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Traditional Chinese Herbalism: How Does It Work?

Traditional Chinese herbalism is part of traditional Chinese medicine, which has been used for over three thousand years. It was formally codified in the classic book on this form of medicine called the Yellow Emperor’s Classics of Internal Medicine (or the Huang Di Nei Jing in Chinese), which was published in the third century BC. Whereas in the Western world acupuncture is better known (which is also part of traditional Chinese medicine), in China herbal treatments are more widely used. However, traditional Chinese herbalism is now becoming increasingly popular also in the West, though there is no clear proof that it works, and there have been sporadic concerns about the quality and safety of some products.

Traditional Chinese medicine is based on the concept of two opposing life forces yin and yang. When these forces become imbalanced the symptoms manifest themselves as physical illnesses. The practitioner uses a number of methods, including smell and pulse taking, to determine what energy imbalances exist before making up an herbal remedy, tailored for the patient’s individual needs. This herbal treatment should bring the life forces back into line with a view of treating the underlying causes of the illness.

How Traditional Chinese Herbalism Works

Like other forms of traditional Chinese medicine, traditional Chinese herbalism is based on the Taoist philosophy that good health comes from balancing the two opposing life forces yin and yang, which make up the life energy qi.

In the Taoist philosophy, yin and yang represent opposite but complementary forces in nature. For instance, yin represents the moon (overcast) and yang the sun (sunshine). In nature these forces are in state of continual movement as day turns into night. Opposing forces also define each other because without dark there would be no light. These opposites are also expressed between men and women, with men represented as yang and women as yin.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, the life energy qi represented by yin and yang flows through the body using channels called meridians. That means the physical aspects of the body are intrinsically connected to the life energy. If anything happens to disturb the flow of life energy, or to create an imbalance between yin and yang, people become ill. Factors that may disturb this balance include accidents, diet, emotional states, infection, pollution, weather conditions and time of year.

Traditional Chinese Medicine divides yin and yang into:

  • Moon/overcast (yin) and sun/sunshine yang
  • Interior (yin) and exterior (yang)
  • Cold (yin) and hot (yang)
  • Deficiency (yin) and excess (yang)

All physical conditions can be interpreted within this framework. For instance, a fever could be viewed as an excess of yang (hot). To counteract the yang, a cold herb could be prescribed to bring the body back into harmony.

Here are some examples of how traditional Chinese herbalism categorizes problems:

Yang A yang syndrome may present as nervousness, fever, dry or cracked skin, rough breathing, loud voice or constipation. The pulse may be rapid, excessive, and forceful, and the tongue may be red or yellow.
Yin A yin syndrome may appear as pale complexion, fatigue, cold limbs, heavy sensation in the body, feeble breathing, low voice, and decreased appetite. The pulse is deeper, weak and slow, and the tongue is light in colour and moist.
Exterior A superficial disease is a disease that occurs in the skin and hair, or the external regions of the meridian system.
Interior A deep syndrome occurs within the internal organs.
Cold A cold syndrome is caused by an excess of cold energy, which may appear as fatigue, withered spirits, pale complexion, sleeping in a foetal position, fear of cold, or a craving for hot drinks.
Hot A hot syndrome is the opposite, presenting as a red complexion, love for cold drinks, rapid pulses, red and dry lips, and occasionally high fevers.
Deficiency A deficiency syndrome involves conditions caused by a decline in the body’s vital energy. Symptoms include fatigue, weakness, low spirits, shortness of breath, excessive perspiration, night sweats, and a deficient or weak pulse.
Excess A syndrome of excess includes conditions caused by an excess of energy or energy congestion and blood stagnation resulting from and internal functional breakdown. The symptoms are thirst, high fever, mental depression, delirium, constipation, abdominal fullness, and pain on touch. The patient has an excessive or forceful pulse and a red tongue.

The practitioner will use the above classification to structure the information gained from the diagnosis of symptoms (see the section “What to expect during examination” below). It needs to be mentioned that traditional Chinese medicine, including traditional Chinese herbalism, does not just take a reactive approach to illness (treating problems as they come up), rather it also believes in prevention by keeping the body’s life energy constantly in balance.

What to Expect During Examination (Diagnosis)

Traditional Chinese herbalists take a holistic approach to health. This means they believe that everything around us (including home life, work, the environment, etc.) affects our health. A patient will be asked questions which they would never expect a conventional general practitioner to ask. To determine what symptoms a patient has, the practitioner of traditional Chinese herbalism relies on ten essential questions regarding: 1) cold and hot sensations, 2) perspiration, 3) head and body aches, 4) eating, 5) thirst, 6) urination and bowel movement habits, 7) chest tightness or distension, 8) hearing loss or change, 9) pulse and the colour of the tongue, and 10) spirituality.

To answer these questions, a practitioner of traditional Chinese herbalism will look at the patient and especially at their tongue and complexion; ask questions about symptoms, eating habits, food preferences, sleeping patterns, energy patterns and sexual desires; listen and smell; and take the patient’s pulse.

Afterwards, the practitioner will decide on an herbal mixture that is appropriate to the patient’s individual symptoms. This mixture will most likely be made up of several different herbs, each of them with a particular property to help address the patient’s specific problem. Treatments used in traditional Chinese herbalism come as creams, teas, tinctures and dried herbs (for a list of herbs used check this link). What the patient is prescribed, how long they will have to continue taking the treatment and the number of visits they will have to make varies, depending on the symptoms the practitioner has diagnosed.

Is Traditional Chinese Herbalism Effective?

It is not possible to say for sure whether traditional Chinese herbalism works or not because there is not enough scientific evidence to prove it either way. In China, there are thousands of studies, which claim that traditional Chinese herbalism works. However, most of these studies are of little scientific value and do not meet the standards expected in the West. Nonetheless, despite the lack of reliable evidence a lot of people would claim that traditional Chinese herbalism has helped them.

Is Traditional Chinese Herbalism Safe?

Most of the herbs used in traditional Chinese herbalism mixtures are probably safe, though concerns have been raised over safety of some treatments. For example, some herbs have been linked to serious side effects, such as kidney failure. Also, several people have been poisoned by toxic heavy metals, such as arsenic and mercury, found in some mixtures. In addition, some mixtures used in traditional Chinese herbalism have been found to contain drugs like steroids that have seriously harmed some people.

Where to Get More Information: Shen Nong