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What is Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine?

Herbal medicine is the use of natural plant, mineral and animal substances to enhance health and treat illness. Its origin is pre-historic, probably going back to the beginnings of food cultivation and preparation, and can be found in most cultural traditions Even animals are known to seek out particular plants when they experience illness.

Modern pharmacology grew out of herbal medicine over the last two centuries. Even today, about one half of commonly used pharmaceuticals are derived from natural, 'herbal' substances.

Chinese traditional herbal medicine differs from other traditions in that it employs combinations ('formulas') of several substances together for treating multiple aspects of illness and balancing therapeutic effects according to a complete diagnosis of the individual. Although for most of its 2000-year history, the professions of acupuncturist and herbalist were distinct in Chinese traditional medical practice, since the 20th Century, in Asia and the West, these two aspects of the traditional medicine have been integrated into one profession. It is said, "With acupuncture from the outside, and herbal medicine from the inside, the myriad diseases have no place to hide."

How does Herbal Medicine work?

There are several aspects. On one level, herbs are a special kind of food to provide more specific nutritional support than the simple basic food categories. One renowned Chinese doctor and author calls herbs 'forgotten foods'. Many medicinal 'herbs' are also commonly used as condiments or spices in everyday culinary practice. These are in fact a form of medicine to enhance digestion. Many traditional European liqueurs are brewed with herbs and were originally designed as digestive aids, a form of medicine. Another level of herbal usage is in special dietary conditions, such as seasonal adjustment, or in preparation for specific kinds of activity, such as before or after fasting, childbirth, athletic competition, etc. Many religious rituals use herbs and food along these lines.

As known from the science of pharmacology, herbal substances can cause specific chemical and physiological reactions in the body. At the extreme, even highly toxic substances are used medicinally to produce drastic (but controlled) effects when medically appropriate. In Chinese traditional herbal medicine, there were classically three principle types of herbs:

1) toxic substances to effect drastic changes;

2) milder herbs to promote healing effects, and

3) special ("noble") herbs to enhance health, emotionally and spiritually as well as physically.

In the modern practice of herbology, the toxic substances are rarely used, as pharmacological medicine has appropriated that role. (Pharmaceuticals used by prescription only are in fact so regulated because they have a clear risk for doing harm when not used appropriately. In the USA and many other countries, herbal preparations are classified as 'nutritional' or 'dietary supplements', rather than as 'medicine', which in the narrowest, legal sense is limited to pharmaceuticals.)

Herbal medicine in modern form is generally used according to the second and third of the traditional categories listed above, and works by more gently eliciting natural physiological (or psychological) reactions such that the body is reminded, so to speak, how to heal itself. The use of compound formulas in the Chinese traditional system allows herbs to be combined to treat a wide range of physiological aspects simultaneously. In particular, this system specifically allows for balancing the various actions of the different herbs to virtually eliminate 'side-effects'. Herbal medicine is becoming widely recognized in our time as an effective adjunct to orthodox (Western) medicine and pharmaceuticals, for instance in helping to control negative side-effects of other therapies.

Herbal medicine is applied in many different forms:


In its simplest form, substances like mint or chamomile are steeped in hot water for a few minutes and then taken as a beverage. More elaborate Chinese formulas are 'decocted' (cooked at a low-medium boil) for 20 to 40 minutes to extract the active ingredients into the water, which is then taken as a beverage. This form of application is generally the strongest acting and most flexible, as the formula can be modified easily as the patient's condition changes. A variation of application as beverage is using prepared concentrated extracts which are then added as drops to hot water.


Herbs are also processed to make tablets or capsules, by grinding them into powders, extracting with liquids and then freeze-drying into granules, or by other methods. These are often easier for patients to take and more useful for longer term application. Also, once the right formula for a patient/condition is discovered by experimentation with decoctions, it can be made into custom manufactured capsules for ease of long term usage.

External applications

Herbs are also used to create pastes and plasters to be applied directly to the skin, where the active ingredients are absorbed directly into the tissue. This is used for skin conditions, for musculo-skeletal conditions, such as injuries (sports- or martial-arts-medicine), and arthritic conditions.

Herbs are also used in water for soaking or bathing, either for parts of the body like hands or feet, or in full-body bathes.

What's Herbal Medicine good for?

From a history of over 2000 years, Chinese traditional herbal medicine knows literally hundreds of different, well-documented formulas to treat a comprehensive range of pathological patterns. In this tradition, illnesses or diseases are viewed as patterns of diagnostic information, derived from the patient complaints and what the doctor's examination finds, including special aspects such as looking at the tongue and reading the pulses.

