Chinese Herbal Medicine
" The Earth has music for those who listen." - William Shakespeare
Traditional Chinese herbs work synergistically with acupuncture and have been used as an integral and safe part of traditional Chinese medicine for over 5000 years. Traditional Chinese herbs substantially aid in the restoration and maintenance of balance in the body. Herbal formulas are made from natural substances such as plants, flowers, minerals and animal products and are the precursors to Western pharmaceuticals.
Traditional Chinese herbs rarely elicit side effects when correctly prescribed by a trained traditional Chinese herbalist and have been proven safe and effective during thousands of years of use. They are highly specific in their actions and traditional Chinese herbal formulas contain a range of herbs that possess different qualities and properties, which can target specific areas of disharmony in the patient. These traditional Chinese herbal formulas are specifically customized for the individual needs of each patient.
Are Chinese Herbs dangerous?
Traditional Chinese herbs are extremely safe and have no side effects when correctly prescribed by a licensed herbalist. If a side effect such as digestive discomfort should occur, the formula can be modified so that there are no side effects. The most regularly used Chinese herbs have a very low toxicity compared to even common, over-the-counter Western drugs.
How are they prescribed?
Once your individualized diagnosis has been determined, a specific traditional Chinese formula is written for you. This traditional Chinese formula of herbs is commonly based on a classical formula that has been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. As with acupuncture, herbs can be very specifically tailored to the individual. For example, a classical Chinese formula that is commonly used for patients with low back pain will be individualized with the addition of specific herbs for the patient’s low energy, ulcers, and sleeping problems.
How does the herbalist construct a Chinese herbal formula?
The medicinal use of each Chinese herb is determined by the herb's properties, therapeutic functions and by the herb's ability to influence certain channels (where Qi flows) or organs. TCM herbalists combine herbs to form synergistic pairs that enhance their common herbal function. They also include herbs with different therapeutic functions when designing formulas to treat a particular complexity, or subtlety in a patient's condition.
One to three of the herbs in the formula are considered the 'chief' herbs that direct the formula to treating the main symptom or problem. Additional herbs are called 'assistant' herbs. Assistants support the chief herbs in treating the main problem and perform other necessary functions or treat additional symptoms that are not addressed by the chiefs. Assistant herbs help the body to absorb and assimilate the herbs ingested, and counteract any potential adverse side effects that could be caused by the more powerful herbs used.
Often a third type of herbal function is used in the formula, called the 'envoy' or 'messenger herb'. Envoys direct the formula to the particular area of the body requiring treatment, such as the back, knee or chest. Envoys are particularly useful in pain formulas. For example, certain herbs hone to the forehead, top or back of the head, a useful function for treating headaches.
How do you take Chinese Herbs?
The most effective method for ingesting a Chinese formula is as a decoction. In a decoction, Chinese herbs are boiled in water to make a tea, then the ingredients are strained and the tea is drunk 2-3 times per day. For those people without the time to cook their herbs, some traditional Chinese herbal formulas come in pill form, and some come in powdered form in which the raw herbs are ground up and mixed with water and drunk. Liquid tinctures are also available for certain formulas. In addition to taking herbs internally, herbs can also be delivered externally in the forms of soaks, liniments and plasters, or even herbal suppositories. External herbs are used to treat skin conditions, traumatic injuries and muscle or joint pain.
Can Chinese Herbs Replace Western Drugs?
Yes. Many conditions treated by western drugs can also be successfully treated with Chinese medicine. Examples include: hypertension, headaches and pain conditions, fibromyalgia, allergies and sinus infections, acid reflux disease, bowel problems (IBS and Crohn's disease), bladder infections , herpes, skin conditions, menstrual cramping, Perimenopausal syndrome , Parkinson's disease, insomnia, anxiety and depression. Patients and their physicians are often discouraged by the undesirable side effects of western medications, or the prospect of having to remain on these drugs for long term periods. Especially for chronic conditions, Chinese medicine often offers superior clinical results and longer lasting treatment than does conventional medicine. When beginning TCM treatments, patients on western drugs may continue taking their medications. As the condition improves, they begin titrating (weaning) off the drug under their prescribing doctor's supervision. Once they are completely off the drug and symptom free, the patient is released from regular TCM visits.
Qualifications of an Herbalist: Who can prepare Herbal Medicine?
Not all acupuncturists are herbalists. Some acupuncturists have chosen to continue their education and receive their Certification in Chinese Herbal Medicine, which is a separate, didactic area of study. Most Chinese Herbalists must additionally complete a residency program in which they treat patients under the supervision of Master Herbalists. Question your acupuncturist to make sure you are receiving treatment from a qualified professional.
The Apothecary at Easton houses the largest dispensary of Chinese Herbs on the eastern shore of Maryland.
Katie Smith, M.Ac, L.Ac, is a licensed acupuncturist and Certified Chinese Herbalist.
Call to schedule an herbal appointment (443) 362-9355.