Are Chinese Medicine Herbs Safe?

Bag of Chinese herbs

Are Chinese herbs safe? If you’re not used to them, this is an important question!

It seems such a simple question, but just as with Western medicine’s drugs: are they safe?! (- huge amounts of evidence must make you question this! -)  the answer is a little complicated.

Herbs have for centuries been the source of many medicines. In order to extract the ‘active’ ingredients, in a pure and easily usable form, pharmacists have well-established procedures. These remove the ‘undesirable’ other chemicals in the herb, leaving just the silver bullet that does the job.

Many herbs (eg sage, thyme, saw palmetto, schisandra) taken in small quantities are harmless. You need to take them often and in sufficient quantities to get the effect described in the literature.

Hence the pharmacists’ desire for purity and concentration.

Of course, some herbs are poisonous.

Even a small amount of them may harm you. Think of some of the flowers in many gardens such as Monkshood: highly poisonous!

Are Chinese herbs safe? Not this one - Monkshood - fu zi!
Monkshood – Aconite. A Powerful and useful poison.

Extracts from it make a very effective medicine when used correctly. The same goes for Lily of the Valley, Wisteria, Foxgloves, Hydrangea and many others. The more ‘powerful’ their poison, often the more useful the medicine made from them.

(What does Monkshood do? It warms you up and clears out Cold, but only in very small doses. Too much, and it’s a deadly poison. So don’t take it except under supervision from someone knowledgeable!)

Are these poisonous plants safe to take? Certainly not! But when prescribed by someone knowledgeable – your doctor or herbalist – well, yes! After all, if you die, his reputation may suffer!

However, here the similarity between herbs and prescribed medicines begins to disappear.

Medications are made from Single Chemicals

Your doctor prescribes a medication made a from single chemical.

man in blue jacket wearing blue mask

  • Manufacturers have made huge efforts to purify it, so just the pure chemical is present.
  • They’ve tested it on many subjects over a long period.
  • Usually this testing exposes any side-effects or ill-effects which warn doctors about possible complications.


Then, over a period of time doctors discover which medications work or don’t work with other medications.

Sometimes ill-effects aren’t discovered until much later, perhaps when a child is born to a mother who took the drug during pregnancy.

Or, even with effective testing, certain types of people are omitted (too old, too young, the wrong sex, the wrong blood-type or genetic inheritance) so the drug’s effects on them are only discovered during later usage.

Usually, unless dangerous, the doctor can prescribe another drug to do the job, or if the side-effects are only mild, other medications to take at the same time to quell the unpleasant side-effects.

Very often the doctor ends up prescribing a range of drugs, not necessarily knowing how your body will react to the cocktail, but each given with a clear purpose.

Even so, mistakes are made. Very seldom do doctors suggest you start with a lower dose and work up to the full prescribed dose, yet if  you aren’t used to modern medicines, going straight into the full dose may cause problems.

Herbs contain many active ingredients

Herbs have been used, and their effects observed by people, over centuries if not thousands of years. They probably started in people’s kitchens, used by cooks or mothers to heal illnesses: ‘kitchen medicine’.

No herb is a pure medicine. In fact, herbalists would say this makes it safer because, often, the other ingredients buffer the ‘silver bullet’, softening its effect.

More than that, in Chinese medicine, herbal prescriptions contain many herbs.

One or two of them do the main desired action, the others support it or balance any ill effects. But in Chinese medicine, the prescription is based on a diagnosis of your particular problem, usually described as a syndrome. That syndrome fits and explains the processes that produce your symptoms. It’s a recognised pattern for which the herbal prescription was designed.

Most prescriptions have been tried and tested over many hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years.

Chinese Herbs Safe? Effect can depend on where grown

Also, whereas originally the herbs were found in the wild so could vary from place to place or according to their environment or weather, now they are farmed so their qualities are more uniform. But in farming them, some of their original qualities may have been lost. Or in herbs from the wild, the concentration may be stronger.

Everyone being slightly different, the herbalist will adjust the prescription according to your individual needs. So (s)he starts with a basic formula and adds or subtracts herbs to make it fit you.

When you start taking the herbs, unless you are used to them, nearly always your herbalist will suggest starting with a lower dose.

This is because your digestion may take a few days to adapt.

clear tea cup on brown surface

For those few days you may find your bowel movements change, for example. Sometimes, also, individuals find that the usual, recommended quantity is far less than they need. So starting with a lower dose is a sensible precaution.

And herbs aren’t sold on taste! Unlike modern medicines, herbal prescriptions don’t necessarily contain sweeteners!

Chinese Herbs Safe with existing Medication?

The next, big, question, is, are Chinese herbs safe to take when you continue to take what your doctor has prescribed?

Answer? Don’t know, for certain!

Again, start with a low dose. Realise that your doctor will be swift to blame the herbs if his medicines don’t act as intended.

But when you are taking herbs, you do want there to be changes, and of course, there may be interactions between herbs and medicines, as there are between one medicine and another medicine.

But, just as with your doctor’s prescription, if your doctor is knowledgeable and careful, not much harm may be done, so also a Chinese medicine herbalist will want to assess the results and here, Chinese medicine may have an advantage.

This is because your Chinese herbalist can take your pulse the Chinese way and check your tongue for changes, which may come faster than the results of blood tests ordered by your doctor.

With acupuncture, changes in pulse often come within seconds of inserting the needles. Herbs take longer.

Which, Acupuncture or Chinese herbal prescription, is better?

Answer: each has its place, both can treat almost anything, but with acupuncture you may need weekly treatment whereas with herbs you may need to see your herbalist only once every three or more weeks.

Acupuncture usually works faster, but you can take Chinese herbs daily in between, supporting treatment.

person grinding on mortar and pestle

Perhaps herbs have the edge for skin problems, for example. But for pain, go for acupuncture. But acupuncture also treats skin problems, often very effectively, and herbs help pain, so it’s not always clear which is best.

You can easily combine acupuncture and herbs because they use the same basic medical framework.

That’s not the case when comparing Chinese medicine and Western medicine, however.

Here, rather than make this page too long, you should check our pages on Suppression and on Primary and Secondary Effects.

But briefly, many Western medicines suppress symptoms, whereas Chinese medicine and acupuncture work by trying to make your metabolism work better or more harmoniously.

These approaches to health are very different, and somewhat conflicting, so combining Western and Chinese treatments can require careful assessment and open mindedness from both your doctor and your herbalist!

Further Reading

Jonathan Brand colours

Stay in Touch!

No spam, only notifications about new articles and updates.

The latest books
Book a Consultation
Book Consultation
Acupuncture consultation

Book a Video consultation if you want to know more about your symptoms

Related Articles

photo of person showing silver-colored ring
Causes of disease

Knee Pain

Knee pain has five main causes. It’s certainly worth trying acupuncture before you resort to surgery!

Read More »

2 Responses

  1. In China, there’s a huge concern that herbs are laced with toxic metals. In fact one of my relatives died from this. Can you speak more to how to assess and procure high quality herbs without such risk?

    1. I don’t try to do this myself, I trust my suppliers in the UK to do it for me and to supply herbs and formulae that are safe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *