Chinese Herbology FAQ

WHAT IS CHINESE HERBOLOGY

Herbology, or herbal medicine, is the administration of medicine derived from natural materials for the treatment of various health conditions. Herbology is the primary method of internal treatment in Chinese medicine.  Herbal medicine does not include vitamins, minerals, or other nutritional supplements. In fact, most herbal materials contain negligible amounts of nutrients. They exert their influence primarily through non-nutrient compounds.

WHAT IS AN HERB

In the West, the term herb typically applies only to plant material. Chinese medicine uses the term “herb,” often translated as “medicinal,” to apply to materials derived from natural materials in the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms. Most Chinese herbs are plants. The Chinese pharmacoepia contains over 10,000 ingredients, most of plant origin. The parts used include leaf, bark, stem, root, rhizome, sap, resin, fruit, flower, pollen, nut and seed. It is common to derive more than one medicinal from the same plant. Chinese medicinals also include vegetable material such as mushrooms and seaweeds. Mineral sources include rocks, stones, shells and bones (which are often fossilized). Animal products include insects, and gelatins made from substances such as deer antler.

HOW IS CHINESE HERBAL MEDICINE DIFFERENT THAN WESTERN HERBOLOGY

Chinese herbal medicine is professionally prescribed according to pattern discrimination. Although the idea of using an herb to treat a particular symptom is part of Chinese medicine, it is not the main therapeutic strategy employed. Over 2000 years ago, The Divine Farmer’s Herbal Compendium (one of the oldest written medical texts in existence) described this as the most basic form of treatment. Superior to this is the treatment of disease according to pattern. That is, with consideration to every unique aspect of the person, including the effect the illness has on their life. This results in individualized treatment, even for the same illness. Superior even this is the use of herbal medicine to prevent disease and promote health. This is the primary role and responsibility of all Chinese doctors.

Chinese herbal medicine is unique in the following ways:

• Chinese herbal medicine relies upon pattern discrimination for accurate prescription.
• Chinese herbs are typically prescribed in formulas, resulting in complex treatment approaches.
• Chinese medicine uses all parts of a plant, resulting in stronger potencies for Chinese formulas.
• Chinese herbal medicine uses high doses of medicinals, resulting in strong and effective treatments.
• Chinese herbs are often decocted together and consumed as a liquid.

WHAT IS AN HERBAL DECOCTION

A decoction, or “tang” in Chinese, is an herbal formula that has been boiled in water and is consumed as a liquid. It has four main advantages over pre-made pills, tablets and capsules.

• Individually created and alterable formulas.
• Increased digestibility.
• Synergistic effect resulting from cooking the ingredients together.
• High doses.

The average Chinese herbal formula might contain 15 ingredients, typically at a dosage of 10 grams each. This is boiled and strained into a liquid that contains the extracted ingredients of 150 grams of herbs. This is consumed in 1 to 2 days, resulting in a daily dosage of 75 to 150 grams of herbs. The average daily dose of pre-made formulas is 2 to 3 – 500 mg tablets, 3 times per day, resulting in a dosage of 3 to 5 grams of herbs. In this case, a decoction yields a dosage 25 to 50 times greater than pills. Even if the herbs are concentrated as a 5:1 extract, this results in a daily dosage of 15 to 25 grams, still 3 to 10 times less than a decocted formula.

Decoction can also refer to concentrated, powdered or granulated herbs that are prescribed in the same manner and in the same dose as bulk herb decoctions.

WHAT CONDITIONS CAN BE TREATED WITH CHINESE HERBS

Chinese herbal medicine is used to treat disease in Chinese medicine as pharmaceuticals are used in Western medicine. Thus, a large range of illness can be treated with Chinese herbs. These include acute conditions such as colds, sinus infections, skin diseases, and injuries, as well as chronic diseases of all types. Herbs can sometimes be used to safely treat chronic conditions that are unresponsive to other therapies. Conditions that often respond well to herbal therapy are menstrual and gynecological disorders, digestive disorders, metabolic dysfunction, and immune system disorders.

