Chinese Herbs; Chinese ‘erbal Medicine

Chinese herbs are often used for chronic fatigue.
Chinese herbs

Key Learning Points

  • Chinese herbs, like acupuncture, are used with Chinese medicine theory
  • Formed mostly from plants and minerals, they have been tested for thousands of years
  • The way prescriptions are formulated clears many of the secondary, unwanted, actions
  • They aren’t sold on taste. In fact their taste is one of the reasons for giving them.

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.


Herbal Prescription
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.

What distinguishes Chinese Herbal medicine from Western Herbal medicine?

  • Most herbs used are Chinese or Chinese varieties of Western herbs, and are stored in their dried form.
  • To get the effect of the Chinese herbal prescription, you nearly always have to boil the ingredients together for quite a while.
  •  This ‘reduces’ or concentrates the liquid. You then drink part of the liquid, leaving the rest for the next dose.
  • This is quite different from Western herbalism where the fresh or dried herbs are often soaked for a period of time in water to extract their ‘active principle’ and each herbal extract is stored independently as a liquid concentrate. Drops from this are combined with drops from other concentrates to form the prescription, a few drops of which, taken with water, constitute the dose.
  • Although Chinese herbs are often given in ground form, in capsules or as compressed tablets, the traditional way was to chop and cook the whole herb with other whole or chopped herbs. 
  • Many formulae are now available in powdered form where the powder has been made by boiling up the prescription and then boiling off the liquid to leave a powder. You stir this powder into hot water to replace that which was boiled off. Then you drink it.
  • Chinese herbal formulae are prescribed on the basis of the Chinese medical syndromes diagnosed in the patient.
  • The chemical actions of the plants used in Chinese herbal formulae were of no great interest until Western herbal experts categorised the Chinese herbs’ actions in terms of their pharmaceutical actions.


Chinese herbs – sources

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.

Illegal and banned ‘herbs’

three rhino eating grass
Rhinoceros – Photo by Kevin Folk

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

  • they are considered poisonous or 
  • they are easily confused with poisonous herbs or 
  • their misuse by ill-informed or unqualified personnel leads to poisoning.

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.

How to pronounce Chinese ‘Herbs’

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.

How do prescriptions for Chinese Herbs work?

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:

  • Downward draining herbs
  • Herbs that Regulate the Qi
  • Those that Drain Dampness
  • Herbs that Transform Phlegm and Stop Coughing
  • Herbs that Regulate the Blood
  • Tonifying herbs


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:

  • Acrid
  • Bitter
  • Bland
  • Cold
  • Cooling
  • Sour
  • Sweet
  • Toxic
  • Warming


And herbs are also classified into which acupuncture channels they influence or ‘enter’, so you need to know the channels, for example:


Liver channel
Liver Meridian

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.

Becoming an ‘expert’ in Chinese Herbs

 …. takes quite a few years! In the UK this is what happens.

  1. Most people do a three year course in acupuncture, which moulds their minds to think in terms of, and gives them a good grounding in, Chinese medicine and its theory.
  2. Once they’ve got some experience under their belts, (which may take many years for some very able practitioners) they do another three year course, this time concentrating on Chinese herbal medicine.
  3. By this stage they are excited, but then they need many more years of learning from experience to understand how it all actually works.

Your ‘erbalist’ is giving you a prescription – what might you expect?


Chinese herbs in Xian market
Xian herbal market

In the original dried plant form

  • If he thinks you’re up for it, he’ll give you a specially put-together bag of herbs. In fact you’ll probably be given 5 or 10 bags, enclosed in a bigger bag.
  • Each bag will contain pieces of anything from 2 to 20 herbs.
  • You’ll be given copious instructions! How to boil them, how to boil them again, how the ‘fragrances’ from boiling them will get rid of any friendly neighbours you live near,
  • how to strain the liquid,
  • when to take it and how much to take.
  • The contents of each bag can usually be re-used at least once. (I usually eat the herbs too, not always a good idea, I should point out.)
  • Holding your nose and thinking of your favourite football team you’ll drink some of the liquid. Chinese herbs are not sold on taste. If you’re a Royalist, you’ll think of the Queen (UK only.)


