Overview and History
Visiting a Chinese pharmacy in the Republic of China is much
like being inside a miniature museum of natural science. Tucked away in row after
row of tidy drawers are animal, plant, and mineral products, each with a particular
purpose. Among the assortment of curiosities are cinnabar and amber, to relax
the nerves; peach pits and safflower, to improve blood circulation; bearþs
gall to relieve pain and tranquilize; Chinese ephedra (mahuang) to induce perspiration;
and ginseng to strengthen cardiac function.
The filling of a prescription
ordered by a Chinese doctor is a fascinating process to watch. The pharmacist
selects a few particular ingredients from the hundreds on his shelf. These are
taken home by the patient, boiled into a 'soup', and consumed. Confronted with
such a steaming brew, you might ask yourself just what the basis of this ancient
medical art is. The theoretical framework of Chinese medicine was established
more than two millennia ago. A great deal of ancient medical knowledge is preserved
in the pre-Chin (221-207 B.C.) Inner Cannon (Nei Ching), a comprehensive record
of Chinese medical theories up to that time. The Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.)
produced an authoritative and valuable practical guide-even to the present day-to
the treatment of illness, the Treatise on Diseases Caused by Cold Factors (Shang
Han Lun) by Chang Chung-ching. One of the best-known Chinese medical works is
the Materia Medica (Pen Tsþao Kang Mu), compiled in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644
A.D.) by Li Shih-chen. This encyclopedic work heralded a new era in the world
history of pharmacology; it includes descriptions of 1,892 different kinds of
medicines. These works have all been translated into several foreign languages,
and have exercised a profound influence on East Asian and European countries.
The Chinese have a unique system of categorizing illnesses that is widely divergent
from its Western counterpart. The philosophy behind Chinese medicine is that man
lives between heaven and earth, and comprises a miniature universe in himself.
The material of which living things are made is considered to belong to the þyinþ,
or female, passive, receding aspect of nature. The life functions of living things,
on the other hand, are considered to belong to þyangþ, or masculine,
active, advancing aspect. The functions of living beings are described in terms
of the following five centers of the body: 1. 'heart' or 'mind' (hsin); this refers
to the 'command center' of the body, which manifests itself as consciousness and
intelligence; 2. 'lungs' or 'respiratory system' (fei); this system regulates
various intrinsic functions of the body, and maintains cybernetic balance; 3.
'liver' (kan); this term includes the limbs and trunk, the mechanism for emotional
response to the external environment, and the action of organs; 4. 'spleen' (pþi);
this organ system regulates the distribution of nutrition throughout the body,
and the metabolism, bringing strength and vigor to the physical body; and 5. 'kidneys'
(shen); this refers to the system for regulating the storage of nutrition and
the use of energy; the human life force depends on this system. This theory is
used to describe the system of body functions, and as a whole is referred to as
the 'latent phenomena' (tsþang hsiang). The passage of the seasons and changes
in the weather can have an influence on the human body. Those having the most
pronounced effect are wind (feng), cold (han), heat (shu), moisture (shih), dryness
(tsao), and internal heat (huo 'fire'). Excessive or extraordinary changes in
the weather harm the body, and are referred to as the 'six external disease-causing
factors' (liu yin). On the other hand, if mood changes within the individual,
such as happiness (hsi), anger (nu), worry (yu), pensiveness (szu), grief (pei),
fear(kþung), and surprise (ching) are too extreme, they will also harm good
health. These emotions are called the 'seven emotions' (chþi chþing).
In Chinese medicine, the six external disease-causing factors, interacting with
the seven emotions, form the theoretical foundation of disease pathology. These
theoretical models, coupled with the 'theory of latent phenomena,' are used to
analyze the patientþs constitution and his illness, and diagnose the exact
nature of his overall physical and psychological loss of balance. Based on this
analysis, the doctor can prescribe a method to correct the imbalance. The object
of Chinese medicine is the person, not just the illness. In Chinese medical thinking,
illness is only one manifestation of an imbalance that exists in the entire person.
to Chinese legend, Shen Nung, the Chinese father of agriculture and leader of
an ancient clan, took it upon himself to test, one by one, hundreds of different
plants to discover their nutritional and medicinal properties. Many of these turned
out to be poisonous to humans. Over the millennia, Chinese have used themselves
as guinea pigs in this same way to continue testing plants for their properties
of inducing cold (han), heat (jeh), warmth (wen), and coolness (liang). They classified
the medicinal effects of the plants on the various parts of the body, then tested
them to determine their toxicity, what dosages would be lethal, and so forth.
