Sometimes acupuncture alone isn’t enough to help you and your body heal. Acupuncture only helps your body with what it already has to work with. In a situation of deficiency, we need to give the body the tools (essential nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals) necessary to recover, stabilize, and heal any given pattern of disease. Herbal formulas do just this. The time-tested formulas we utilize are designed to correct the imbalances that created your health concern in the first place. If you are using medications, the goal is to wean you off of medications and be ‘pill free’ again, if possible. Herbs are not for long-term use and, therefore, aren’t a long-term expense, unlike many medications. The following is an excerpt from the Chinese Herbs section of my book, Taking the Mystery Out of Acupuncture, which can be found on the www.oldpuebloacupuncture.com homepage:
“Did you know that there are over 10,000 herbs in the Chinese Materia Medica? Everything from parts of plants, (roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits) to common foods, minerals, animals, and even bugs! Of those 10,000+, most American herbalists only use around three hundred or less. Don’t worry; the use of bugs and animals is ‘not in fashion’ in this country. A vast majority of herbalists only use plant based herbs and some minerals in the United States. In fact, even the Chinese are taking major steps to find substitutes for those types of ingredients that are rare, endangered, or otherwise inhumane.
Chinese herbal medicine is a very sophisticated and complete form of medicine. Over the course of time, through trial and error, like acupuncture, herbalists figured out the functions of single herbs. They started to notice patterns and similarities between herbs. They found some herbs worked really well together; they enhanced each others effect. Or they discovered the opposite was true. They found dangerous combinations too. After the experience of years of trial and error, ‘formulas’ of herbs were eventually created. These formulas became standardized because they withstood the test of time and showed their efficacy to treat the specific disease pattern they were designed for.
Like I alluded to earlier, sometimes the body needs more than it has currently to correct imbalances and turn around a particular disease pattern. This is where herbs and formulas come into play. Even though ancient Chinese herbalists had no knowledge of biochemistry, they knew that a particular herb would help a particular condition. We know now, thanks to biochemistry, that the many plants and herbs we use contain not only known vitamins and minerals but also contain many unknown phytochemicals. There are thousands of phytochemicals in the plants all around us. True, we don’t know the function of every single one, but we don’t need to. The Chinese were less concerned with the how and why they work. They just know they do. And they know what doesn’t work.
Knowing too much about a biochemical process can make you miss the forest for the trees. Many pharmaceutical drugs are created by isolating the ‘active ingredient’ (or chemical) in a given plant. The chemical may be known for its particular health promoting strength, immune regulating quality, or some other effect. After the chemical is isolated, its strength is amplified manifold. Our bodies have no evolutionary experience with chemicals in these pumped up and isolated contexts. Also, many chemicals are synthesized to mimic the beneficial chemical compounds found in plants that can also confuse our bodies.
How are herbs different? There are many ways, but I would like to point out two. First, herbs tend to be weaker in strength, hence milder. Because of this we can carefully monitor and regulate our intake of them. Also, any side effects there might be tend to be short lived and mild. Second, the ‘active ingredient’ is in context. This means that the hundreds of other phytochemicals in that plant all work together in a synergistic manner that our bodies know and can handle and process. There isn’t just one active ingredient, they all are! Everything in that plant plays some role that helps correct any given disease pattern. This is what makes them so powerful and beneficial.
There are a few different methods for taking herbal formulas. The most common ones in use in the U.S. are decoctions, granules, tablets, and teapills.
The original way herbs were prepared was by taking home a bag of loose herbs and cooking them on the stovetop. This is called a decoction. Boiling the herbs in water releases all the good stuff from the plant material into the water. The liquid and plant material are then separated; the liquid is kept and divided into portions to be used as doses. This method is the strongest way to take herbs because this is the method that processes the herbs the least. It is the least popular, however, because it is time consuming, not terribly convenient, and some of those herbs taste really bad. (I kind of like them myself!)
Granules are the next best way to take herbs. They are basically herbs (or formulas) that have been through an extraction process and dehydrated. The powder (or granules) are very convenient, yet still retain their strength. All you do is heat up some water and mix in portions of the granules to make a small liquid dose.
Most people that have used Chinese herbs are probably familiar with tablets and teapills. These are very common and very convenient. They are herbs that have been made into little tablets (which look like multivitamins) or teapills (which look like little black pellets). They are less strong, but still very effective. One drawback with the use of tablets or teapills is that they can’t be modified. However, the formulas that are in these forms tend to be tried and true and very effective for a multitude of different disease patterns.
Here, I would like to lay out the ground rules for using Chinese herbs and formulas:
DO take your herbs as prescribed. Your herbalist has experience with herbs and knows what is acceptable as far as prescription and dosage. It is important to take as prescribed. If you are to take a dose two or three times a day, make an effort to make it happen. Herbs work best when they are ‘in your system’ continuously. It isn’t the end of the world if you miss a dose here and there; it’s just that the expected outcome will slow down significantly.
DON’T take more herbs than is prescribed thinking that more is better. It is not and you may cause yourself problems.
DO report any unexpected side effects or problems, such as diarrhea, upset stomach, headache, or other symptoms that are out of the ordinary to your herbalist and stop taking your herbs until you get some consultation.
DON’T give the herbs or formulas that were prescribed to you to your friends and family that might have a similar condition. Because though your conditions might look similar on the outside, the disease process on the inside could be very different. Those herbs that worked for you might make them worse!
DO tell your herbalist of any known food or substance allergies (including gluten!) that you have so that they can avoid those things when prescribing a formula. Sometimes they forget to ask, it happens. It’s okay to be proactive.
DO notify your herbalist of ALL medications and nutritional supplements you are currently taking. The herbs may interact with these and cause a bad reaction. Most of the time, there aren’t any interaction issues, but it always good to play it safe.”
In my clinic, I use herbal formulas sparingly. I know pretty well the limits of acupuncture and when I need to prescribe herbs. I only like to use them when I know acupuncture or dietary/lifestyle changes won’t be enough to turn around a presenting condition. Herbs are safe when used appropriately. They can be of tremendous help and provide the missing link to successful clinical outcome. Don’t be too quick to turn down herbal prescriptions. Remember, I only use top quality herbal products in my clinic to insure quality and safety. I hope you found this brief primer on Chinese Herbs was informative. Check back here to this blog in the future, as I will explore more in depth select formulas and individual herbs.