Key Learning Points
Chinese herbs are one of the main forms of treatment, or modalities, in Chinese medicine, like acupuncture.
Probably they started off as a form of ‘kitchen’ medicine, given by people to their families and based on local knowledge, belief and experience.
However, about 2000 years ago, someone called Zhang Zhong-Jing got his act together.
Chinese herbs – a prescription
Zhang Zhong-Jing described the use of a wide range of herbs in formulae dealing with disease.
He was really the father of modern Chinese medical herbalism. We still use around a quarter of his prescriptions.
He also showed how to shape a prescription that did what you wanted it to do, combining herbs so that they worked together harmoniously and any less desirable effects from one herb were compensated for by the positive attributes of other herbs.
Chinese herbs come, traditionally, from animal, vegetable and mineral sources. Nowadays, at least in countries where there is awareness of endangered species, sources used are mainly vegetable and mineral.
The few ‘animal’ sources used at all in the West are such as the carapaces of insects – such insects being numerous and not thought to be endangered.
Unfortunately, some animals are still killed for the properties thought to be associated with parts of their bodies, whether their horns or gallbladders or penises.
This is illegal in nearly all countries and it is doubtful whether the properties attributed to them were really ever much more than wishful thinking. Such is the power of wishful thinking and money, however, that some animals will soon face extinction unless their needless, cruel and terrible slaughter is controlled.
Anyway, there are nearly always alternatives.
However, some useful herbs are banned unless prescribed eg by a doctor or dentist because
One such herb is Aconitum Napellus (monk’s-hood, aconite, wolfsbane) which, in combination with other herbs and in appropriate quantities is effective and safe in Chinese medicine for expelling Cold and warming the interior.
Not being able to use it often hampers the speed with which a herbal prescription would otherwise take effect.
For reasons not entirely clear to me, but probably deriving from American usage, Chinese ‘herbs’ are almost universally pronounced ‘erbs’. (Like me, you may fight this, but it’s no use.)
So if you hear someone talking about ‘erbs’, they are talking about Chinese herbal medicine, not Western herbalism.
First, to understand this you have to learn the properties of individual Chinese herbs.
Herbs are divided into one or more of 18 different categories, according to their actions in Chinese medicine. Such categories include:
Second, the above categories won’t make proper sense unless you have a good knowledge of Chinese medicine’ theory – same as used for acupuncture treatment.
Thirdly, that knowledge will help you understand the finer points, for instance:
Herbs are also categorised according to other properties such as:
And herbs are also classified into which acupuncture channels they influence or ‘enter’, so you need to know the channels, for example:
Every herb has a part of itself (root, leaf, bark, fruit) that is used, sometimes several parts, and each part works differently from the others.
Also, herbs from different geographical locations can work differently.
There are many thousands of herbs. Most are now grown for profit, which may mean they lose some of their qualities, or may be grown where herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, not to mention non-organic fertilisers are used. This is becoming big business.
Of course, 2000 years ago they lacked anything but natural earth and natural fertilisers. Possibly, the wilder the herb, the closer its potency will nowadays be to that described in the literature.
…. takes quite a few years! In the UK this is what happens.
This is the kind of tiresome question that crops up when the examiners want you to demonstrate you can string sentences together in your language.
They both use the same theory so yes. But often one or the other does the job perfectly well on its own, and adding the other is superfluous.
However, sometimes one or other is better.
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I don’t think they are (unless you go to a high street shop when God help you as they pile you high with every bottle they have):
And anyhow, have you considered the cost of the medicines you get from your doctor? If you enjoy a National Health Service, they’re paid for by someone – Who? Your country’s taxpayers! That’s YOU! Ask the pharmacist what they cost. You may be surprised.
The secret is 2000-plus years of experience.
Oh! And Chinese medical theory.
What makes this different from modern Western drug therapy, is that the Chinese formulae have mostly been in use and regular testing for hundreds if not thousands of years.
During that time, herbs that perhaps were too powerful or had major side-effects have been calmed by the addition of other herbs to steady and direct them.
Chinese herbal formulae are nearly always a mix of between two and 20 herbs, commonly 6 to 10. If you read my page on Primary and Secondary Actions you’ll perhaps appreciate that one of the problems with modern medicine is that, in an attempt to isolate the pure active principle of a medicine, you lose all the other compensating qualities that were present in the original herb or formula.
Consequently, although Chinese ‘erbal formulae are prescribed on the basis of their primary actions, their secondary actions are looked after by the combination of deputy, assistant and messenger herbs added to the formula to make it do what is needed. The whole combination therefore has few if any unexpected secondary actions.
Not so pure drugs in Western medicine, which are notorious for their secondary actions. Indeed, we often don’t discover a drug’s secondary actions until some time later by when damage has been done.
Doctors giving Western medicines are often foxed by what happens when they give a range of medicines on the same day or together. The medicines don’t always behave as expected, and doctors now realise that in some patients, combinations are either ineffective or cause additional problems.
What works with what is only slowly being discovered, it seems by trial and error.
Also, ‘erbal formulae are very seldom as strong as modern medicine though because they address a recognised syndrome, may work just as fast as the western drug, which is given for a specific symptom or disease, but ignoring the energetic state of the patient, which is always what the Chinese herbs address.
Chinese herbs can also be ground up and turned into creams and liniments, dressings and what-have-you.
Often used in this form, but better if combined with the correct formula taken internally.
Please don’t confuse ‘erbs and ‘omeopathy!
They are quite different, not least because homoeopathy, unlike any other form of therapy I’m aware of, purports to treat people based on the secondary actions of the remedies (= homoeopathic medicines) chosen. Also, it is administered in highly diluted form.
However, it is my belief that homoeopathy in effect uses the same ‘energetic’ theory behind Chinese medicine.
By that I mean that it relies on the signs and symptoms it sees and which are experienced by the patient, related in words that have colour, depth, emotion and intensity.
For examples, symptoms
Both Chinese herbs and homoeopathy require patience and experience, so in that at least they aren’t different, nor, if we’re honest, much different from the best of modern Western medicine either.
In general, because I think they pursue the same path but by different means, I do not give my patients treatment with Chinese medicine at the same time as giving them homoeopathic remedies – and certainly not the latter in what are called ‘high potencies’ at the same time as ‘erbs’.
Well, they can, but we don’t have much experience of how they work this way yet, so practitioners of Chinese herbs are cautious. After all you want to use something that does work and which you understand, rather than something which may work and which you aren’t sure about.
However, a book was written in two volumes in 1989 by Peter Holmes called ‘The Energetics of Western Herbs’. Very useful and worth every penny or cent.
Here are pages about herbs that are becoming well-known, though not all are frequent herbs in Chinese medicine.
(If you see a name, but it’s not yet a link, just hold your breath – one day, the link will miraculously appear and you’ll get a prize for holding your breath for longer than anyone else):
Nowadays, we take Chinese Herb Safety seriously. (Well, we always did, but now we make sure you know about it.)
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