For example, the stem of Chinese ephedra is a sudorific; but its roots, to the
contrary, can check perspiration. Cassia bark is warming in nature, and is useful
in treating colds. Mint is cooling in nature, and is used to relieve the symptoms
of illness resulting from heat factors. This accumulation of experience strengthened
the Chinese understanding of natural phenomena, and increased the applications
of natural principles in Chinese medicine. The same principles described in the
preceding are also applied to assess the patientþs living environment, his
life rhythms, the foods he prefers or avoids, his personal relationships, and
his language and gestures, as a tool in better understanding his illness, and
suggesting improvements in various areas. Once the excesses or imbalances are
pinpointed, they can be adjusted, and physical and mental health and balance restored.
This attainment of equilibrium in the bodyþs flow of energy is the ultimate
guiding principle of Chinese medical treatment. In addition to the prescription
of medicines, acupuncture is another frequently used tool of treatment in Chinese
medicine. Its history antedates written Chinese language, but acupuncture was
not fully developed until after the Han dynasty. Its theoretical base is the adjustment
of cþhi, or the flow of life energy. Cþhi flows through the body via
the system of 'main and collateral channels' (ching luo) of the body. At certain
points along these channels, acupuncture needles may be inserted, or Chinese mugwort
(ai tsþao) burned in moxibustion, to adjust imbalances in the flow of cþhi,
and concentrate the bodyþs self-healing powers in the points where needed.
In 1980, the World Health Organization released a list of 43 types of pathologies
which can be effectively treated with acupuncture. The use of acupuncture as anesthesia
during surgery or for painless childbirth is no longer þnews.þ Acupuncture
is simple to administer, has few side effects, and has broad applications. It
has opened up a whole new þhotþ field of scientific and medical research.
In the Republic of China on Taiwan, the government has put great efforts into
promoting the modernization of Chinese medicine. As a result, there are now people
trained in both traditional Chinese and modern Western medical arts who have made
commendable contributions to the treatment of hepatitis, high blood pressure,
cancer, and other diseases that are so far difficult to treat. In the area of
pharmacology, researchers have evaluated effectiveness, analyzed, tested, and
formulated concentrated dosages of Chinese pharmaceutical products for commercial
sale. The prescriptions for these drugs are easier to fill, and are much more
convenient for the patient than the old boiling method. In the area of basic scienc,
modern research is being conducted in the field of pulse diagnosis. The three
fingers used in the past to determine illness through feeling of the pulse are
now being replaced by pressure reactors. The pressure reactor converts variances
in pulse pressure into electromagnetic waves, and registers them on a screen.
This data is then analyzed by a computer. Many important new discoveries have
been made through unique combinations of traditional and modern science. In the
Republic of China, the marriage of modern scientific precision with the art of
traditional Chinese medicine is on the threshold of opening up a whole new world
of medical diagnosis and treatment.
An Introduction to Chinese Herbal
What are Chinese herbs? In China, herbs are called herbal medicine,
which is made up of roots, bark, flowers, seeds, fruits, leaves, and branches.
Herbal medicine has been a part of the written history of Traditional Chinese
Medicine for over 4000 years. There are over 3000 different herbs that can be
used for medical purposes. Only 300 to 500 of these herbs are commonly used. It
is important to use herbs grown in China rather than outside of their native environment.
One must use the right herb from the right resource to get the full benefit.
are herbs used for? Herbal therapy has three main functions: (1) to treat the
immediate problem, such as killing bacteria or a virus, (2) to strengthen the
body, helping it to recover, and (3) to maintain health.
Property: Every herb is said to have the property of being
either cool, cold, warm, or hot. Cool and cold herbs treat "hot" symptoms,
such as fever, thirst, sore throat or constipation. Warm and hot herbs treat "cold"
symptoms, such as cold hands and feet.
Flavor: There are seven flavors of herbs;
pungent, sweet, sour, astringent, bitter, salty, and neutral.
(or meridians) run throughout the body, affecting different organs. Each kind
of herb affects a particular channel and organ.
Actions: Herbs perform different
actions in the body. These are known as lifting, floating, lowering, and sinking.
is it necessary to process herbs? Herbs are processed before use. There are several
reasons for this. First, processing reduces any possible side-effects by detoxifying
the herbs, removing any poisons. Another reason for processing herbs is for easier
storage. Processing also filters out impurities such as dirt and sand, and can
tone down a strong taste or smell. Finally, processing an herb can strengthen
What are the differences between patent and prescribed
herbs? Patent herbs are premixed herb combinations, similar to over-the-counter-drugs.
