What is Chinese Herbal Medicine and How Can It Benefit You?

Written By: Jen Becker
Original Article on furtherfood.com

As a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner, I use a lot of different modalities with my patients including acupuncture, cupping, gua sha and herbal medicine.  After meeting with my patients and taking a detailed personal and medical history, I often recommend a unique combination of these different practices, based on my personalized diagnosis. I often incorporate Chinese herbal medicine to complement their treatment as I believe it is one of the most powerful practices that can help promote deep healing. Read on to learn more about the benefits of Chinese herbal medicine.

What is Chinese Herbalism?

Chinese herbal medicine has existed for more than 3,000 years. Specifically, Chinese Herbalism is the practice of prescribing certain medicinal herbs in order to get the body system back into balance. The focus of herbal medicine is on balance, both within the body system as well as between the body and the outside environment.

Unfortunately, herbalism is one of the Eastern practices that is most likely to be misinterpreted or misused. A frequent mistake I see a lot of people making is reading an article online and then “prescribing” themselves a certain herb. However, in TCM, we look at symptoms as one small, visible part of a bigger picture of imbalance. Jamie Starkey, LAc, an acupuncturist and Chinese medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine, puts it succinctly, writing that herbalism—and TCM in general—treats the “patterns of disharmony.”

So taking an herb that you read to ease one symptom may end up also having negative or unintended effects on some other part of your body, or even on your mental and emotional state. It’s important to work with a trained herbalist like myself who will consider a lot of factors such as your eating, sleeping, work, and exercise routines, as well as any past conditions or current medications you are on. In addition, when practicing herbalism, TCM practitioners also consider emotional and psychological factors as well as your energy systems, which are done through a tongue and pulse diagnosis.

Indeed, we often call our prescriptions herbal formulas because they are not just one herb, but rather a combination of very specific herbs that we prescribe to address your specific needs. For instance, I may prescribe a formula for insomnia that contains heat-clearing herbs when one of my patients is exhibiting signs of heat in the body. On the other hand, I may prescribe another patient with insomnia a completely different formula that has more blood- and yin-nourishing herbs if that is what they need. I will also provide recommendations on specific times of day and at a specific dosage based on their individual needs.

What Are the Benefits of Chinese Herbal Medicine?

Chinese herbal medicine has been shown to treat a wide variety of conditions, and is commonly used in the treatment of emotional conditions such as anxiety and depressioncommon cold and flu, low energy or chronic fatigue, Allergies, Sleep conditions such as insomnia, female hormonal issues such as those associated with infertility, menstrual conditions and/or menopause, and in the reduction of side effects resulting from chemotherapy. Chinese herbal medicine is most effective when taken in addition to acupuncture treatments.

What are Some Popular Chinese Herbs?
While there are hundreds of Chinese herbs that Chinese medicine practitioners like myself are trained in, some of the most common herbs that I use to treat different disorders/imbalances are:

  • Astragalus: This herb helps boost the immune system, can benefit digestive function and even treat skin disorders
  • Cinnamon: This is a warming herb, helping to boost the body and boost circulation. A popular and effective herbal formula using cinnamon is called Cinnamon Twig Decoction, or gui zhi tang. This is great to take at the first sign of a cold or if you are feeling depleted.
  • Ginger: Ginger is super helpful in fighting nausea and can be helpful in treating coughs and colds.
  • Ginseng: This helps to regulate blood pressure and blood sugar and can even enhance immune function
  • Licorice: Licorice is used to neutralize toxins, help relieve inflammation, and boost digestive function.
  • Ma-huang: This herb boosts metabolism and respiratory function.
  • Rhubarb: Rhubarb is known for its laxative properties, and can help boost appetite and improve circulation.

How Are Herbs Prescribed?

Herbal formulas can take the form of loose herbs, tinctures (my personal favorite), granulated herbs (powders), or herbs in pills or capsules. Loose herbs are generally the most potent because you are getting the herbs in their natural state. However, you should work with your herbalist to determine how and in what form you should take the herbs. I advise my patients to choose the form that they will take more consistently. For instance, if you don’t think you can drink an herbal tea two or three times a day on a regular basis, then I would recommend a pill or tincture.

I hope this article brings some clarity and eases any fears about trying Chinese herbal medicine. As long as you are in consultation with a licensed acupuncturist or herbalist, following their instructions and checking in regularly, Chinese herbalism can be a very powerful tool to add to your healing journey.