A Little Background
Herbal medicine is the use of natural substances, including food, to treat health conditions.
According to ancient experience and holistic medical theory, every substance has an effect.
The goal in herbal medicine is to complement the innate ability of the body and mind with natural products to heal by providing strength and nourishment while removing toxins, pathogens and stressors.
Unlike pharmaceutical medicine which designs chemicals that directly affect the body or mind, herbal medicine complements the normal growth, function, repair and detoxification of the human condition. This harmonious method of medicine significantly reduces unwanted side effects. In fact, it is a strong principle of herbal medicine that side effects are due to poor diagnosis, poor choice of medicine and lack of knowledge. Therefore, the more experienced and masterful an herbalist, the more positive the herbal effects are.
Herbal medicine can take many forms and be made from many substances. Since ancient times, herbal masters have experimented with every known substance. Plants, animals, insects, minerals, waters and scents are all in the realm of herbal medicine. Herbal masters have relayed herbal medical knowledge through the generations, increasing effects and safety. As each generation faced new social and technological advances, herbal medicine evolved. Today, we are aware of many of the subtle chemical and energetic effects of herbal medicine. We also benefit from the accumulated wisdom of healthy lifestyles. This integration of ancient knowledge, modern science and spiritual wisdom are the tenets of modern herbalists.
Most herbal medicines come from plants and animals, and every part is useful. Traditional Asian Medicine furthered this by learning that each part of a plant or animal has different effects, sometimes opposing, sometimes balancing. For instance, Dandelion greens are very good for anemia and toxic livers while the roots are good for building liver function and killing pathogens. The ancients also learned that each part of an herb had intrinsic qualities such as hot/cold, dry/moist, expanding/contracting, invigorating/regulating. The language that arose from this knowledge is still used today and directly relates to disease/functional states. For instance, immune herbs to eliminate pathogens are hot/cold and spicy/bitter and treat specific diseases. A cold virus is treated with hot & spicy herbs such as peppermint and ginger. A hot flu is treated with cold and bitter herbs such as honeysuckle flowers and forsythia fruit.
The ancients also learned that different preparations of an herbal product alter their effects. For instance, frying some herbs releases the oils making it easier to consume for weaker patients. It can also neutralize toxic properties of the herb. This is very important to know as a consumer. Many Asian herbal formulas have known toxic ingredients. However, when prepared by knowledgeable herbalists, the toxins are minimized and a stronger positive effect is produced.
These same positive changes are seen in the combining of herbal ingredients. In addition to understanding the ingredients and unique aspects of each part, Asian herbal medicine perfected the power of combinations. This synergistically improves the wanted effects and reduces unwanted effects.
The patient's medical condition is analyzed to diagnose a pattern imbalance/disease. Then herbs are chosen in combinations that balance or treat that pattern. For instance, the symptoms of muscle aches, fatigue, insomnia and poor eyesight are diagnosed as Liver blood deficiency with Qi stagnation and respond to an herbal formula called Si Wu Tang (Four Substance Decoction) combining Rehmannia (Shu Di Huang), Peony (Bai Shao), Angelica (Dang Gui), and Ligusticum (Chuan Xiong). If this common pattern presents along with poor digestion, weakness, and poor mental function then the diagnosis is Qi deficiency, so the herbalist will add Si Jun Zi Tang (Four Gentleman Decoction) which combines Ginseng (Ren Shen), Atractylodes (Bai Zhu), Poria (Fu Ling), and Honey fried Licorice Root (Zhi Gan Cao). This famous combination formula called Ba Zhen Tan (Eight Treasures formula) is also known as "Women's Precious" due to its ability to strengthen the blood and replenish the body after menses and childbirth.
As the disease states get more complicated, the herbal combinations do as well. Over the centuries, Asian herbal masters have created and documented thousands of combinations and many thousands of extra variations.
This knowledge of formulas and patterns evolved with understanding the ways to prepare and dispense herbal medicine. Since ancient times herbal medicine has been eaten fresh or combined in teas, decoctions, alcohol extracts and powders. The most common manner of taking herbs was through decoctions, where herbs are prepared singly and then cooked in complex recipes as a soup. The strained liquid is then ingested by mouth several times daily. Other common forms are the honey or water pills, where powdered herbs are mixed with just enough water or honey to form sticky balls that are eaten. Yes, those bitter herbs are very intense when eaten, but the effects are tremendous.
As herbalists gained modern extraction technology, most of the herbal medicines became available in strong concentrated extracts. The prepared single herbs are combined in the same way as ancient recipes except instead of being done in the open air it is now done in sealed and controlled environments that retain the essential vapors and oils of the herbs. This excellent environmental control has expanded the strength and accuracy of herbal medical formulas. Today, quality control measures (termed Good Manufacturing Practices - GMP) ensure the safety and accuracy through spectral and chemical analysis of individual and groups of ingredients. In most cases, the herbs travel from source to consumer in sealed containers that retain their freshness and maximize their effects. They also allow the use of pills and capsules that hide the bitter taste from the consumer. Some forms of extracts still used include alcohol for tinctures (liquid extracts), and powders to mix with water (granular extracts). All of these modern preparations should follow GMP and are usually superior to the traditional ancient methods.
At the Iowa Acupuncture Clinic, we use Kan Herb Company (USA), Golden Flower Chinese Herbs (Taiwan), and MayWay (China). These are three of the most respected and effective Asian herbal lines. They emphasize GMP and follow traditional formulary guidelines. For more information, visit mayway.com, gfcherbs.com, and kanherb.com.