In the broadest sense, herbal medicine can help the body deal with any illness or disease. But this medicine views the patient in terms of his/her unique pattern of signs, symptoms, energetic profile, constitution and personal history, rather than using the terms of the Western naming system for pathological conditions. Strictly speaking, we do not treat the disease per se, but rather treat the individual, in terms of their diagnostic pattern. For instance, cancer can, by law, be 'treated' only with radiation, chemical or surgical therapies. However, an individual with cancer can be given herbal medicine to promote balancing of the strengths and weaknesses in his/her body which in turn supports the healing process, and to counter side-effects of other therapies.

Given an accurate diagnosis by a skilled practitioner, an appropriate combination of herbs is matched to the diagnosis. A particular formula to match the patient's condition could be a classical formula, one with some variation of herbal components, or a one designed from the ground up for the individual situation. In any case, the herbs are exactly matched to the diagnostic picture. This means also that the formula will very likely be changed from day to day or week to week as the patient's situation evolves. This precision and flexibility are what makes this form of therapy so effective.

Practically speaking, the kinds of conditions for which herbal medicine is effective include virtually the whole range of human ailments. For instance:

  • the common cold/flu, sinusitis, bronchitis, asthma, allergies;

  • digestive disorders, gastric reflux (GERD), colitis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), nausea, motion sickness;

  • menstrual disorders, fertility issues, peri-menopausal syndromes;

  • urinary tract infections (UTI), prostate conditions, hemorrhoids;

  • headaches, such as from tension, sinus conditions, or of the migraine variety;

  • seasonal and common depressions, insomnia, hypersomnia, fatigue;

  • recovery from musculo-skeletal injuries and diseases;

  • auto-immune conditions and complex syndromes such as fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS);

  • skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, urticaria (hives);

  • pre-surgical conditioning and post-surgical recovery and pain control.

Is Herbal Medicine safe and effective?

While there is a popular notion that herbs are effective but harmless, the fact is that indiscriminate use of herbs can do harm. Today herbal remedies have become very popular, and a large and profitable industry has emerged to serve this market, utilizing sophisticated, persuasive advertising and marketing techniques. As a result, some people have experienced problems stemming from the use herbal products without proper professional guidance.

As mentioned above, effective use of herbal medicine presupposes an accurate diagnosis. The effectiveness hinges on the particular strengths and weaknesses of the individual. For instance, while Ginseng is widely recognized as a powerful adjunct to health in terms of Yang energy, the use of Chinese or Korean forms of Ginseng is NOT appropriate, as a stand-alone remedy, for people who lead stressful, 'overheated' lifestyles, i.e. many Americans. This form of Ginseng is widely used in Chinese traditional formulas, but combination with other herbs such that its effects are appropriately directed and balanced.

The fact that so many consumers are using over-the-counter herbal remedies without proper guidance has led to a situation today where some medical doctors (MDs) caution their patients against using any sort of herbal preparations. On the other hand, many medical practitioners also recognize the considerable potential of conjunctive herbal treatment, and refer patients to herbalists known to have the proper training and skills for effective and safe prescription of herbs.

The proper use of herbal medicine includes an analysis of the complementary and antagonistic interactions that certain herbal substances can have with various pharmaceutical drugs. An herbal prescription must take into account any pharmaceutical prescriptions the patient is taking, and appropriate coordination of treatment with the prescribing physician.

Due to increased popularity, the media and various watchdog agencies have recently been focusing on the dangers inherent in the misuse of herbal medicine, reporting instances of people harmed by the improper use of herbal medicine. These cases, on closer examination, have all been shown to involve unskilled self-diagnosis and prescription, or administration by practitioners lacking the proper education and certification in the use of herbal medicine. To put this in perspective, consider that the number of cases of injury due to herbal medicine is minuscule in comparison with the number of serious problems arising from errors and abuses involving prescription drugs. One authority notes that the 4th and 6th leading causes of death in the USA are drug interactions and inappropriate prescription of pharmaceuticals.

Herbalist Qualifications

Since the use of herbs is considered dietary supplementation, there are, in the USA, no legal restrictions on persons who practice herbology. While there are some highly qualified people practicing herbology, the consumer has few formal guidelines to be able to select a competent practitioner. Chinese traditional herbology, on the other hand, has become required formal training for the State of California's Licensure in Acupuncture. Licensed Acupuncturists (L.Ac.) are qualified to employ herbal applications as well as acupuncture treatment, as both follow the same rigorous traditional diagnostic system. This training includes a familiarity with pharmacological practice, and the possible interactions with herbal treatment.

The following practitioner at IHA offers herb therapy:

Chris Macie, L.Ac. - Acupuncture and Herbal Therapy


Eunhan Lee, L.Ac. - Acupuncture and Herbal Therapy


John Flavin, L.Ac. - Acupuncture and Herbal Therapy




IHA, 4153-4161 El Camino Way, Palo Alto, CA 94306  (650) 493-7030
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