Chinese Herbal Medicine 101

I’m often asked about the safety, efficacy, and benefit of using Chinese herbal medicine. Chinese herbal medicine maintains a historical longevity beyond most practices of herbal medicine. Chinese herbalism is older than the practice of acupuncture–over 2000 years. It is also one of the few herbal practices that did not receive persecution until the Cultural Revolution between 1966-1976. That means herbal medicine was able to be honed and perfected in China with formulas being finely crafted and fine-tuned for over 2000 years. The same cannot be said for Europe or the Americas. In Europe and the Americas, many of the keepers of herbal knowledge while once respected, fell under the suspicion of witchcraft much earlier in history than the Cultural Revolution in China. Persecution and the ravages of colonialism similarly led to many of the herbal traditions across the globe being lost or halted in history.

During the Cultural Revolution, many family traditions of Chinese medicine -including acupuncture, herbs, cupping, and scraping techniques, were outlawed in China. Some of the practitioners of these outlawed practices fled to Europe and the United States to keep their medical knowledge alive, while other family traditions were lost to persecution.

While recently there have been some salacious articles in the media that focus on inhumane practices against animals and poaching horns of endangered species for Chinese herbal medicine, these are not practices supported by licensed acupuncturists in the western world. These articles have unfortunately focused on shock value as opposed to focusing on the depth, breadth, and effectiveness of Chinese herbal medicine. We may chose to tackle some of those articles in depth in future blog posts.

Safety

It is important to note that all herbal medicine is medicine. Simply because something is naturally derived from a plant or mineral, does not make it safe in any dosage or use. We can overdose on natural minerals and vitamins. Alternatively, many of our modern medicines are originally derived from natural substances, even if they are now crafted in a lab. That is why it is important to work with a licensed and trained herbalist.

Chinese herbs, like any other supplement or medication, are safe when appropriately prescribed. For example taking over the counter IBUprofen is generally considered safe and effective for most people, however taking too much of it can cause serious side effects. There are some people with certain medical conditions who shouldn’t take IBUprofen at all. Chinese herbs are similar. When prescribed by a licensed herbalist who knows the correct usage and dose, they are very safe for patients. Acupuncturists with a MAcOM degree– Masters in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, are highly trained in herbal medicine and, like with the IBUprofen example, which herbs should not be used with certain medical conditions or other medications. That is part of what the OM in MAcOM represents.

If a patient does experience side effects from herbs they are generally mild, such as minor bloating, gas or changes in bowel movements. These can typically be ameliorated easily with a slight change in the formula. Occasionally, patients may experience stronger side effects from herbal medication, and often your practitioner will warn you about them before you head home with your herbs. Some herbs are known for having stronger potential side effects either by themselves or in conjunction with certain medications, again your acupuncturists will go over these with you before you take your first herbal formula. Just like with pharmaceuticals and your doctor, always bring up any side effects with your prescribing practitioner as they can usually ameliorate these symptoms or advise you whether or not to keep taking your formula.

Why Use Chinese Herbal Medicine? 

Since Chinese herbal medicine is older than acupuncture, there is a rich history of treating nearly any ailment or disease process with it. Many conditions respond better or faster with the combination of acupuncture and herbal medicine.

Key ailments that respond faster with herbal medicine:

  • Physical pain
  • Women’s health – from painful menses, heavy or light menses, PCOS, fibromyalgia, infertility, morning sickness, postpartum depression, to perimenopause symptoms
  • Digestion ailments – acid reflux, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Ulcerative Colitis
  • Feelings of anxiety or depression
  • Insomnia
  • Migraines and frequent tension headaches

Just like with the practice of acupuncture, your practitioner will focus on trying to identify your unique pattern that is the underlying cause of your ailment. The goal of herbal medicine is to treat both the root cause of your condition, and to alleviate symptoms, such as pain. The herbs provide a daily reinforcement to acupuncture treatment where both are working to provide your body with the ability to heal itself. This alleviates the symptoms and the cause.

One of the most important aspects of using Chinese herbal medicine for pain relief, anxiousness, feelings of depression, etc is that these herbal formulas do not alter your mental awareness or sharpness. In the midst of the current opioid crisis in the United States, Chinese herbal medicine often goes overlooked. We’ll be covering Chinese herbalism for pain management in depth, in the next couple of weeks. The important take away is that Chinese herbal medicine can provide pain relief without impairing your judgement, without impacting your ability to work or function during your normal daily tasks.

Chinese herbal medicine mainly uses formulas that have been developed over time that are then individualized based on the current symptoms. Formulas are crafted with chief herbs, deputies, envoys, and harmonizers. The chief herb(s)  represent the main goal of the formula; such as alleviating pain, or settling the stomach, or settling the mind to go to sleep at night. The deputy herbs help the chief herb achieve its task. The envoys will guide the herbs to a specific part of the body; such as a specific limb for pain management or to a specific organ system in the body. Harmonizers make sure that all the herbs in the formula ‘play nice’ together and mitigate any potential toxicity reactions in the body.

As your health improves, your acupuncturist will change and adjust your formula. This is also a unique concept to Chinese herbal medicine. You often do not find yourself on the same formula for months or years. Instead, both acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine treatments change as your current health shifts. As you improve, so should many of your symptoms, or sometimes new symptoms appear. Every few weeks to months, your herbs will be adjusted or the formula changed completely to ensure that your body continues to move towards better health.

Finally, patients are rarely on herbs forever. The goal of both acupuncture and herbal medicine is to help your body heal and to adopt any lifestyle changes that will allow healing to take place.

To get the best and safest benefit from Chinese herbal medicine, remember to always work with a licensed acupuncturist trained in Chinese herbal medicine.


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Lindsey Thompson is an East Asian Medicine Practitioner at the Thompson Family Acupuncture Clinic in Walla Walla, WA. She loves growing vegetables, raising chickens, and striving to get the most out of life. Practicing medicine and help people find ways to improve their health at home is one of the most fulfilling aspects of her career. Check out her Chinese medicine based lifestyle and nutrition video series, Ancient Roots: What Chinese Medicine Can Teach Us About Our Diets. Link in the side bar of the blog.
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