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History of Chinese Herbal Medicine
Several thousand years ago, says a well-known legend in Chinese medicine, a physician named Bian Que was traveling to the Kingdom of Guo. Upon arriving, he found the townsfolk busily preparing for the funeral of the crown prince. Bian Que inquired about the circumstances of the prince’s death, then asked to examine him. After palpating his thighs and finding them still warm, Bian Que diagnosed the prince as “body collapsed”—what we might call “in shock.” The physician inserted a single acupuncture needle into the prince’s head and applied herb-soaked poultices, and the prince regained consciousness. Bian Que was hailed as a miracle worker, and word quickly spread of his ability to bring the dead back to life with needles, herbs, and his magical ways.
How Chinese Herbal Remedies Work
Ever since then, the practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been shrouded in mystery and filled with promise. This highly sophisticated and comprehensive healing system, one of the first holistic approaches to healing, sees mind, body, and spirit as deeply connected and intricately woven into the fabric of the universe. The primary objective in TCM is to restore balance, and then help the body continue to function in harmony, through herbal medicine, acupuncture, and lifestyle practices.
TCM focuses less on organs and anatomical structures with fixed locations in the body, and more on the body’s functions—like respiration or digestion—and various entities governing those, including Qi (life force, energy flow, breath or air), blood, bodily fluids, zhang fu (what we call organs in Western medicine), and meridians (a system of channels that run through the body). Disease is generally thought to be caused by an imbalance in these entities and/or their interactions with each other, and diagnoses and treatments are based on these imbalances and their underlying patterns. The practice is complex, and very different from our Western medical systems. What a Western doctor calls inflammation, for example, might be viewed as a pattern of heat in TCM; the Western system would treat inflammation with cooling and calming medicines, like anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers. The TCM practitioner would address the underlying pattern of heat with acupuncture, herbs, diet, and other lifestyle alterations.
Because TCM is a complex system, you’ll need a qualified practitioner to treat any serious or chronic illness; children and pregnant or lactating women should also consult a practitioner before using any herbal remedies. But you can safely self-administer many Chinese supplements for minor and short-term conditions, like colds or headache.
10 Common Chinese Herbal Remedies
Possibly the most famous of all Chinese herbs, ginseng is a potent energy tonic that stimulates and balances the central nervous system and helps people adapt to stress. In TCM, it’s considered adaptogenic, meaning it works systemically to balance energy, and is used as a tonic to offset general weakness. Ginseng also enhances mental ability and can improve memory, especially in older people. Siberian ginseng, also called eleutherococcus, is in the same family, but not the same genus, and is not considered true ginseng, but it has adaptogenic properties nonetheless.
Schizandra has been used for thousands of years as a beauty tonic, to keep skin supple and soft, and delay the appearance of aging. Because its primary action is to stimulate energy and enhance vitality, schizandra also helps improve memory and boost sexual function when consumed regularly. Modern studies suggest schizandra is an effective treatment for chronic viral hepatitis, and boosts production of glutathione, a powerful antioxidant produced by the body in times of stress.
Licorice root, also known as glycyrrhiza, is traditionally used to build energy, enhance digestion, and regulate blood sugar levels. It’s added to many Chinese herbal preparations and teas to “harmonize” all the ingredients. Because it can cause high blood pressure, water retention, and potassium depletion in larger quantities, use licorice with caution, or choose deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) products, which cause fewer side effects.
Astragalus is one of the most widely used herbs in Chinese medicine. It has been used for thousands of years as an overall tonic to strengthen the body, and is considered an extremely powerful immune system regulator by modern researchers. In the TCM system, astragalus is said to tonify the protective Qi (energy) just under the skin and muscles, and also help prevent organ prolapse. In modern studies, astragalus was found to improve immune response in cancer patients going through chemotherapy and radiation, and new studies suggest that astragalus may help enhance male fertility.
Jiaogulan, also known as Gynostemma pentaphyllum, is an antioxidant and adaptogenic herb that’s thought to help increase longevity. Modern research from China suggests that jiaogulan has a balancing action on the central nervous system, and can enhance resistance and endurance. Other studies show that jiaogulan has a number of cardiovascular benefits, including lowering cholesterol and high blood pressure, and improving the efficiency of the heart’s pumping action. Other studies suggest jiaogulan may inhibit the growth of cancer.
