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An Introduction to Chinese Herbal Medicine

Updated: Apr 26, 2020

An Introduction to Chinese Herbal Medicine


Herbal medicine has a long history across cultures with curative properties of plants generally passed on and maintained through oral tradition. Chinese herbal medicine is remarkable given the active categorizing and cataloguing of herbs and their medicinal properties in the early days of discovery. As a result of maintaining written records, Chinese herbal medicine has withstood centuries of varying political and climatic transition.

According to Chinese legend, Shen Nong, the “Divine Farmer,” was a mythical figure who lived during the Han Dynasty and became known as the father of modern agriculture. He was recognized for introducing grains to society and is further revered for the identification of 365 herbs and their medicinal properties. The legend describes Shen Nong’s glass belly into which he was able to observe the effects of herbs prepared as teas. Through experimentation, Shen Nong classified the medicinal uses, quality, and toxicity of plants, minerals, and animals. This knowledge was further chronicled in the Shen Nong Ben Cao, the “Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica.” This materia medica paved the way for Chinese herbal medicine. Scholars continue to observe and identify herbal uses, lending from this literature.

Chinese herbal medicine also draws from the Doctrine of Signatures. The Doctrine of Signatures is an herbal philosophy which emerged through observation of plant form and function. It states that plants may be used to treat the parts of the body they resemble and will act in the body as they do in nature. For example, walnuts look like the lungs, thus will have therapeutic effects on the lungs.

Furthermore, global politics affected Chinese herbal medicine as the increase in mobility through trade introduced new herbs from foreign lands. The Silk Route in particular, offered opportunity for trade and thus, a more comprehensive herbal apothecary. Herbs like turmeric were integrated into Chinese herbalism.

Not only does Chinese herbal medicine have a rich history but continues to remain the focus of study among scholars. Its history is a window into its modern applications.

Modern Uses

Chinese herbal medicine is a therapy implemented by physicians of Chinese medicine and may be used independently or alongside other therapies such as acupuncture. Chinese herbs include the use of plant parts such as seeds, roots, stalks, leaves, and flowers as well as minerals and animal products. Herbs are selected following the diagnosis of a disease pattern.

Physicians take into consideration the individual’s presenting signs, symptoms, and genetics when choosing herbs to achieve a desired therapeutic effect. The quantity and types of herbs prescribed further account for the disease nature, severity, and location. Special sensitivity to dietary restrictions and contraindications is factored into evaluation.

An herbal formula is often prescribed as a tang, an herbal “soup,” which is administered as dried herbs to be soaked, rinsed, and cooked over fire. Modern day practices simply involve the herbs, water, and a pot with a lid. While this is the general method of prescription, physicians may opt to use tinctures (herbs soaked in alcohol or glycerin), drafts (powdered herbs to be taken with water), granules (processed and dried, powdered herbs to be taken with water), teapills (processed herbs made into pills), and topicals (soaks, plasters, liniments applied over the body).

A formula will be prescribed in accordance with the diagnosis. The quantity of herbs prescribed, the frequency herbs should be taken, and the duration the patient will take the formula for will vary case by case. For example, an acute cold in a relatively healthy individual may require only two days of herbal medicine whereas a chronic illness in a relatively deficient individual may require a more long-term plan. In both cases, herbal formulas are often modified to match the progression of disease and to ensure the individual continues to observe improvement in his or her condition.

Herbal medicine requires the use of our liver and kidney function to process the therapeutic properties. As such, this involves detoxification and is reason to take precaution in long-term use. While the therapeutic range for dosage is generous, it is worthwhile to consider the efficacy of medicine. For this reason, physicians may choose to give patients schedules with more long-term treatment plans in which they alternate days on and days off. This protects the innate liver and kidney function, while promoting the strength of the immune system to integrate the actions of the herbs.

Chinese herbal medicine is rich in its roots. Present research reveals the widespread uses of herbal medicine in modern disease states and further promotes herbal medicine as a viable intervention in the treatment of disease. A physician of Chinese medicine is a great resource when it comes to wellness and will further guide you with treatment should you seek treatment of Chinese herbal medicine.

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