Or, looking down his nose at you, he’ll prescribe either powders or capsules or tubs of tablets. 

  • If he suggests powders, he’ll mix them together in the right formula. You then take a few teaspoons of the powder mix and dissolve it in hot water. Guess what you do next? Correct! … Think of the Queen.
  • If he chooses capsules, he’ll put ground-up herbs in the right proportions into capsules. Believe me, it’s a fiddly job and it helps if he’s got the patience of a Saint, or is still new and enthusiastic about this. You then swallow the capsules with warm water.


Chinese herbs often used for asthma
Chinese herbs
  • Or he might have the formula compressed into tablets. In this case, he’s almost certainly using a well-known formula, already prepared by someone else. If it’s near enough what you need, this is the most convenient way of taking the herbs, but of course it won’t have been put together exactly right for your particular individual needs, but that may not matter. These tablets can still do a good job. You may just need more of them. High Street Chinese herbal shops have realised this is the best way to make money, and you won’t get out of such a shop without giving them one of your gold bars. You’ll often get a better and fairer deal from a professional. You take the tablets with warm water. Just a reminder: Chinese herbs are not sold on taste.
  • I often use this method because it’s easy for patients to carry around a small tub of tablets and to take them with warm water …
  • … and it works just fine, if they are well-manufactured from good sources.

Why is it better to boil the whole herbs together in a formula?

Chinese herbs making a prescription
Chinese herbs

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.

  • Who knows?
  • Opinions differ.
  • OK, boiling them up makes the herbs combine into something greater than their individual parts whereas …
  • if taking them in a ground-up powder form with warm water the formula might not work the same way, as they’re being mixed up inside you, and you’re ill so who knows what’s going on in there?
  • Ah Hah! Herbal formula are now being properly cooked for the requisite time in the prescribed manner and simmered until ready then, in effect, freeze-dried into a powder (no, don’t ask me, I’ve no idea), which is then compressed into tablets and taken by you, with warm water. Clever! 
  • Does this work as well as boiling them up yourself, inhaling (with your neighbours) the vital fragrances as they cook? 
  • Who knows? Nobody is ever told what would have happened if they hadn’t done what they did. Except, years later, by researchers after years of expensive wrangling and statistical fun… by which time you’ll have either lost interest because you’re well again or long since died. 

Can you use ‘erbs’ at the same time as acupuncture?

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.

  • Acupuncture is better when the problem is channel based (ie can be explained in terms of problems in or with an acupuncture channel) or points on the channels work powerfully together to do a particular job
  • For Phlegm, although acupuncture works quite well, there are Chinese herbal formulae that sometimes work faster
  • During pregnancy, there are acupuncture points ‘forbidden’ to use. Sometimes ‘erbs can substitute. But you’ve got to drink them and if you’re very nauseous or sensitive to ‘erbs’, well… Anyway, there are plenty of other acupuncture points that usually do the job pretty well.
  • Herbs are sometimes favoured for treating sexual impotence, but actually, acupuncture’s pretty good too.
  • Often you use both, for example using acupuncture to clear tension and stress caused by qi stagnation and herbs to treat, say, a skin problem.
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Why are Chinese herbs so expensive?

