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Are you intrigued by Chinese medicine’s profound philosophy, but don’t have much of a grasp on what it’s all about? Here’s a quick guide to what lies behind one major aspects of Chinese medicine: Chinese herbal medicine.

Chinese herbs

Is Chinese Herbal Medine just herbs?

As the name suggests, herbs are the main ingredient in Chinese herbal medicine. Indeed, Chinese herbology recognizes more than 3,200 different types of herbs. Some prominent examples are ginseng and astragalus (root is used).

But that’s not all. Chinese herbal medicine also utilizes a slightly less mind-numbing 300 different minerals, insects, sea-creatures, and animal extracts. Cinnabar (ore of mercury), silkworm, seahorse, and rhinoceros horn, are some examples.

The different herb and non-herb ingredients are often combined as formulas, of which there are more than 400 widely known permutations.

So it’s the chemical properties of the herbs that are important, right?

Like Western medication and vitamins, Chinese herbs are chemical agents with illness-treating properties.

But the chemical component of Chinese herbs is not the sole consideration for an effective treatment. Rather, the level of energy output of each formula that goes toward restoring the body’s yin-yang balance is the key determinant.

With so many herbs and ingredients, how do they know which to combine?

In most cases, four types of herbs are included in the formula, categorized as: “emperor,” “minister,” “assistant,” and “ambassador.” There can be more than one of herb of each type.

These herbs are not casually termed. The “emperor” targets an illness’ main symptoms and underlying causes, while the “minister” treats the accompanying symptoms and their underlying causes. The “assistant” harmonizes the formula and eliminates possible toxins and side effects. Finally, the “ambassador” is there to get the formula to the afflicted meridians and organs.

Before being administered to a patient, these four herb types are made into a decoction (medicinal liquid) or capsule and pill variant. After that, like a proper, functioning bureaucracy, these herbs perform their own roles, and combine for efficient “governance” of illnesses.

Is it so different from a regular health supplement I can buy off the shelf?

For those who want to self-medicate, STOP.

Chinese herbal medicine is uniquely tailored to the illness. If a trained Chinese physician does a proper assessment and gives the right prescription, Chinese herbal medicine has minimum side effects, if any.

However, consume the “wrong” herb at the “wrong” time, and Chinese herbal medicine can be harmful.

Take the herb, astragalus, as an example. On its own, astragalus is excellent for boosting one’s immunity and helping prevent bacteria and viral infections. Yet if one has high blood pressure or high fever, astragalus should be avoided as it would instead cause one to develop acute infections.

So how does a doctor of Chinese medicine know what to prescribe?

First, the diagnosis: A patient states his/her illness symptoms, then the Chinese physician ascertains the problem using techniques such as pulse and tongue reading, for example.

The physician will also attempt to determine the emotional state of the patient, since Chinese medicine acknowledges the link between mind and body in the occurrence of illnesses.

Finally, after the determining the level of yin-yang and qi (vital energy) imbalance, the physician will formulate an individualized remedy.


A Layman’s Primer to Chinese Herbal Medicine

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