The patient's symptoms must fit the patent herb's narrow indications. Prescribed
herbs are mixed by an herbalist and tailored to the patient's symptoms and diagnoses.
does a Chinese herbalist do? Contrary to popular belief, Chinese herbalists do
not normally grow or process herbs. The herbalist writes a prescription tailored
to the patient's individual needs, then mixes it using herbs processed by pharmaceutical
companies in China and Taiwan. Only G.M.P. standard herbs are used. G.M.P. stands
for Good Manufacture Practice, the highest standard for pharmaceuticals. In China,
Chinese herbalists are graduates of Chinese Traditional Medical School, with the
same privileges as western physicians.
How are herbs mixed? Herbs
are seldom used singly. Most often, they are used in combinations of 10 to 15
herbs. There are three ways to beneficially combine herbs. Mutual Reinforcement
involves combining two very similar herbs to create a strong effect. Mutual Assistance
is the method of using one herb to help another work better. Mutual Restraint
relies upon one herb reducing or eliminating side effects of another herb in the
Two other types of combinations show why one should
be experienced and knowledgeable about herbs before attempting to combine them.
Mutual Inhibition occurs when one herb reduces another's effectiveness. Incompatibility
occurs when the combination of certain herbs produces side effects or becomes
What are some precautions of taking herbs? Herbs, like
anything you put in your body, should be taken with a certain amount of caution.
Some herbs are too strong for pregnant women and may cause miscarriage. Certain
foods can have adverse effects on the herbal therapy. While taking herbs, one
should avoid food that is raw (fruit is okay, but vegetables should be cooked),
greasy, strong tasting or smelling, difficult to digest (such as beef), or irritating
to the digestive system (like spicy foods). For consultation with a certified
Chinese herbalist, please call (607)275-9700.
How are herbs taken?
Herbal medicine is traditionally taken in tea form. Tea absorbs into the system
quickly, and is the most commonly used method. However, if the smell or taste
of the tea is unpleasant, capsules or tablets are recommended. Tea should always
be warm, and capsules or tablets should be swallowed with warm water. Generally,
it is best to take herbs on an empty stomach. You should consult an herbalist
for specific instructions on taking herbs, but here are some basic guidelines.
Tonic herbs, to promote health, are best taken before meals. Purgative herbs,
to cleanse the system, are best taken on an empty stomach. Herbs that either irritate
the stomach or are taken to protect the stomach should be taken after eating.
Herbs for insomnia and other sleeping disorders should be taken at bedtime.
what reasons should herbs be taken? As stated before, the three functions of herbal
medicine are treatment, recovery, and health maintenance. Generally speaking,
herbs can be taken for many kinds of illness. Also, many kinds of western drugs
have an herbal alternative. Because it is natural therapy, most herbs do not cause
side effects. Those side effects that do occur can be easily counteracted with
other herbs. Herbal medicine is simply gentler and safer than chemical medicine.
For these reasons, people turn to herbal therapy for a number of indications.
treat a chronic illness - Many people with chronic illness take a number of different
drugs. Those who are looking for a natural alternative for those drugs switch
to herbal therapy. According to current practice in China, and classical Chinese
medical teachings, there are many herbal remedies for pain syndromes, gastrointestinal
disorders, neurological disorders, stress related syndromes, respiratory disorders,
heart problems, sexual dysfunction, allergies and immune system deficiencies,
as well as alternatives for antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs.
reduce side effects - Herbs can be taken to reduce the side effects of other medication.
Antibiotics weaken the immune system. Herbal therapy can strengthen the system.
Also, during chemotherapy, the white blood cell count drops, causing fatigue,
lack of energy and appetite. Herbal therapy has proven quite successful in relieving
the side effects of chemotherapy.
To assist Western medication -
Herbal medicine can strengthen the effects of Western medication. For example,
if a patient is taking medication for his high blood pressure, but it is not producing
the desired effects, his doctor may increase the dosage. A heavy dosage can produce
unwanted side effects. The patient can, instead, take an herbal supplement that
will produce the desired decrease in blood pressure without the side effects.
prevention - Herbs are often taken as a method of prevention. For a person suffering
from frequent headaches, taking herbs to prevent the headache from ever starting
is a much better option than taking a pain reliever after the fact. Herbs are
also used to prevent the flu, menstrual cramps and pre-menstrual syndrome, among
For health maintenance- Herbal therapy can also be
used for general health maintenance. Tonic herbs are used to increase energy and
to slow the aging process. They are also used for enhancing sexual energy and
for cosmetic purposes.
Herbs are also used to treat minor symptoms
that are not severe enough for heavy chemical drugs, symptoms that cannot be diagnosed
by Western medicine, and symptoms and illness that are not easy to treat, such
as mononucleosis and immune system deficiencies.