Chinese Herbal Medicine
Traditional Chinese Medicine and herbal therapy have their origin in ancient Taoist philosophy which views a person as an energy system in which body and mind are unified, each influencing and balancing the other. Unlike conventional medicine which attempts to isolate and separate a disease from a person, Chinese Medicine emphasizes a holistic approach that treats the whole person. Many people have found Traditional Chinese Medicine and its healing modalities to be excellent tools for maintaining optimum health and preventing illness. It is effective for physical, psychological and emotional problems.
History of Chinese Herbal Medicine
Shennong, whose name means “the divine farmer,” lived around 6,000 years ago and was credited for teaching China the practice of agriculture. He taught people how to cultivate grains as food and is said to have tasted hundreds of herbs to carefully test and record their therapeutic properties. The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica,or Shennong Ben Cao, first compiled around 206 B.C., considered the earliest Chinese pharmacopoeia, contained 365 herbs. In this classic, herbs are categorized into three groups. The first group is called food herbs which are eaten as part of one’s diet for health maintenance, longevity and illness prevention. The other two groups are called medicinal herbs that are dispensed to each patient as an individual formula based on one’s unique constitution, environment, and medical condition.
From 206 B.C. to the late 16th century, many more herbs were added to what became known as the Chinese Materia Medica, the book of Chinese herbal medicines. This increased the total to 1,892 distinct herbs and more than 10,000 formulas. Over several millennia many Chinese physicians made new discoveries, theories, and classifications, often writing or compiling books that have become classics of Chinese medical literature and are still referenced today. New entries are continuously being added and the current edition of Chinese Materia Medica contains over 10,000 herbs and natural substances.
Students of Traditional Chinese medicine learn Chinese herbal therapy from a Materia Medica that is 8.5 inches wide, 11 inches long, 2 1/2 inches thick, and weighs 8 pounds. Because of a 5,000-year history, your acupuncturist can make an herbal prescription that addresses most any known disease to help you restore your health and wellbeing. An herbal formula contains plant elements—leaf, stem, flower, root or seed—and perhaps minerals or other natural ingredients. Chinese herbal medicine works in tandem with acupuncture by providing the nourishing support for the energetic reprogramming efforts of acupuncture. The herbal labs at the Tao of Wellness clinics contain some 500 varieties of high quality individual raw, concentrated powder and liquid extract herbs as well as prepared herbal formulas in capsules and tablets.
How Does Chinese Herbal Medicine Work?
Each herb has been meticulously studied and recorded for its flavor, therapeutic property, and organ system in which it is active. Flavors include sour, bitter, acrid, salty, and sweet. Therapeutic properties span cold, cool, neutral, warm, and hot. The organ systems cover the various systems that make up our entire anatomy. These attributes synergistically offer the Chinese medical viewpoint on an herb’s therapeutic actions. Each herb is then categorized according to its primary therapeutic action. These include diaphoretics (cleansing through sweat), anti-inflammatories, diuretics (cleansing through urine), digestives, internal warmers, relaxants, tonics and many other categories. Given all this, herbs are then combined into formulas to accomplish several tasks simultaneously and these herbal formulas are categorized in the same manner as the singular herbs.
After evaluating a patient’s chief health concerns, an herbalist will construct a formula specific for her and her condition at hand. Every person that is evaluated will likely receive a different formula, even if the conditions are the same. Since each body is different, the reason for a disorder’s existence will be unique as well. And each unique person requires different tools for healing. Taking knee pain as an example, one patient may need more help circulating blood to alleviate pain and regenerate injured tissue, while another patient may need their immune system strengthened as their knee pain may only surface when they’re sick or when the weather changes.
Each herb has a multitude of active chemical compounds that are responsible for how an herb accomplishes its various tasks. Studies abound on Chinese herbs and how they affect the body, subdue pathogens and infections, enhance circulation, and even slow aging. In an herbal formula, a veritable soup of hundreds, if not thousands of active ingredients stimulate the body to respond in a desired ways, depending on the design of the herbal formula.
Where Do the Herbs Come From?
