Understanding Chinese medicines in form of medicine is not easy. Medicines used in China for thousands of years are called zhong yao (中药), which should be translated as Chinese medicines or Chines medications, but people got used to a different term: Chinese medicine, a way of treatment. This term often cause confusion with zhongyi (中医) -- Chinese medicine, a system of diagnosis and treatment.
Clinical TCM theories about syndrome diagnosis and treatment are mostly from the practice of herbs. When certain herbs were effective to certain condition, and ancient doctors could explain it with philosophies, then they named the condition as a fixed pattern of syndrome. In this way, TCM system was expanding.
Understanding Chinese medicine in forms of herbs should be easier. More than 90% of Chinese herbal medicines are from plants, including leaves, twigs, roots, barks, seeds, flowers and grass. The rest are from minerals and animal parts. Chinese medicine as a whole is usually called Chinese herbs or herbal medicines. There are more than 5000 individuals herbs in records. College students need to study more than 250 kinds of herbs. Most commonly used herbs are about 150 to 200 kinds in clinic.
Here are some examples for herbs of different forms. Bo He (mint) is from leaves for sore throat and common cold; Pu Gong Ying (dandelion) is a whole grass herb for toxic heat (inflammation); Rou Gui (Sinnamon) a bark for warming exterior; Hong Hua (Safflower) a flower for amenorrhea; Sheng Shi Gao (CaSO4·2H2O), a mineral for high fever; Mu Li (Oyster Shell) for stopping sweating; Lu Rong (a soft deer antelope) for increasing sexual drive.
Understanding Chinese medicine in its way of practice is challenging. Herbs are seldom used alone, because of the complexity of syndrome (zheng, 证) -- the center of TCM diagnosis. A herbalist usually works out a formula for a syndrome. A formula is usually a combination of about 10 to 20 kinds of Chinese herbs. Raw or dry herbs (中药饮片) are traditionally the first options for most diseases. Now, extract of individual herbs is conveniently available. Patients don't have to boil raw herbs to make tea, they just need to dissolve herbal granules in hot water just like preparation of instant coffee.
Formulas which are from the first clinical TCM classic book, Shang Han Lun (Cold Damage), a book written in about AD 200, are usually called "Classic Formulas". All other ancient formulas were directly or indirectly developed from the classic formulas. In modern time, a herbalist usually modify an ancient formula to treat certain disease. Herbalists' formula are different from each other, just like Chinese restaurants are different from each other. This is called individualized formula. A good herbalist would adjust his formula if his patient experiences any change in his condition.
For a pretty stable and mild condition, pre-made formulas in forms of pills, granules, capsules etc are available for sake of convenience or budget. While the sole of TCM diagnosis is the determination of syndrome (zheng, 证), the sole of TCM treatment is individualization. For same disease, but different individual, Chinese medicine treatment should be different. A pre-made formula is not as good as individualized formula for a unstable condition.
There are more than 200 ancient formulas are pre-made by manufacturers into the above forms mostly for the sake of convenience at sacrifice of individualization. Pre-made formulas are good for a disease in a mild condition like in the early stage or in recovery stage. When a condition is unstable, individualized formula should be the first option.
In China and many Asian countries, the majority of patients seeking for TCM are for Chinese medicine treatment. Chinese herbal medicines are very good for many infectious diseases (eg, pneumonia, flu), functional disorders (eg, indigestion), chronic and severe pain (eg, arthritis, migrant), digestive tract diseases (eg, colitis) and especially for skin disorders, menstrual disorders and children's illness.
Understanding Chinese medicine's treatment in both Chinese and Western medicine would turn this "blurred" medicine theory clear. Many Chinese herbs (as Shu Di Huang) which are used for "deficiency" syndrome, contain minerals and vitamins, so are better than acupuncture for treating anemia like disorders. Many herbs (as Gui Ban) for kidney deficiency contain calcium, so better for children's calcium deficiency.
Huan Lian is a herb well known through out China for its effectiveness on treating diarrhea. It dries dampness and clears heat in TCM theory and is good for a diarrhea of damp-heat type syndrome. In Western medicine theory, it contains a chemical called berberine which kills intestinal bacteria.
Ma Huang is the first herb for TCM students to study. It is very effective to control asthma because it can bring down lung qi in TCM theory. It contains a chemical called ephedrine which dilates bronchi strangely in Western medicine theory.
Understanding Chinese medicine in a view of Western is convincing. A Chinese medicine is Chinese medicine only under the guidance of TCM theory. A Chinese herb is used under any other theory, is not a Chinese herb. Take Ma Huang (containing ephedrine) as example. In TCM theory, May Huang is a "hot" herb, only used to treat "cold" syndrome, like asthma of cold syndrome pattern. It would produce strong side effect if it is used for "heat" syndrome pattern. Its side effects include raising blood pressure, raising heart rate, raising respiration. The primary way for a herbalist to prevent these side effects is to strictly follow TCM theory, that is to treat right syndrome pattern.
There were reported in the USA that people died because of taking Ma Huang. And Chinese herb Ma Huang was blamed and forbidden in use in some states. Actually, Ma Huang for the death was not Chinese herb, because it was not guided by TCM theory. It was used to increase basic metabolism to strengthen physical performs and to reduce body weight in Western medicine theory. In fact, it was the side effects of Ma Huang killing the Ma Huang user, and the side effects should be easily avoided if TCM theory was applied.
It is not difficult to understand that in which way a Chinese medicine works on a disease. Say, if a disease is of “cold” syndrome, a given herb must be "warm"; if of "heat", a herb must be "cold"; if a disease is caused by qi stagnation, a given herb must be able to disperse the "stagnated qi" with its pungent property; if a disease is of "scattering qi", a herb for it must be able to "gather" it with its "sour" or "astringe" property. This treatment method is called treating a disease on the base of its syndrome.
There are nearly 60 registered Chinese medicine herbalist in Victoria. Most of them graduated from local Chinese medicine schools, some of them graduated from Chinese medicine schools in China and had clinical experience and even teaching experience in China.
There are about three store selling Chinese herbs in Victoria. They sell traditional raw or dry Chinese herbs and pre-made Chinese medicines in forms of capsules, pills, tablets, syrup, etc.
Most Chinese medicine clinic prescribe pre-made Chinese herbs, some do instant granules, and a very few Chinese medicine clinics prescribe both traditional dry or raw herbs and modern concentrated instant powders.