One of the therapies that most people are not so familiar with is the herbal tradition from Chinese medicine. This is a very old system of medicine, originating thousands of years ago and continuing to modernize and refine up to the present. Nowdays there is a lot of research going on in Japan and China regarding the application of specific herbal formulas for certain diseases and conditions.
In the US, we obtain herbs from China, of course. Many of the herbs in our pharmacopia are not found in the US at all. The better companies find excellent sources of raw herb materials and verify scientifically that the herb provided is the exact herb desired. This identification can be done by modern scientific instruments.In times past, unscrupulous vendors would substitute similar looking herbs to be more profitable. So we are certain the herb we think we’ve got is the correct one. Additionally, the herbs are screened to be sure they are free of heavy metals, toxic farm chemicals, and other contaminants.
The herbs are processed according to longstanding traditions. Those processing methods insure that they dry out well, are free from mold and insects, and enable the herb to be easily cooked into a tea. So, for example, many roots are sliced to maximize the surface area available when they are simmered in water. Some herbs are packaged in traditional ways as well. Magnolia bark is traditionally cut into matchstick sized pieces and then bundled in small bundles with red thread. Another interesting one is the gelatin made from boiling the bones of animals. This gelatin is made into blocks about the size of half a deck of cards, and dried into solid dry blocks. It is traditionally stamped with Chinese characters in beautiful red ink. Another interesting one is the perilla leaf, which is dried and then stacked in little stacks, which are bundled with thread.
Chinese herbs are grown and harvested all over China. There are many that only grow in a particular area, or that are best in quality when grown in certain region. Some people are starting to grow them in the US, but they are expensive and difficult to obtain. We hope that more will be grown here in the future.
The traditional herb formulas will commonly involve 4, 6, 10, or even 16 herbs. These formulas have been developed over the centuries. Most of the formulas we use today are from 500 to 1500 years old. With that long time of use, their actions are well understood.
The formulas are chosen based on the Chinese medical diagnosis of the patient. That means that if the condition is one of dampness predominating and causing problems, we give a formula that rids excess dampness with diuretic herbs, as well as strengthening the organs of the body that help transform dampness. Typically, the formula will have 1-3 chief herbs, and then a number of assistant herbs that work synergistically with the chief ones, and perhaps a couple to offset any side effects.
Many herbalists prefer to create their own formulas based on these time honored recipes. But other practitioners will use off the shelf pills and capsules that contain standard formulas. These are easy for patients to take, along with whatever supplements they already use.
Modern production of herbal formulas in capsules and pills is just as safe as the manufacture of vitamins and supplements in the US. This makes the safety of Chinese herbal medicine right up there with all the other things we take for our health. We no longer have a problem with drugs being found in herbal medicines because of the strict control of manufacturing in the US. However, there still may be drugs or other ingredients found in herbal pills originating in China, if they have somehow gotten past our screening. All reputable vendors in the US are sourcing their herbal pills from safe manufacturers in China now days.
So, when you have a cold, flu, ache, or any other condition, for that matter, contact your acupuncturist to see what herbal remedy would be appropriate. These materials cannot really by self-prescribed, as they must be based on your diagnosis in the present time. Even a cold remedy should be chosen based on tongue and pulse diagnosis at the time it is being used, for best effectiveness.
Chinese herbal medicine is one of the most powerful tools in the complementary medicine array. We hope to see more and more people using this wonderful medicine.