Understanding Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine

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Make more informed choices with a better understanding of herbal medicine

Understanding Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine

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It doesn’t take a complete understanding of Traditional Chinese herbal medicine to know that it works. Drawing on ancient practices, herbal medicine is as old as humanity itself. Early human beings were hunter-gatherers whose survival depended on knowledge of their environment. Direct experience taught them which plants were toxic, which plants imparted strength and sustained life, and which had special healing qualities. These early discoveries were passed along until thousands of years and millions of human trials brought about the evolution of an incredibly sophisticated system of diagnosis and herbal medicine.

Which Herbs are right for you?

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Thousands of medicinal substances are used in China today. Indeed, more than one million tons of herbs are used each year in China. This information may seem astonishing to the minds of Westerners, who see herbal medicine as a new development in healing. From a practical perspective, however, a fairly complete pharmacy stocks about 450 different individual herbs. From this collection of herbs, a clinical herbalist employs more than 250 standard formulas, each of which can be modified to fit a patient’s individual pattern of disharmony. 

The herbalist or practitioner combines herbs based on the diagnosis, using a traditional herbal formula as a foundation and adding other herbs specific to the individual’s complaint and constitution. As the person’s health improves, the nature of the imbalance changes, so the herb formula must also change. Some herbs are deleted when they are no longer needed, while others more appropriate to the changing condition are added.

Practitioners combine herbs based on the diagnosis using herbal formulas
Both individual herbs and herbal formulas are organized into categories

Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine Categories

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Herbs are classified according to whether they have a warming or cooling effect on the body. Their taste also has significance. Generally, sweet herbs tonify qi, sour herbs are astringent, bitter herbs dry damp and clear heat, acrid herbs disperse stagnation, and salty herbs have a softening, purging effect. 

Both individual herbs and herbal formulas are organized into categories, based on diagnostic patterns. For example, if a person has deficient kidney yang, the practitioner selects herbs from the category of “herbs that tonify yang.” 

The therapeutic categories of herbs follow:

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When the body’s protective qi is repelling a pathogenic influence, the struggle occurs in the exterior layers of the body. Herbs in this category have an outward dispersing action, preventing the disease from penetrating to the interior of the body. Warm herbs in this category can expel wind cold by inducing perspiration and warming the body; cool, acrid herbs are chosen to repel wind heat.

This category of cooling herbs clears all kinds of internal heat: excess heat, heat from deficiency, heat in the blood, heat with toxicity, and damp heat.

These herbs treat differing degrees of constipation and are used as cathartics, purgatives, and mild lubricating laxatives.

This category contains herbs that remove dampness in the form of edema (swelling due to fluid retention) or urinary disorders.

Used mostly for arthritis and skin conditions, these herbs increase circulation and reduce swelling and inflammation.

Some of these herbs relax the cough reflex, others clear phlegm. For heat phlegm, cooling moistening expectorants are chosen; warming drying expectorants are used to treat cold phlegm.

If dampness overwhelms the digestive organs, these herbs penetrate the dampness with their aroma and revive the digestive functions.

When food is stuck in the stomach and won’t move, this category of herbs is chosen in order to move the stagnation.

These herbs relieve painful distention, remove stagnation from the digestive system, and move qi that is stuck in the liver.

Herbs in this category are divided into those that stop bleeding and those that increase circulation and remove stagnation.

Warming the metabolism at a deep level, these herbs dispel cold conditions and revive the digestive fire, the metabolic energy required to digest food. When it is low (as in spleen yang deficiency), digestion is weak and the person craves warm foods and liquids.

Divided into herbs that tonify yin, yang, qi, or blood, this is the superior category of medicines. These herbs can prevent disease rather than simply treat disease that has already appeared. Nourishing and strengthening, they can be used long-term to correct deficiencies of the vital substances (qi, blood, body fluids, essence).

These herbs prevent the excessive loss of fluids, such as diarrhea, excessive urination, or sweating.

These substances have a calming effect and are used for anxiety, insomnia, palpitations, and irritability.

Containing aromatic substances, these herbs can revive a person’s consciousness. Some are used for conditions such as angina.

These herbs treat muscle spasms, and involuntary movements.

These herbs can destroy or expel various parasites from the body.

These consist of herbs and minerals, many of them toxic if taken internally, that are applied topically for skin problems, bruises, spasms, and sprains.

Traditional Herbal Formulas

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Traditional formulas are an intricate combination of herbs chosen to address the various aspects of a disease pattern. The chief herb in the formula addresses the major complaint; the formula usually contains more of this particular herb than other herbs. The deputy herbs assist the chief herb in its function, while the assistant herbs reinforce the effects of the chief and deputy or perform a secondary function. The envoy directs the formula to a certain part of the body, or it harmonizes and detoxifies the other parts of the formula. For example…

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Formulas are combinations of herbs that target specific disease patterns.

Traditional Herbal Formulas

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Ephedra Decoction is used for wind cold with wheezing, stiff neck from cold, and a lack of sweating.


Ephedra is the chief herb, since it treats all of the main symptoms.

Cinnamon Twig

Cinnamon twig is the deputy because it assists Ephedra in promoting sweating and warming the body.


Licorice is the envoy because it harmonizes the actions of the other herbs and restrains the Ephedra from inducing too much sweating.

Apricot Seed

Apricot seed acts as the assistant by focusing on the wheezing.

Larger formulas may have multiple herbs that perform the different functions, depending on the desired action of the formula. Herbs can be taken in the form of decoctions, pills, liquid extracts, powdered extracts, and syrups.

Chinese herbal formulations can be created and taken in many different forms.

How To Take Chinese Herbs

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Chinese herbal formulations can be created and taken in many different forms.

However, many of the more concentrated extracts are available only from a health care practitioner. In whatever form they are taken, though, accurately prescribed herbal formulas are exceptionally effective in restoring health and vitality. This ancient art of traditional herbal medicine is, without a doubt, one of China’s great gifts to humanity.

In this video filmed at Five Branches University, I explain how to make a decoction.

Still have questions?

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Hopefully, you are understanding traditional Chinese herbal medicine better than before. But if you still have questions about herbal medicine and how it might help you, visit the New Patients page here or the contact page here.