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):

  • The correct herb has to be grown in carefully prepared beds
  • Time passes, during which gardeners must be paid, buildings planned, vehicles oiled and manufacturing processes prepared
  • The herbs must be harvested at the correct level of maturity
  • They must be carefully cleaned and extraneous stuff filtered out eg weeds
  • Some of them have to be further treated by boiling or roasting to remove toxic qualities or make them more effective
Grinding chinese herbs with mortar and pestle
Photo by Katherine Hanlon
  • The whole herbs have to be quality tested and approved for export
  • They have to be identified with labels saying where grown, batch number, sell-by date, da-di-dah …
  • They have to be bulk packed for export, then dispatched …
  • By boat or air: can be expensive, what with insurance and pirates


Time passes, expensively

  • Time passes, particularly at Customs of the importing country where they have to be examined in case they aren’t what they claim or contain unwelcome fellow-travellers. Believe me, months can pass with a smelly box in the corner being avoided by the man from the Customs.
  • More time passes as samples may have to go to a central purity testing station (in the UK this is at Kew Gardens)
  • Then someone has to collect and transport them to the depot of the middleman who
  • eventually sells them to the herbal supplier who


  • … stores them in his garage or cellar or on top of his wardrobe in big glass jars to impress you, until he has to destroy them because of bugs or mould or sell-by dates … 
  • eventually diagnoses you and creates a prescription for you, which means 
  • he chooses and gathers the required herbs into bags and writes copious instructions for you to disregard and complain about so he has to provide more for free
  • … so he won’t make a profit which also makes him bitter and twisted and needing treatment so he won’t be around for long …
  • … not least because you complained about the price!


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.

What’s the secret behind ‘erbs’? How does the formula work?

The secret is 2000-plus years of experience.

Oh! And Chinese medical theory.

  • You have one or two principal ‘erbs. These are the work-horses that do the main job needed. They apply the main strategy of the formula.
  • There will often be some ‘deputy’ herbs. These assist the main herbs but may refine their actions or help to do something else needed in the strategy but not covered by the main herbs.
  • There may be ‘assistant’ or messenger herbs which move the action into some particular area of the body, say the upper part of the thorax or which compensate for the actions of the principal herbs. For instance, the principal  herbs might be too cooling, so an assistant herb might be added to warm the Stomach. This helps the Stomach do its job without getting so cold that it can’t.
  • There will be some harmonising herbs to make them work together and help you digest them without always getting diarrhoea or nausea. (Chinese herbs take a little getting used to, so don’t give up too soon. We’ve all been spoiled in the West by having all our medicines sugar-coated. Herbs come from the earth and can taste earthy.)


How Different from Western medicine?

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.

Compare that with Western medicine …

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.

Creams and Liniments from Chinese herbs


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.

Confuse Chinese Herbs with Homoeopathy?


Please don’t confuse ‘erbs and ‘omeopathy!

Homeopathic remedy
Photo by

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 

  • are cold or hot, cramping or burning
  • press in or out, up or down
  • get worse in the morning or when walking or after meals
  • go from there to here, or left to right or vice versa
  • make you angry or sad, or grind your teeth, or dream of waterfalls
  • only happen when something else happens such as when there’s a thunderstorm, or during your menses, or at full moon or after eating raw onions
  • come with a desire for some foods and dislike of others
  • have been like this since something happened, possibly many years before


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’.

Why can’t Western Herbs be used in formulae with Chinese herbs?

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.

I have used Peter Holmes’ book many times over the years and referred to it when writing my book on clearing Phlegm.

Well-known Chinese herbs

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):

  • Turmeric or Curcumin
  • Ginseng – various kinds
  • Huang qi – Astragalus
  • Dang Gui (Chinese Angelica Root)


Chinese Herb Safety

Nowadays, we take Chinese Herb Safety seriously. (Well, we always did, but now we make sure you know about it.)

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One Response

  1. “‘erbs”? LOL, seriously? Surprised you didn’t say something during our consult.

    Thank you very much for this very enjoyable read. My GP for 9 years was a TCM doctor, I can vouch for the taste of the teas. Effective, but not something I’d ever drink for pleasure. Although Western herbals usually aren’t much better. They lean towards “moldy meadow”. TCM teas, well, I can’t really think of anything to describe them other than “funky”.

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