What are Traditional Chinese Herbs?

By William Luong

Editor: Mike Liaw, Samuel Wang

Herbal medicine and therapy, a method of treatment of traditional Chinese medicine, is as old as Chinese history. The development of herbalism is built upon the people’s need to improve and maintain good health and to prevent illness. The knowledge of herbalism written in 『Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing 』dates back to 2700 B.C and the countless future generations continue to add more valuable herbal knowledge up to the present. The Materia Medica, the collective knowledge of Chinese herbs, has information on the usage, dosages, contra-indications, and drug interactions of more than 5000 medical substances.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 80% of the world population today still uses herbal medicine for their primary health care. For example, the painkiller drug aspirin derived from willow tree leaves, painkiller drug opium derived from opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) seed pods, heart failure drug digitalis derived from foxglove, and the malaria drug quinine extracted from the bark of a cinchona tree are still being widely used to relieve pain or save lives.

Chinese herbs include plants, animals, and mineral substances that must be processed properly before they are used. Processing herbs can help reduce toxicity, promote therapeutic effects, modify its nature and action, make the preparation and storage of herbs easier and longer lasting, correct the unpleasant flavor or tastes, cleanse and purify the non-pharmaceutical substances, and get rid of other miscellaneous parts. For instance, pain relieving Radix Aconiti and Radix Aconiti Kusnezoffi must be processed to reduce their toxicity before they are used clinically.  The analgesic effect of Rhizoma Corydalis becomes stronger when it is processed with vinegar, and the effect of Flos Farfarae to relieve coughing is enhanced when it is stir-fried with honey. Raw Radix et Rhizoma Rhei can often cause diarrhea, but steaming this herb nine times turns it into steamed Rodix et Rhizoma Rhei which will relax bowel movements. When mineral and shell herbs are heated to a high temperature and quenched, they can easily be ground to a powder form, ready to be added into herbal formulas. Rinsing Sargassum and Thallus Laminariae with water eliminates their salty tastes. Finally, brushing away the hair of Folium Eriobotryae and removing the little thin green part at the center of Lotus seeds make them look clean, pure, and convenient for the consumer.

Herbal Processing is the ancient method used by traditional Chinese medicine 2000 years ago. As there are many processing methods, only a few are mentioned here. The first method is the stir-frying technique. Herbs stir-fried with liquid adjuvants gradually permeate into the liquid adjuvants. For example, when Rodix Asteris or Radix Farfarae are stir-fried with liquid honey, the end product is more effective at relieving coughs. Wine-fried Rhizoma Ligustici effectively activates the blood circulation and vinegar-fried Rhizoma Corydalis effectively stops pain. The second method is the steaming technique. Raw herbs are put into a steamer and heated over boiling water. Unsteamed Radix Polygoni Multiflori relaxes the bowels. When Radix Polygoni Multiflori has been steamed repeatedly its property changes and it is used to restore vital essence and blood. Steaming Radix et Rhizoma Rhei reduces its purging effect. The third method is the parching technique. The herb is heated until the surface is burnt like charcoal. Radix et Rhizoma Rhei, Petiolus Trachycarpi, Lotus Root, Typha angustifolia, Artemisia argyi, and other similar herbs could be parched or stir-fried together like charcoal. These parched herbs effectively stop bleeding. The fourth method is the germinating or sprouting technique. Rice sprouts and millet sprouts are germinated from rice or millet to improve digestion. The fifth method is the fermenting technique. Fermented soya bean is used to treat the flu or common cold. Lastly, there is the frosting or chilling technique. Frosted watermelon is the best herb to treat a throat infection.

Herbs are classified based on intrinsic properties, flavors, movements and meridian routes. Cold, hot, warm and cool are the four intrinsic properties of herbs. A cold herb is used to treat hot syndrome and vice versa. The five flavors are pungent or acrid, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Pungent herbs can disperse and move energy, sour herbs can constrict and obstruct, sweet herbs can calm down and harmonize, bitter herb can harden, dry up and cause diarrhea, salty herbs can soften and move energy downward. The four movements of herbs are to move upward, downward, inward, and outward. For instance, hiccup and cough can be treated with moving downward herbs. The meridian routes of the herb indicates which meridian it enters and exerts its effects; the herb can enhance the energy through specific meridians. Although the two herbs are both cold, each can have a different action if each enters and travels through a different meridian. For example, a cold herb which enters the spleen meridian is good for hot spleen syndrome, yet another cold herb which enters the lung meridian is good for hot lung syndrome.

In China when some disorders cannot be treated with Western medicines, Chinese herbal therapy becomes an alternative treatment. Chinese herbalists focus more on treating the causes of a disease. The same disease can be treated differently upon patterns differentiation. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the cause or pathogen, which can be external or internal, disturbs or disrupts the balance of the body, resulting in sickness. There are six external pathogens such as wind, cold, heat, dampness, dryness, and fire, which varies in different seasons of the year. Wind causes ailments like the common cold, influenza, running nose, sinus infection, sore throat, cough, eye infection, headache, toothache, numb limbs, tendon spasm, arthritis, deep bone pain, stroke, paralysis, tetany, coma, rheumatism, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, eczema, leprosy, and scrofula. Cold causes tightness, contraction, stagnation, and poor circulation. Heat causes an imbalance of homeostasis and a condition of hyperactivity. Dampness is the main cause of edema, high cholesterol, tumor, cancer, metabolic disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and allergies. Dryness in autumn causes constipation, dry cough, dark concentrated urine, dry throat and nose, thirst, and dry skin.  Fire causes an excess or lack of perspiration, insomnia, restless sleep, disturbed sleep, rashes, hives, anxiety and irrational fears and phobias.

There are seven emotions such as joy, anger, anxiety, pensiveness, grief, fear, and fright, which can cause diseases of the internal organs by impairing the energy and function of the organs. Excessive joy affects the function of the heart, leading to feelings of agitation, insomnia and palpitations. Anger such as resentment, irritability and frustration causes the stagnation of liver energy, leading to headaches, dizziness, hypertension. Anxiety blocks the movement of lung energy causing retention of breath, shallow, and irregular breathing and ulcerative colitis. Pensiveness or thinking too much injures the spleen which causes fatigue, lethargy, and poor concentration. Grief or sobbing too much disharmonizes the lung energy, weakening the circulation of the lung energy. Chronic fear can impair the function of the kidneys, leading to urinary incontinence. Fright can harm the heart and the kidneys, causing poor memory and learning disability.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners use the standard diagnostic methods which include inspection, auscultation and olfaction, inquiry, and palpation, as well as pattern differentiation. The diagnostic data and syndrome differentiation will help the practitioner decide which formula will be used to treat the disease. For instance, insomnia is not a disorder but a symptom. Insomnia may present different patterns, such as difficulty falling asleep, early wakening, intermittent waking up, and inability to sleep all night, can be caused by disharmony between the heart and kidney, deficiency of the energy of the heart and spleen, upward rising of liver fire, dysfunction, or poor digestion in the stomach. Therefore, one of four different herbal formulas can be given to treat insomnia. Each formula treats a different symptom of insomnia. Each formula has its specific use, indication, caution, and contra-indication. Therefore, it is always wise to see a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner to get the right formula for your treatment.