DOES CHINESE HERBAL MEDICINE HAVE ANY SIDE EFFECTS

Used properly, Chinese herbs are very safe. Compared to conventional pharmaceuticals, the incidence of adverse effects from herbs is extremely low and is typically minor. There is no such thing as a side effect. This is a convenient term created to label the undesirable effects of a medicinal, whether it is an herb, a drug, a vitamin or a food. All medicinals have effects, and we call the ones we do not like side effects. In Chinese medicine this is discussed as “indication and contra-indication.” Herbs need to be properly and fully indicated in order to be prescribed. Negative effects are not allowed in Chinese medicine, and imply improper prescription. The science of Chinese herbal medicine concerns itself with proper prescription, and the use of decoctions allows individual modification for this purpose.

Having said this, Chinese herbs do have the ability to created imbalances if used improperly. This is why Chinese herbal medicine is professionally prescribed by trained herbalists. Some pre-made formulations are available over-the-counter, and most of the commonly used Chinese herbs are safe under most conditions. Patients generally seek out treatment for chronic conditions that are not responsive to more general, home care. Thus, the issue of properly prescribed, complex formulations becomes more important.

ARE CHINESE HERBS REGULATED BY THE FDA

At this time the FDA oversees but does not regulate the sale of herbs or the practice of herbal medicine. The FDA does ban or limit the sale of certain herbs which it considers to be questionable with regards to safety. Almost all Chinese herbs are allowed for internal use by the FDA, and even some herbs that have been banned due to improper usage in other settings are allowed to be prescribed by Chinese herbalists. This is due to a long history of safe, effective, and appropriate use of hundreds of herbal materials.

ARE CHINESE HERBS SAFE TO USE WITH MEDICATION

Modern clinical research in has provided significant information regarding the biochemistry of herbal medicine. Combined with the traditional knowledge of medicinal action, contraindications and prohibitions, Chinese herbal medicine can be safely prescribed along with Western medications. Most herbs can be safely used along with most medications, but there are situations when this is not appropriate. Herbs will not be prescribed if their use is contraindicated.

ARE CHINESE HERBS SAFE FOR CHILDREN

Herbology is the primary treatment modality of Chinese medical pediatrics, which is a specialty within Chinese medicine. Children are generally given frequent small doses of herbal liquids. The course of treatment for children is usually much shorter than for adults, and treatment is discontinued as soon as improvement is evident.

ARE CHINESE HERBS SAFE DURING PREGNANCY

Like pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology is a specialty within Chinese medicine. Pregnant women can be safely treated for conditions either related to or unrelated to pregnancy.

HOW QUICKLY DO CHINESE HERBS WORK

For acute conditions Chinese herbs may work immediately. Chronic conditions may require treatment over the course of weeks or months, or years for very serious ailments. Herbs may also be used on an ongoing basis to promote health and prevent disease.

WHAT FORM DO CHINESE HERBS COME IN

Chinese herbs are prepared for internal usage as teas, pills, tablets, and powders. Herbs are also applied externally in the forms of compresses, salves, plasters and liniments.

HOW MUCH DO CHINESE HERBS COST

It depends on many factors, including the herbs that are used, the weight of the individual taking them, and duration and severity of the condition, and of course the dosage.

Prepared formulas in pills or tablets typically cost $2 to $5 per day. Teas, or decoctions, average $4 to $7 per day. However, if the cost were compared by quantity of herbs, bulk and powdered herbs are significantly less expensive than pills. In severe situations, emergencies, and acute conditions where higher dosages are needed, the cost may be up to $10 per day.

CAN I BUY CHINESE HERBS AT THE HEALTH FOOD STORE

Although many herbs are available at health food stores, most Chinese herbs are not. Chinese herbs are prescribed as individualized formulas, rather than as single herbs for symptom alleviation. More knowledge is required for proper usage than is available in a retail store.

WHAT SORT OF TRAINING IS REQUIRED TO PRACTICE CHINESE HERBOLOGY

The professional practice of Chinese herbology requires specialized training in Chinese medicine, including the study of individual herbs, herbal formulas, and herbal treatment strategies and related issues. Professionally trained and qualified Chinese herbologists may become nationally board certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. The designation for this is either Dipl. C.H. (NCCAOM) or Dipl. O.M. (NCCAOM).