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Chinese Herbal Medicine 101

Are you new to the wonderful world of Chinese herbal medicine or have you been taking herbal medicine and wanting to learn more? Chinese herbal medicine has been around for over 3,000 years, originally used primarily to increase longevity, enhance fertility and treat epidemic diseases. Chinese herbs consist of plants (roots, barks, leaves, stems, seeds, etc), minerals, and some animal products all in their natural form. Specific herbs are combined together in a formula to enhance their therapeutic actions (called "dui yao") and prevent side-effects. Chinese herbs are never take by themselves for this reason, rather about 4-20 herbs are combined together to create a unique and balanced formula.

Chinese herbs come in many forms: raw, granules (raw herb extracts that are dried and ground into a powder), tinctures (herbs decocted in alcohol), tea pills (herbal extracts formed into pea-size pills) or capsules (powdered herbs concentrated and filled into a capsule). Each individual Chinese herb has a taste (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, acrid, or bland), temperature (cool, cold, warm, hot, or neutral), and organ association (heart, liver, stomach, kidneys, etc). For example, salty herbs are astringent and treat inflammatory conditions, cold herbs treat bacterial infections, and sour herbs are used to treat liver conditions. Each combination of taste and flavor has a different therapeutic action and an affinity for treating different organs.

How does a Chinese herbalist know which herbs to prescribe?

Chinese herbalists use diagnostic methods such as pulse and tongue diagnosis to identify internal disease patterns. Once a Chinese medical diagnosis is made, herbs are matched to treat these disease patterns and formulas are further customized to address specific symptoms. Chinese herbalists have at least 3 years of post-graduate education and have to pass a rigorous herbal medicine exam to obtain a national license (NCCAOM).

The difference between pharmaceutical and Chinese herbal medicine

With pharmaceuticals, only isolated synthetic compounds are used, rather than the whole plant. Medications are matched to symptoms or labs and while they can be life-saving and sometimes work immediately, they often just mask the problem and don't treat the root cause. This is why when you stop taking medications, the symptoms come right back. New drugs are always emerging and often their side-effects are only discovered after they have been tested on the population. As you can hear on drug commercials, pharmaceuticals come with a host of unwanted side-effects, often causing other health problems that require even more medictions to combat.

In contrast, Chinese herbal medicine treats the root cause(s) as well as the symptoms, and while it may take a bit longer to see results, these results are powerful and long-lasting. Because herbal medicine is corrective, once you have finished a course of treatment, the symptoms don't come back. Chinese herbal medicine has such a long history of use and many PubMed studies prove their efficacy. Because Chinese herbal medicine is specifically formulated to treat each individual, the risk of side-effects is very low compared to pharmaceuticals.

While there are certainly some conditions that do require pharmaceutical medications, Chinese herbal medicine can be a wonderful first resort for a lot of medical conditions, especially chronic conditions that don't respond to medications. For acute issues like the common cold or allergies, Chinese herbs can be used to prevent the need for antibiotics and/or steroids. Chinese herbal medicine can also be taken in conjunction with western drugs (just not ingested together), treating the underlying cause and helping combat side-effects.

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