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What You Need to Know About Chinese Herbal Medicine

Chinese herbal medicine is one of the major clinical healing modalities from the ancient Chinese medical system. However, it is not as well known in the West as acupuncture, possibly because it is more complex, and its healing effects are not as immediate as those of acupuncture, which can reduce pain quickly.

In addition to employing herbs or plants, Chinese herbal medicine also uses minerals, insects — for example, silkworms are used to treat skin conditions — sea-creature products, such as oyster shells, and parts from larger animals, such as bones from tigers.

People who seek help from a practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine are very often confused by what the medicines they will take might do to them, how the medicines work, and how they are prepared.

One of the common misperceptions of Chinese herbal medicines is that they are chemical agents like other medications or vitamins. (Image: Victoria Reay via flicker / CC BY 2.0 )
One of the common misperceptions of Chinese herbal medicines is that they are chemical agents like other medications or vitamins. (Image: Victoria Reay via flicker / CC BY 2.0 )

One of the common misperceptions of Chinese herbal medicines is that they are chemical agents like other medications or vitamins. Indeed, there are a lot of chemical agents in each of the individual herbs, and sometimes they contain extracts, which are particular chemical components that are made into medicines.

For example, malaria can be treated with extracts from Artemisia apiacea (qinghao). However, in the pure practice of Chinese herbal medicine, the ingredients are not chosen based on their chemical components, but on the energy output of the whole.

For example, one commonly used Chinese herb, Astragalus (huangqi), is somewhat sweet, mildly warming, and has an affinity for the lung, spleen, and kidney meridians. Because spleen qi (vital energy) is the major energy for food absorption, metabolism, and immunity, Astragalus is effective for malabsorption, slow metabolism, and prolapsed organs, for modulating immunity, and preventing infections from bacteria and virusesKidney qi regulates urination; therefore, Astragalus is also effective for urinary dysfunction caused by an enlarged prostate. For treating different kinds of illness — such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and the side effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy — it is often used in combination with other herbal ingredients.

People often think they can take the same Chinese herbal remedy forever, just as they take other food and nutritional supplements. The body’s energy status changes as a result of herbal medicine treatment, so the ingredients and their dosages need to be modified every one or two weeks, or periodically, depending on the individual situation.

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