Herbology is traditionally one of the more important modalities utilized in Traditional Chinese Medicine
(TCM). Each herbal medicine prescription is a cocktail of many herbs tailored to the individual patient. The practitioner usually designs a remedy using one or two main ingredients that target the illness. Then the practitioner adds many other ingredients to adjust the formula to the patient’s Yin Yang conditions. Sometimes, ingredients are needed to cancel out toxicity or side-effects of the main ingredients. Some herbs require the use of other ingredients as catalyst or else the brew will be ineffective. Unlike western medications, the balance and interaction of all the ingredients are more important than the effect of individual ingredients. A key to success in TCM is the treatment of each patient as an individual.
History of Chinese Herbology
Chinese herbs have been used for centuries. The first herbalist in Chinese tradition is Shennong, who is
said to have tasted hundreds of herbs and imparted his knowledge of medicinal and poisonous plants to the agricultural people. The first Chinese manual on pharmacology, the Shennong Bencao Jing (Shennong Emperor’s Classic of Materia Medica), lists some 365 medicines of which 252 of them are herbs, and dates back somewhere during the early Han dynasty. Succeeding generations augmented on this work, but arguably the most important of these was the Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao Gangmu) compiled during the Ming dynasty by Li Shizhen, which is still used today for consultation and reference.
Categorizing Chinese herbs
Chinese physicians used several different methods to classify traditional Chinese herbs:
• The Five Tastes
• The Meridians
• The Four Natures
This pertains to the degree of yin and yang, ranging from cold (extreme yin), cool, neutral to warm and hot (extreme yang). The patient’s internal balance of yin and yang is taken into account when the herbs are selected. For example, medicinal herbs of “hot”, yang nature are used when the person is suffering from internal cold that requires to be purged, or when the patient has a general cold constituency. Sometimes an ingredient is added to offset the extreme effect of one herb.
The Five Tastes
The five tastes are pungent, sweet, sour, bitter and salty, each of which has its own functions and
characteristics. For example, pungent herbs are used to generate sweat and to direct and vitalize qi and the blood. Sweet-tasting herbs often tonify or harmonizes bodily systems. Some sweet-tasting herbs also exhibit a bland taste, which helps drain dampness through diuresis. Sour taste most often is astringent or
consolidates, while bitter taste dispels heat, purges the bowels and get rids of dampness by drying them out. Salty taste softens hard masses as well as purges and opens the bowels.
The Meridians refer to which organs the herb acts upon. For example, menthol is pungent, cool and is linked with the lungs and the liver. Since the lungs are the organ which protects the body from invasion from cold and influenza, menthol can help purge coldness in the lungs and invading heat toxins caused by hot “wind”.
I finished my study of Chinese Herbology in 1991 under my teacher Chi Chao. After learning the individual herb and formulas I used to go the the China Town in Chicago and make custom made formula, which would then be boiled and drunk as a tea, called a decoction. When I moved to Connecticut I bought about 100 large glass jars of the main Chinese Herbs. Then I ran into three problems, I started to find little insects devouring my precious herbs. I ran out of room to store all these herbs and I found that patients weren’t very compliant in boiling the herbs, which they complained smelled up the house and were distasteful to many. So I reluctantly got rid of my bulk herbs and started using formulas in tablet form and sometimes in tinctures. I still get results and patients are much more compliant. The only drawback is you can’t add or subtract one or two herbs to make it really a custom prescription. I still love the smell of Chinese herbs.