For nearly thirty years Tao of Wellness has been developing direct relationships with the growers and providers of our herbal products in high mountains throughout China. Most American acupuncture clinics order their herbs through third-party companies that import and distribute them. Due to our demand for the highest quality and the high volume of herbs used each year at Tao of Wellness, we import our own herbs directly from suppliers in China. This gives us even more control over the quality of our herbs. To ensure and uphold consistent quality, our founders Drs. Mao and Dao, and our herb operations manager, visit China regularly to inspect and sample some of the 500-plus herbs our clinic uses for raw formulas and concentrated powders.
These regular trips begin with a flight to China then over a course of a week fly and drive to visit and inspect crops in remote herb farms in Sichuan, Yunnan, Anhui, Jiangsu and other provinces. Herbs are harvested and transported to a state-of-the-art, GMP-certified (Good Manufacturing Practices) herb laboratory where each individual herb is washed and cleaned, sliced, dried, vacuum-sealed and packaged for international shipment to our offices. At the same lab other herbs are processed to produce the concentrated herbal powder extracts our patients use in their customized formulas or in our encapsulated products. The process of producing concentrated herbal powder extract is done by cooking large quantities of herbs in water using a low heat, then discarding the fibrous residues and dehydrating the remaining herb tea. It typically takes 100 lbs. of raw herbs to produce 10-20 lbs. of concentrated powder extract. This concentrated extract ratio allows patients to consume in volume a fraction of the raw herbs in powdered form, along with the convenience of not having to cook the herbs.
China’s vast geographical makeup lends a variety of climatic conditions. This generates the unique characteristics and therapeutic properties inherent to each region’s herb crops. Many provinces become famous for a select number of herbs. Our pharmacy brings in ginseng, chrysanthemum, wild yam, and goji berries from the Northern provinces Jilin, Anhui, Henan, and Ningxia respectively. Overall, our imports span many directions across China’s vast rural landscape.
It can often take five years for an herb to go from planting in the mountainous fields of China to our herb lab here in America. In that time Tao of Wellness ensures that our herbs are grown only in soil that are tested and comply with safety standards for heavy metals. All of our herbs are grown on mountainous hillsides and far from cities, thus avoiding industrial pollution. Once harvested, each herb is laboratory tested to ensure compliance with proper species identification, active compounds and heavy metal and pesticides standards. Because all of our doctors, staff, family members, as well as our patients rely on the herbs for health and healing we are committed to working hard to upholding the quality and consistent supply of herbs.
Are There Any Side Effects?
One of the great advantages of Chinese medicine is the absence of serious side effects. On the rare occasion where there may be some mild digestive upset or difficulty with the taste of the herbs we advise patients to take their herbs after meals, at a reduced dosage, or modifying the herbal combination. Herbs are available in pill formats for those who have difficulty with the taste of herb tea. Most conditions do very well with the use of regular herbal prescriptions, and taking them regularly is important for speedier recovery.
Some of the Many Conditions Herbal Medicine Can Help Improve
Herbs Promote Hair Restoration
Every day, we normally shed up to 125 hairs. We are familiar, however, with the comic character who runs around and pulls out his hair while enduring a stressful situation. You may be amazed to learn there really is a connection between stress and hair loss.
Stress restricts the flow of qi (energy) and blood to the scalp. The severe stress of a divorce, death of a loved one or major surgery or illness can cause hair to stop growing and shift into a resting phase. Two or three months later, the resting hairs suddenly begin to fall out. Stress can also trigger a type of hair loss in which white blood cells attack the hair follicles and halt hair growth.
As we get older, both men and women experience some hair loss. It is a normal part of the aging process and often runs in families. Familial hair loss is characterized by a receding hair line and baldness on the top of the head in men, hair loss in women takes the form of a general thinning of the hair.
Both men and women produce the hormone testosterone. Because of interaction with an enzyme, testosterone can be converted to a type of testosterone called DHT, which shrinks hair follicles. This causes the membranes in the scalp to thicken, become inelastic and restrict blood flow. When the follicles atrophy, hair falls out and usually is not replaced. Since men produce more testosterone than women, they experience more hair loss. Areas of the scalp that are completely bald no longer have live follicles. Areas with shorter, fuzzy, fine hairs still have live follicles that may respond to Chinese herbal therapy.
