Chinese Herbal Medicine



Chinese medicine ginseng

Chinese medicine has been practiced in China for thousands of years. It is the main part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The term Chinese medicine often confuses with Zhong Yi (中医) — (traditional) 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 for certain conditions, and ancient doctors could explain them with philosophies, then they named the condition a fixed pattern of the syndrome. In this way, the TCM system was expanding.



1. Types of “Herbs”

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 individual herbs in records. College students need to study more than 250 kinds of herbs. The most commonly used herbs are about 150 to 200 kinds in clinics.

Here are some examples of herbs of different forms. Bo He (mint) is from leaves for sore throat and the common cold; Pu Gong Ying (dandelion) is a whole grass herb for toxic heat (inflammation); Rou Gui (Sinnamon) is 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.


2. Clinical Application

Herbal Formulas

Herbs are seldom used alone because of the complexity of the syndrome (zheng, 证) — the center of TCM diagnosis. A herbalist usually works out a formula for a syndrome. The 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, the 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 the preparation of instant coffee.

Formulas 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 times, a herbalist usually modifies an ancient formula to treat a certain disease. Herbalists’ formulas are different, just like Chinese restaurants are different from each other. This is called the individualized formula. A good herbalist will adjust his formula if his patient experiences any change in his condition.


Pre-made Formulas

For stable and mild conditions, pre-made formulas in the form of pills, granules, capsules etc., are available for convenience or budget. While the sole TCM diagnosis is the determination of the syndrome (zheng, 证), the sole of TCM treatment is individualization. For the same disease but different individuals, Chinese medicine treatment should be different. A pre-made formula is not as good as a custom formula for an unstable condition.

There are more than 200 ancient formulas pre-made by manufacturers into the above forms, mostly for convenience at the sacrifice of individualization. Pre-made formulas are good for a disease in a mild condition, like in the early stage or the recovery stage. When a condition is unstable, the custom formula should be the first option.


3. Diseases Treated

In China and many Asian countries, most patients seek TCM for Chinese medicine treatment. Chinese herbal medicines are very good for many infectious diseases (e.g., pneumonia, flu), functional disorders (e.g., indigestion), chronic and severe pain (e.g., arthritis, migrant), digestive tract diseases (e.g., 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 (such as Shu Di Huang) used for “deficiency” syndrome contain minerals and vitamins, so they are better than acupuncture for treating anemia-like disorders. Many herbs (such as Gui Ban) for kidney deficiency contain calcium, so better for children’s calcium deficiency.

Huan Lian is a herb well-known throughout China for its effectiveness in treating diarrhea. It dries dampness and clears heat in TCM theory and is good for diarrhea of damp-heat type syndrome. In Western medicine theory, it contains a berberine chemical that 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.


4. Application

Understanding Chinese medicine from the view of the Western is convincing. Chinese medicine is Chinese medicine only under the guidance of TCM theory. A Chinese herb is used under any other theory and is not a Chinese herb. Take Ma Huang (containing ephedrine) as an example. In TCM theory, May Huang is a “hot” herb, only used to treat “cold” syndrome, like asthma or cold syndrome pattern. It will produce strong side effects if used for the “heat” syndrome pattern. Its side effects include raising blood pressure, raising heart rate, and raising respiration. The primary way for a herbalist to prevent these side effects is to strictly follow TCM theory, that is, to treat the right syndrome pattern.

There were reports in the USA that people died because of taking Ma Huang. And Chinese herb Ma Huang was blamed and forbidden in some states. Ma Huang for the death was not a Chinese herb because it was not guided by TCM theory. It was used to increase basic metabolism, strengthen physical performance and reduce body weight in Western medicine theory. 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 how 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 disease based on its syndrome.