, but the processed fleece-flower root strengthens kidney energy and promotes health. Also when we process herbs they can be more easily stored. By processing them we filter out impurities such as dirt and sand, which can also tone down a strong taste or smell. Finally, processing an herb can strengthen its function, as processing licorice with honey strengthens its ability to normalize the stomach and the spleen, and processing corydalis with vinegar strengthens its ability to relieve pain.


What are the differences between patent and prescribed herbs?

Patent herbs or premixed herb combinations are similar to over-the-counter-drugs. The patient's symptoms must fit the patent herb's narrow indications. Prescribed herbs are mixed by an herbalist and tailored to the patient's symptoms and diagnoses.


How are herbs mixed?

We seldom use one herb alone. Most often, herbs are used in combinations of 10 to 15 of them in a formula. There are three ways to beneficially combine herbs. Mutual Reinforcement involves combining two very similar herbs to create a strong effect; 1 + 1 = 2. For example, astragalus and ginseng are both effective for increasing energy. Combining these herbs will create a very strong effect on energy increase. Mutual Assistance is the method of using one herb to help another work better. Astragalus also strengthens the immune system as well as increasing energy. Hoelen is similar. Adding hoelen to astragalus increases its effectiveness better than simply doubling the amount of astragalus. Mutual Restraint relies upon one herb reducing or eliminating side effects of another herb in the combination. Fresh ginger, for example, reduces the side effects of arisaema.

Two other types of combinations show why one should be experienced and knowledgeable about herbs before attempting to combine them. Mutual Inhibition occurs when one herb reduces another's effectiveness. Incompatibility occurs when the combination of certain herbs produces side effects or becomes poisonous.


What are some precautions of taking herbs?

Herbs, like anything you put in your body, should be taken with a certain amount of caution. For example, some herbs can be too strong for pregnant women and may cause miscarriage. Also, while taking herbs we want to avoid certain foods such as raw (fruit is okay, but vegetables should be cooked), greasy, strong tasting or smelling foods and foods that can be difficult to digest (such as beef) or irritating to the digestive system (like spicy foods), since they can have an adverse effect on the herbal therapy.


How are herbs taken?

Herbal medicine is traditionally taken in tea form. Tea absorbs into the system quickly, and is the most commonly used method. However, if the smell or taste of the tea is unpleasant, capsules or tablets are recommended. Tea should always be warm, and capsules or tablets should be swallowed with warm water. Generally, it is best to take herbs on an empty stomach. You should consult an herbalist for specific instructions on taking herbs, but here are some basic guidelines. Tonic herbs, to promote health, are best taken before meals. Purgative herbs, to cleanse the system, are best taken on an empty stomach. Herbs that either irritate the stomach or are taken to protect the stomach should be taken after eating. Herbs for insomnia and other sleeping disorders should be taken at bedtime.


Why should herbs be taken?

As stated before, the three functions of herbal medicine are treatment, recovery, and health maintenance. Generally speaking, herbs can be taken for all kind of illness. Because it is natural therapy, most herbs do not cause side effects. Those side effects that do occur can be easily counteracted with other herbs. Herbal medicine is simply gentler and safer than chemical medicine. For these reasons, people turn to herbal therapy for a number of indications.

To treat a chronic illness — Many people with chronic illness take a number of different drugs. Those who are looking for a natural replacement for those drugs switch to herbal therapy. There are herbal replacements for the medications taken for pain syndromes, gastrointestinal disorders, neurological disorders, stress related syndromes, respiratory disorders, heart problems, sexual dysfunction, allergies and immune system deficiencies, as well as replacements for antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs.

To reduce side effects — Herbs can be taken to reduce the side effects of other medication. Antibiotics weaken the immune system. Herbal therapy can strengthen the system. Also, during chemotherapy, the white blood cell count drops, causing fatigue, lack of energy and appetite. Herbal therapy has proven quite successful in relieving the side effects of chemotherapy.

To assist Western medication — Herbal medicine can strengthen the effects of Western medication. For example, if a patient is taking medication for his high blood pressure, but it is not producing the desired effects, his doctor may increase the dosage. A heavy dosage can produce unwanted side effects. The patient can, instead, take an herbal supplement that will produce the desired decrease in blood pressure without the side effects.

For prevention — Herbs are often taken as a method of prevention. For a person suffering from frequent headaches, taking herbs to prevent the headache from ever starting is a much better option than taking a pain reliever after the fact. Herbs are also used to prevent the flu, menstrual cramps and pre-menstrual syndrome, among other things.

For health maintenance — Herbal therapy can also be used for general health maintenance. Tonic herbs are used to increase energy and to slow the aging process. They are also used for enhancing sexual energy and for cosmetic purposes. Herbs are also used to treat minor symptoms that are not severe enough for heavy chemical drugs, symptoms that cannot be diagnosed by Western medicine, and symptoms and illness that are not easy to treat, such as mononucleosis and immune system deficiencies.

The above is a general overview of herbal medicine. The basic characteristics of Traditional Chinese Medicine can be summed up under two concepts: (1) the concept that the human body is a whole organism closely related to nature; and (2) the concept that diagnosis and treatment should be based on an overall analysis of signs and symptoms. Four methods— observation, listening and smelling, inquiring, and pulse feeling and palpation—are used to collect the set of signs and symptoms used to make a diagnosis and recommend treatment. If you are currently taking herbs and have questions, or if you are interested in starting herbal therapy, you should consult an experienced herbologist.

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