In Chinese medical theory, healthy hair depends on an abundant flow of qi and blood to the scalp. Qi and blood is produced, in part, through the digestive process, and deficiency in one or both can be caused by dietary or digestive insufficiencies. Hair loss is also linked to kidney deficiency syndrome which is more common in the process of aging.
Chinese herbs have been found to be effective in promoting hair growth by balancing hormones, restoring kidney vitality and directing nourishing qi and blood to the scalp. A well known Chinese herbal remedy for hair restoration is he shou wu, which strengthens the hair, increases blood production, and may even reverse graying. Herbs such as saw palmetto and licorice root also help block the formation of DHT.
Whole foods, particularly the outer skin of plants such as potatoes and cucumbers, as well as green and red peppers and sprouts, give strength to hair because they are rich in the mineral silica. Evening primrose, flaxseed and fish oils help prevent damage to the hair follicles. To increase circulation to the scalp, try tapping with your fingertips or giving your scalp a stimulating massage. Learn more about our anti-aging program.
Herbs Reduce Fever from Viral Infections
In a 2011 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, 410 adults with H1N1 (swine flu) fever were split into 4 groups. One group took a Chinese herbal formula and saw fevers reduce after 16 hours, one group took the antiviral drug Tamiflu and fevers reduced at 20 hours, and a third group simply took Tylenol and fevers dropped after 26 hours. The fastest reduction in fever was in the fourth group who took both Tamiflu and the Chinese herbal formula together, seeing fevers reduce at 15 hours. The clearest benefit to taking herbs over pharmaceutical drugs is the much smaller incidence and severity of side effects. Learn more about how we treat cold and flus.
Herbs Inhibit Bacteria
Bacterial infection is responsible for humankind’s largest incidences of disease and death throughout our history. Since the discovery of penicillin’s effective medicinal use in the early twentieth century, antibiotics were developed and have been used consistently over the last several decades. With this, however, bacterial strains are becoming resistant to treatment and conventional medical establishments are looking for other sources of help.
In a 2005 issue of the Journal of Clinical Microbiology, scientists illustrated the effective use of an extract of one Chinese herb, ku shen, against several strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It inhibited the growth of streptococcus mutans (responsible for tooth decay), methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (commonly infecting the skin in hospital settings and often referred to as MRSA), and vancomycin-resistant enterococci (affecting the intestines and urinary tract). Ku Shen has a long history in Chinese medical use for several kinds of infectious and proliferative diseases, and has been shown to treat inflammatory, cancer, and cardiac disorders. The same study references Ku shen’s antimalarial activity, antifungal activity against candida albicans (a common source of thrush and sign of intestinal flora weakness), and cell-killing activity of leukemia tumors.
In the clinical setting it is rare for a Chinese medical doctor to prescribe just one medicinal herb. But many studies focus on one extract of one herb. When an herbal formula is prescribed it’s not uncommon to combine 10-15 herbs in a single formula, offering a combination of hundreds, if not thousands, of active chemical components working together to eradicate disease from several different fronts at the same time. This combination approach to herbal therapy has proven effective over the history of Chinese medicine.
Herbs Enhance Chemotherapy & Lower Side Effects
Many chemotherapy drugs are known for their side effects causing a variety of symptoms throughout the body, including numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, hair loss, fatigue, anemia, and digestive symptoms like nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and weight loss. It’s these digestive symptoms that were the focus of a four-herb Chinese medicinal formula, accessed for centuries for digestive complaints, that was used alongside chemotherapy to see if side effects were mitigated.
In a 2010 issue of Science Translational Medicine, this herbal formula was used alongside a specific chemo drug noted for its side effects. It was found that the herbal combination reduced weight loss caused by the chemo, it promoted new cell growth in the gastrointestinal tract, it had anti-inflammatory effects, and it even improved the anti-cancer properties of the chemo drug being used.
Dr. Yung-Chi Cheng, a professor of pharmacology at Yale University, led the study and confirmed, “You are increasing the anti-cancer drug action but also decreasing anti-cancer-drug side effects. It enhances the recovery of the damaged tissue.” Learn about our integrative oncology program.