The development of Chinese herbal medicine has taken place over thousands of years. The oldest known text to detail the properties and uses of 365 herbs – the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing – was purportedly composed sometime between 500-200 BC. About four hundred years later the Shang Han Lun appeared, this work demonstrated the complexity of Chinese Herbal Medicine and contains prescriptions which are still in use today. Later, during the Ming dynasty, Li Shi Zhen (1518-1593 AD) exhaustively studied and recorded detailed descriptions of wild herbs. His masterpiece, the Ben Cao Gan Mu, consists of 52 volumes in length containing nearly 2,000 illustrations and 11,000 prescriptions. It documents 1,892 herbs, detailing their every property and application in medicine. The vast body of knowledge that constitutes the contemporary practice of Chinese herbal medicine has continued to evolve as it has been passed on from generation to generation.
For centuries Chinese herbal medicine has been used to effectively treat nearly every type of illness, including external and internal conditions. Herbs may be used topically for skin conditions, or even to aid in healing broken bones and burns. Internally, herbs are used to treat everything from gastrointestinal problems to eye disorders and cancer. (click on What TCM Can Treat for a comprehensive list of conditions)
Traditionally, Chinese herbs are used in combinations of single herbs, or prescriptions - called formulas. The actions of single herbs can be amplified when used in combination with other herbs. Individual herbs, which can help to build an individual’s immune system and strengthen physiological function, may be combined with herbs which address individual symptoms. Other herbs may be added to help guide the actions of a formula to a specific area of the body, or to help the combination of herbs act in unison. Sometimes herbs are combined or prepared with other herbs to prevent undesirable side effects. The result is a formula designed to treat a specific individual presenting with a unique combination of symptoms and underlying conditions. It is not uncommon for two individuals presenting with the same Western medical diagnosis – e.g. hypertension – to be given different formulas. As symptoms change or resolve the formula is adjusted, often on a weekly basis. In this way symptoms can be treated simultaneously with an underlying cause. In TCM these are referred to as the root and the branch. At times, the branch (symptoms) may need to be treated first, before the root (cause) can be addressed, or alternately, the root may need to be addressed before the branches will resolve.
Through time, thousands of formulas have been devised to treat hundreds of known conditions and illnesses. These formulas have traditionally been used as bases to create individual prescriptions. As modern illnesses have emerged, formulas have been adapted or new formulas have evolved. While the strength of Chinese herbal medicine lies in the art of devising a combination of herbs to fit an individual’s needs, pre-made patent formulas to treat general conditions are produced in pill form. These patent formulas (often called tea pills), while typically not as potent as an individual formula, can often be very effective in treating many standard conditions such as menopausal symptoms, indigestion, or insomnia, to name only a few.
There are two different forms of herbs available to make individualized formulas. The traditional bulk form is the natural state of the herbs - whether roots, leaves, bark, stems, minerals, or animal products. Usually, the patient would be given bags of the formula containing the individual herbs to be cooked and decocted (boiled then strained to remove solids) into a tea which is drank over a period of 2 days (each bag would last for 2 days and then another batch is decocted). Because this process is time consuming, involves large amounts of storage space, and the tea is often unpalatable, extracts of the bulk herb
s have been concentrated and made into a powdered form called granules. The powders are easier to keep and provide more options for patients in taking them. A powdered formula can be dissolved in hot water to drink, placed in apple sauce and eaten, or put into empty gel-caps to take in pill form.
Awakenings Acupuncture & Herbal Clinic keeps an extensive granular herbal dispensary in order to provide individualized formulas for its patients. Combining acupuncture with herbal medicine is a more effective way to treat almost any condition. For answers to additional questions on Chinese Herbal Medicine (such as safety, duration, and cost) please click on the link to Frequently Asked Questions.
Ancient Chinese Medicine for Modern American Health