Patricia Leat L.Ac.Dipl. Ac., Dipl. Herb.
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Herbal Medicine is the main treatment method within Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) which is the world's oldest continually practiced professional medicine. The use of herbs is effective in the treatment of a wide range of medical problems, not to be confused with Natural medicine, using herbs instead of drugs. In Chinese Medicine the whole persons constitution and their life is taken into consideration before prescribing.


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. Whereas Western folk herbalism primarily treats diseases or symptoms such as headaches, runny nose, menstrual pain, etc, Chinese herbal medicine, when practiced as part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), is based on an individualized pattern diagnosis as well as a disease diagnosis. The patient's pattern is made up of their signs and symptoms, their emotional temperament and the overall composition of their body. TCM formulas are crafted to treat the patient's entire pattern as well as the symptom or disease that prompted them to seek treatment. Such formulas may include six to eighteen herbs to best accomplish this. Western folk herbalism usually focuses on one symptom or disease at a time and uses a single herb or groups of herbs for treatment. Chinese herbal medicine may include vegetable, animal and mineral indgredients; however, the majority of ingredients used are from vegetable sources. Leaves, flowers, twigs, stems, roots, tubers, rhizomes and bark are among the parts of the vegetable used. The most common method of taking Chinese herbal medicine is drinking a liquid, prepared by boiling the selected herbs. There are also herbal pills, tinctures and powdered extracts for those who do not have the time or taste for drinking the more traditional liquid form. The liquid method allows the practitioner maximum flexibility in writing a prescription. They can put in just what is necessary in just the right amounts. The formula can be changed frequently, if necessary, and the liquid forms tend to be more potent than other forms.

Therapeutic Value

Chinese herbal medicine treats the full range of human disease and is especially good for promoting the body's ability to heal and recover from illness. Chinese herbal medicine works as well for Westerners as it does for Chinese and has been used successfully in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Australia, New Zealand and all throughout Asia. Most of the components of Chinese herbal medicine have a very low toxicity compared to even common, over-the-counter Western drugs. When they are prescribed according to a correct TCM pattern diagnosis, they should have few, if any, side effects and only beneficial healing results. The practitioner should be notified in the event of any discomfort so they can easily modify the formula until there are no side effects. In acute conditions, results may occur in a matter of minutes. In chronic conditions, some results should be seen within two weeks. Although chronic conditions may require taking Chinese herbal medicine for a long time, signs that the medicine is working should be apparent to the patient and practitioner alike almost from the very start. Children are usually very responsive to Chinese herbal medicine. Pediatrics is a specialty within TCM and children can be given reduced dosages. There are also specially prepared pediatric medicines in pill and powder form. Pills and powders are good for prolonged administration for chronic diseases,where formulas do not need to be very potent and where formulas do not need to be changed very often. They are also commonly used to continue therapeutic results after a successful initial treatment with liquid herbal medicine.


The written history of Chinese herbal medicine stretches back over 2,500 years and its practice is probably much older than that. Although acupuncture was the first Chinese method of treatment to gain wide acceptance in the West, Chinese herbal medicine is quickly establishing itself as one of the most popular and effective alternative therapies in the West. The Chinese adopted and incorporated herbs from all over the world. Fifteen to twenty percent of the 500 ingredients considered standard originated from outside China. What makes these "Chinese" herbs is that they are prescribed according to Chinese medical theory and a TCM pattern diagnosis. 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 Ts'ao 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. Puji Fang (Universal Prescriptions), a medical work written in the Ming Dynasty (over 600 years ago), is a collection of more than 61,739 prescriptions. Almost all of these prescriptions are combinations of herbs, to be decocted (boiled). 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 "yin", or female, passive, receding aspect of nature. The life functions of living things, on the other hand, are considered to belong to "yang", 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' (p'i); 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' (ts'ang hsiang). 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(k'ung), and surprise (ching) are too extreme, they will also harm good health. These emotions are called the 'seven emotions' (ch'i ch'ing). 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 patient's constitution and his or her 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.


Although Chinese herbal medicines are safe when prescribed by a trained, knowledgeable practitioner, they are strong medicine. Patients should ask about where the practitioner has trained, how long the training was, how long he or she has been in practice and what experience the practitioner has had in treating the patient's specific ailment. Chinese herbal medicine may be part of the testing done where acupuncture is a licensed and regulated healthcare profession. Ask your practitioner if your state requires a license to practice; about half the states do. In states that do not currently require licensing, patients should ask their practitioner if they are certified by the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncturists (NCCA). NCCA has created a certification process for Chinese herbal medicine. Practitioners who have passed that certification are entitled to add the abbreviation Dipl. C.H. (Diplomate of Chinese Herbs) or Dipl. Herb. after their name.