Herbal treatment is one of the primary therapeutic modalities of Chinese medicine, yet many people do not receive it out of concern for tolerance, interaction, or reaction. This article addresses the issue of safely utilizing Chinese herbal medicine for highly sensitive people. (I have previously written about the subject of discomfort with acupuncture treatment.)
There are several concerns related to sensitivity that people raise when considering treatment with Chinese herbs. The most common are:
- digestive intolerance,
- sensitivity to dosage,
- food allergies or plant allergies, and
- sensitive skin.
Other concerns that will be covered in another article include potential interactions with pharmaceutical drugs or supplements, contraindications related to other health conditions, and quality, safety, and testing of herbs.
Digestive Tolerance of Chinese Herbs
It’s not uncommon for me to field patient concerns over Chinese herbs when they have digestive complaints, such as reflux, food sensitivity, or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Some express fears that herbs may worsen constipation, induce diarrhea, or generally cause them pain.
I understand how digestive conditions would create worry, and some of those reactions can even manifest when herbs and supplements are incorrectly prescribed or taken without consulting a skilled and knowledgeable practitioner.
Treatment with Chinese herbal medicine requires personalized diagnosis and formulation, with consideration to all aspects of the person including digestive dysfunction. The correct way to prescribe Chinese herbs must consider the patient’s digestive function.
Correctly prescribed, Chinese herbal medicine does not cause digestive issues, but instead helps to resolve them. In addition to formulation, herbal treatment can be adjusted with regard to dosage, timing of ingestion, and forms of the herbs. For example, smaller doses, taking herbs after meals, and using processed herbs can all make them easier to digest. When patients or I have concerns over reactivity, I begin with a simple, gentle formula, introducing it slowly and adding herbs one at a time.
Sensitivity to Dosage
Patients routinely express that they are “dose sensitive” to medications as well as natural remedies, and that they typically require a very small dose relative to other people. It’s always good to share that information with me in our session. I appreciate hearing this and knowing it, and very much want to open discussion about it so you can move forward comfortably with treatment.
In Chinese medicine, the correct dose is the one that works for you without producing negative effects. What matters most in Chinese herbal treatment is formulation.
Generally speaking, the correct formula will work regardless of dose. This is because the formula has resonance with and matches the patient’s overall physiology. Because there is not a single compound, as is true with pharmaceuticals, dosage can be safely altered according to need. While Chinese herbs are potentially prescribed at high doses relative to natural food supplements or medications, they can also be effective at lower doses, particularly for people who are already sensitive to dose.
There is a psychological component here as well: I’ve had patients hesitant about herbs at the beginning of treatment, who end up requesting more and more herbs, because their concerns have been heard and validated in the beginning of treatment. Some patients have come to me after being prescribed medication that caused them harm or injury. They want to understand better what it is they are putting inside their body. When herbs are introduced in a way that allows the individual to adjust emotionally, as well as physically, there can be great healing.
Many people who seek treatment with Chinese medicine have allergies. I am referring here to both food and environmental allergies. I completely understand the logic behind a food allergic individual wanting to avoid taking herbal medicine, especially after a lifetime of avoidance for safety reasons. I’m hoping this may alleviate that concern or at least create a space where we can have a conversation about safe ways to introduce Chinese herbs into treatment even if you are food or plant allergic.
There are a few Chinese herbs that contain gluten. There also are some nuts that are used in Chinese medicine, and several plants that are considered to be allergenic are used in Chinese medicine.
The practical response to this is very simple: I question patients about allergies, and hope that patients also raise their concerns when we meet. Herbs of concern, of course, must be avoided. Food allergic patients have asked me about cross contamination if the herbal material is processed in a facility that also contains allergens.
The standard of handling and processing for all Chinese herbal products meets GMP standards, and cross contamination is avoided. Potential allergens are indicated on the labels and can be traced through batch numbers. In 30 years of prescribing Chinese herbs to thousands of patients, I have never once seen a significant allergic response. The most I have seen is a minor, temporary skin rash. I do not intend this to minimize the practical or emotional aspects related to allergic sensitivity. My intent is to share from clinical experience what I have learned and experienced.
Other Forms of Reactivity
The most common reaction to herbal medicine is a minor skin rash, which resolves right away when the treatment is discontinued. This response is very rare, but I have seen it in my practice. There are a few particular herbs that are most likely to produce this response. They are all aromatic herbs (herbs that have a high content of volatile oils and typically strong scent) that resolve wind damp conditions (more on this in a future post), and can be easily excluded or substituted in the herbal formula to avoid potential reaction.
When properly and individually prescribed, Chinese herbs are not only safe for highly sensitive people, but in fact can help to eliminate the allergic response and sensitivity by treating the underlying cause that triggers it.
I welcome you to contact me directly to discuss individual concerns and questions.