Chinese Herbal Medicine

Chinese herbal medicine goes back some 4,000 years in written history, although it has been practiced longer herbsthan that. It is older than acupuncture and not as old as qigong.

Chinese herbal medicine is especially good for promoting the body’s ability to heal and return to a state of balance. It treats acute disease, like flu and cold, as well as chronic conditions like allergies, hormonal disorders, emotional imbalances, auto-immune and degenerative diseases. Chinese herbal medicine is increasingly used to mitigate the effects of cancer therapies.

Q: What’s the difference between Western herbalism and Chinese herbal medicine?
A: Western herbalism primarily treats diseases or symptoms, such as headaches, runny nose, constipation, PMS, etc. Chinese herbal treatment is based on your individualized pattern diagnosis as well as disease diagnosis. Your herbal combination is designed to treat your symptom or disease as well as your constitution or pattern. The pattern is made up of your signs, symptoms, emotional temperament, and bodily constitution.

Q: Are there any other differences?
A: Single herbs or groups of herbs, such as you’ll mostly find in Western herbalism, are less powerful than taking a Chinese herbal formula including from 6-18 herbs working synergistically to address your main symptoms as well as your constitution.

Q: Are all herbs vegetable in origin?
A: Chinese herbs are from vegetable sources: leaves, flowers, seeds, twigs, stems, roots, tubers, rhizomes, and barks. Chinese herbal practitioners, however, use ingredients from vegetable, animal, and mineral kingdoms.


Frances in giant rhubarb, Warwick, UK.


Q: Where do the herbs come from?
A: Herbs from all over the world appear in the Chinese materia medica. What makes these herbs Chinese is that they are prescribed according to Chinese medical theory. Certain Chinese herbal plants are being successfully cultivated in the U.S.

Q: Does Chinese herbal medicine have side effects?
A: The body readily recognizes herbs as food and therefore assimilates their healing substances smoothly. If you experience any discomfort while taking Chinese herbs, call me so your herbs can be modified. Most medicinal herbs in the Chinese materia medica have very low toxicity compared to most common, over-the-counter Western drugs. When given according to a correct pattern diagnosis, there should be no side effects, only beneficial healing results. The incidences of allergic reactions to Chinese herbal medicines are very rare, even among the most sensitive. The pharmacologic tradition of Chinese herb preparation dictates unique ways that each herb is prepared that is according to the logic and purpose of the formula. Some herbs are used raw; while others may be fried with substances like honey. A few herbs are toxic or rendered ineffective when harvested improperly or used unprocessed.

Q: How are Chinese herbs taken?
A: Often the most effective way of taking Chinese herbal medicine is a decoction (soup or tea). However, I will give herbs to most patients in the more convenient pill or capsule form.

Q: What can I expect in a diagnostic session?
A: As with acupuncture, I will read your pulses, look at your tongue, and ask you questions in order to understand your condition. Then you will be advised of your course of treatment and given the appropriate herbal combination to begin your treatment.

Q: What about follow-up?
A: It is essential for me to know how the herbal medicine is affecting you. Physical or emotional changes can occur as soon as 3-5 days after beginning therapy. Whether desired results or not, these changes help me to know how to adjust the formula and the next steps. Please give me periodic reports about what you notice. Keeping a log is helpful. As your condition begins to stabilize, a monthly report will be adequate.

Q: What about the costs of herbal therapy?
A: Herbal therapy is relatively inexpensive, and seldom covered by insurance. Initially, you will pay the office visit fee plus a deposit toward the cost of your herbs if they are not on the shelves. At later stages of treatment, many communications can be handled by phone or email, thus reducing office visit fees.

Q: What if I am taking prescription drugs?
A: As you begin treatment, you will bring your list of medications. This list will be important to planning your herb therapy.e design of your herbal formula. It is important that you continue taking any prescribed drugs.

Q: What about Chinese herbs and pregnancy?
A: My training in Chinese herbalism provides me with the knowledge of which herbs and herbal combinations are contraindicated during pregnancy. Chinese herbal medicine has been used for over 4,000 years to treat nearly any symptom occurring during pregnancy with no harm to the fetus or the mother. Chinese herbal regimens are also safe and effective for resolving many types of infertility and hormonal imbalance. Lactating mothers can take Chinese herbal formulas safely when prescribed by a trained herbalist.

Q: How long does it take to see results with Chinese herbal medicine?
A: Results may often be seen within two weeks, although long-term, chronic conditions may take longer. Signs that the medicine is working should be evident within a few days. Acute conditions may be expected to improve more quickly.

Q: Should I get acupuncture along with Chinese herbs?
A: Usually, the combination of both will expedite healing. There are many possible combinations and approaches. You and I will discuss and together decide on the direction of your treatment.

Q: Why is professional training in Chinese herbal medicine important?
A: Chinese herbs are strong medicine, thus it is necessary that you seek a professionally trained, knowledgeable practitioner. It is potentially risky if not a waste of your money and time, to shop the internet or experiment with Chinese herbal formulas off-the-shelf or on the recommendation of a person who is untrained in the intricate craft of Chinese herbal medicine. You will save time, money, and ultimately receive greater benefit by consulting a trained practitioner.

Frances Gander is a licensed acupuncturist and has completed over 1,000 hours of Chinese herb education in accredited schools, beginning with a 2-1/2 year post-graduate course in Chinese Herbs at the Traditional Acupuncture Institute taught by Ted Kaptchuk, OMD, Principal Investigator at Harvard Medical School Osler Institute and author of The Web That Has No Weaver. Frances apprenticed in Maryland with Daohe Fang, L.Ac., graduate of Chengdu Medical University, Sichuan, China. She studied more Chinese herbalism with Sharon Weizenbaum, L.Ac.

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing:

Standardized Herbal Extracts

“The concentrated part is not greater than the whole.”

Standardized fractional extracts refer to extracting the supposed active ingredient from an herb and then concentrating that single chemical to a certain standard. According to Dr. Leung, author of the Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics (Wiley Interscience, 1980, revised December, 1995), the danger of including so-called standardized fractional chemical extracts from medicinal herbs in dietary supplements is that we are basically introducing new classes of drugs into our food supply which do not have the documented safe use history enjoyed by the whole herbs from which these chemical fractions are derived. Such use allows nutraceutical producers to use the reputation and safety of a Chinese herb to isolate specific chemicals from it for their specific pharmacologic effects. However, this new extract may have no relevance to the properties and safe uses of the original herb. Instead of getting the benefits from a good wholesome extract of an herb/food, consumers are increasingly getting purer and purer chemicals isolated from that herb or food. Since these “standardized” chemicals are usually not the only active component in a therapeutic herb, the best they can do is only serve as quality and authenticity markers for such extracts. But, once a nutraceutical or extraction company becomes hooked on the profits of marketing such highly concentrated chemical fractions, there is little incentive to go back to develop new assays to include all the truly active components. And when toxic incidents or ineffectiveness occur as a result of such highly purified chemicals, the whole herb is what gets blamed. This was the case with ephedrine in Ma Huang (Herba Ephedrae)a few years ago and may also be the case with sinephrine in all the Chinese citrus medicinals, such as Zhi Ke (fructus citri aurantii), Zhi Shi (fructus Immaturus citri aurantii), Chen Pi (pericarpium citri reticulatae), and Qing Pi (pericarpium citri reticulatae viride). –From

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