Chinese herbal medicine
is the oldest continually-practised system of herbal medicine in the world. It uses the traditional Chinese system of pathology, diagnosis, and treatment strategy. The language by which herbs are described and the way in which herbs are combined are very different from other herbal medical systems.
Most of the substances used in Chinese herbal medicine originate from China, but many also come from other areas of Asia. The Chinese pharmacopeia lists over 6,000 different medicinal substances. There are currently over 600 different herbs in common use today.
Chinese herbs are categorized at many different levels and described in much detail. Herbs are used for their abilities to treat specific Chinese diagnoses and to alleviate specific complaints. For example, there are assortments of herbs which can alleviate coughing, but each one is appropriate for a cough due to a different Chinese diagnosis. This degree of detail to which herbs are prescribed, makes Chinese herbal medicine very complex and also very precise.
A great deal of research into the chemical nature of Chinese herbs has been conducted. Modern study has time and again validated the traditional uses of Chinese herbs. Chemical insight into these herbs has also given us new understanding as how to best use them.
The one characteristic of Chinese herbal medicine that most sets it aside from other types of herbal medicine is the degree to which formulation is done. In other forms of herbal medicine, especially Western herbal medicine, herbs are often delivered singly or combined into very small formulas of herbs with the same function. Chinese herbalists very rarely prescribe a single herb to treat a condition, instead they create formulas. The creation of an herbal formula can be a quite complicated process requiring a high degree of skill and experience. A formula usually contains at least four herbs, but sometimes may contain more than twenty herbs. The creation of an herbal formula is done with the individual patient's complaints and Chinese diagnosis in mind. In this manner, an herbal formula is tailor-made to suit a particular patient. It is uncommon for two patients with the same complaint to receive the exact same formula.
Herbal formulas can be delivered in all manners of preparation. Pre-made formulas are available as pills, tablets, capsules, powders, alcohol-extracts, water-extracts, etc. Most of these formulas are very convenient as they do not necessitate patient preparation and are easily taken. However, the concentration of the herbs in these products is low and don't allow the practitioner to adjust the contents or dosages. These products are usually not as potent as the traditional preparation of decoction.
Decoction is the traditional method of preparing herbal medicine. A decoction is a concentrated form of tea. The practitioner weighs out a day's dosage of each herb and combines them in a bag. A patient is given a bag for each day the herbal formula will be taken. The herbs are then boiled in water by the patient at home. The boiling process takes from 30-60 minutes and the resulting decoction will be consumed several times during the day. This method of preparation requires more time on the part of the patient and practitioner and the formulas can be difficult to drink.
Another modern way of delivering herbs is becoming quite popular. Granulated herbs are highly concentrated powdered extracts. These powders are made by first preparing the herbs as a traditional decoction. The decoction is then dehydrated to leave a powder residue. Practitioners can then mix these powders together for each patient into a custom formula. The powder is then placed in hot water to recreate the decoction. This eliminates the need to prepare the herbs at home, but still retains much of the original decoction's potency.
Quality Issues
The quality and safety of Chinese herbs has repeatedly come into question after media coverage of rare events. It is important to remember that Chinese herbs are used by millions of people worldwide each day without incident. Occasionally, certain herbal products have been singled out because of poor manufacturing or unethical behavior on the part of the manufacturer. These products are almost exclusively manufactured in mainland China.
Some of the concerns have been over heavy-metal contamination, adulteration, and use of endangered animal species. Heavy-metal contamination has been seen in several Chinese herbal products, usually as a result of poor manufacturing. Adulteration of herbal medicines with prescription drugs has been found in a few herbal products. The use of endangered animals in Chinese herbal medicine is very rare. This is in largest part due to the expense of procuring these medicines. Even those herbal products which are labelled as having endangered animals inside, rarely do. There are many government agencies which routinely test Chinese herbal medicines. Practitioners have access to this information and quickly remove them from their shelves.
For the most part, acupuncturists now purchase their herbal products from reputable companies operating in the United States due to quality issues with imported Chinese herbal medicines. Many companies are also manufacturing their own herbal medicines here in the United States. Chinese herbal stores often still import their products from mainland China as opposed to acupuncturists. Your acupuncturist is a much more reliable source for herbal medicines and product information. Please ask your acupuncturist any questions you might have about the products he/she carries.