Maitake mushroom, long used in Chinese medicine, has become widely known as a potent immune booster. It’s rich in compounds called beta-D-glucan polysaccharides that activate the immune system, and studies suggest that maitake can inhibit tumor growth and metastasis and relieve side effects of chemotherapy. It may also be used to reduce blood pressure, regulate glucose and improve blood lipids, and may also be useful for weight loss.
Fo-ti, called he shou wu in China, may be used in either its processed or unprocessed forms. When the unprocessed, or raw, root is used, it’s called white fo-ti. When the root is traditionally processed (or “cured”) by boiling it in a liquid made from black beans, it’s called red fo-ti. In TCM, white fo-ti helps detoxify the blood and relax the bowels to treat constipation; red fo-ti nourishes blood, kidneys, and liver, and increases overall vitality. Labeling distinctions in American markets can be tricky, but generally, if it doesn’t say “cured,” it’s probably the unprocessed variety.
Codonopsis is said to be an superb blood tonic that also enhances immune function. It’s thought to have similar (but milder) actions as ginseng, and for that reason may be used instead of ginseng in some formulas. Codonopsis contains immune-boosting polysaccharides, like maitake mushrooms. It’s considered generally safe for children, especially for digestive, respiratory and immune system health.
TCM views what we Westerners call “catching a cold” in a very different way, so “cold” treatments vary widely, depending on their origin and underlying patterns. Generally, though, yin chiao can be used in the very first stages of a cold—meaning, no more than 12 hours after the first symptom—to boost the body’s resistance and minimize symptoms like cough, sneezing, runny nose, sore throat, and chills. Once you’ve had a cold or flu for more than a day, yin chiao isn’t the best formula, since it can weaken the body in the long run.
Also known as Chinese angelica or female ginseng, dong quai is considered a blood tonic that can help improve circulation and combat anemia. It can be used by women and men, but is best known as a women’s tonic for regulating the menstrual cycle and balancing the reproductive system. It also contains flavonoids and has antioxidant activity. You’ll find dong quai in many premenstrual syndrome and menopausal formulas. It should not be used during pregnancy, since it’s thought to increase the risk of miscarriage.
How to Find a Practitioner
In some schools of thought, the marks of a skilled TCM practitioner are gray hair and a small pooch in the belly; the gray hair signifies age and, presumably, years of practice and expertise. The pooch illustrates that the practitioner knows how to breathe properly: into the lower belly which, in time, gently distends it.
That being said, there are plenty of skilled younger, flat-bellied practitioners around. A better way to find one is through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). You’ll find a directory of all acupuncturists and TCM practitioners with NCCAOM certification—a prerequisite for licensure in most states—on their website at www.nccaom.org. Or visit a local college for acupuncture and Chinese medicine; many have clinics where students (supervised by faculty) offer services at a vastly reduced fee.
This highly sophisticated and comprehensive healing system, one of the first holistic approaches to healing, sees mind, body, and spirit as deeply connected and intricately woven into the fabric of the universe.
Note: the above remedies are for short-term illnesses, not chronic conditions; don’t use any of them for more than three to five days without consulting a practitioner, since long-term or incorrect use can exacerbate underlying patterns of illness. Also, because contamination can be an issue, buy products at a specialty vitamin store to ensure their purity.
Chinese Medicinal Products
HIMALAYA HERBAL HEALTHCARE StressCare This fantastic formula mixes licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) along with a selective blend of tension-relieving and body-balancing herbs.
FUNGI PERFECTI HOST DEFENSE MyCommunity combines 17 sustainably harvested mushroom species including maitake, all of which work synergistically to bolster immune function.
TOP SECRET NUTRITION Astravar This blend of notoginseng (a variety of traditional ginseng) and astragalus is formulated to enhance nutrient absorption, energy, and endurance.
PLANETARY HERBALS Yin Chiao Classic Used for hundreds of years in TCM to strengthen defenses against seasonal colds and flu, yin chiao is a time-proven immunity booster.
GAIA HERBS Thyroid Support This unique formula including schizandra supports normal thyroid hormone production to help maintain optimal weight, neuromuscular tone, and cardiovascular health.