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The Importance of Chinese Herbal Medicine

As a Chinese herbalist, there is always an abundance of traditional Chinese medicines (TCM) in my kitchen and bathroom.  From dried herbs to cook with to powder prescriptions to ching wan hung burn balm, I almost always have a holistic remedy whenever I or someone else needs one. 

For thousands of years, herbal medicine has been used for its ability to support, regulate, and nourish the body.  Written records of its use date back more than 5000 years, to when a Sumerian clay slab was discovered verifying the use of herbs for the preparation of medicine.  In fact, for most of history, herbal medicine was the only medicine.  Currently, it is estimated that more than 50% of drugs have originated from active compounds in medicinal herbs.  Common drugs include aspirin, which is modelled after salicylic acid found in white willow bark, opiates, which are modelled after alkaloids found in the common poppy plant, and digoxin, which is modelled after compounds in the foxglove plant.

There are thousands of herbal products available over the counter and commonly used by consumers in the U.S.  Moreover, nearly one in five adults reported taking an herbal product in 2002, with increasing popularity today. 

Herbal medicine has its roots in many different cultures, and one well-known system is traditional Chinese medicine.  Chinese herbal medicine is part of the larger healing system of traditional Chinese medicine, an ancient form of healthcare that dates back over 2000 years.  Chinese herbs have remained one of the oldest and most prominent remedies for preventing and healing diseases, and they are especially known for their use in longevity.  

From the beginning of traditional Chinese medicine, maintaining health and wellness has been the predominant goal of healthcare.  In Chinese culture, good health is associated with harmony, a balance between the mind, body, soul, and environment, and this balance is often best achieved using herbal medicine. 

Chinese herbs are complex mixtures of organic compounds that may come from any raw or processed part of a plant, including leaves, stems, bark, root, flowers, or seeds.  Occasionally, Chinese herbal medicine may also use minerals or animal products.  A Chinese herbal formula is the synergistic combination of different Chinese herbs to produce a curative effect on the body.  Chinese herbs and formulas are classified as supplements and can be sold without rigorous scientific testing, as is required for pharmaceutical drugs.

Chinese herbal medicine is very intricate and requires precision.  When assessing a person’s state of health, a Chinese herbalist uses their health history intake, observation of spirit, body shape, and color, listening to tone of voice, smelling of any odor, and palpation of the pulse and body to come up with a correct diagnosis and method of treatment.  No two conditions are treated the same.  The treatment is focused on addressing a patient’s concerns and treating the root cause of the disease rather than just the symptoms.  This is why it is important to find a practitioner trained in Chinese herbal medicine to appropriately and safely prescribe herbal formulas that will not only help a person feel better but also make sure there are no adverse side effects or drug interactions.

How can Chinese herbs help you?

There are three main functions of Chinese herbal medicine: treating acute diseases, healing chronic conditions, and maintaining good health.

1: Treat acute problems

This means helping your body kill a bacteria or viral infection.  While biomedical antibiotics are sufficient at healing a bacterial infection, they come with a host of unwanted side effects, such as destroying good gut bacteria and weakening the immune system, and are ineffective against viral infections.  Fortunately, a number of Chinese herbal formulas exist that effectively combat bacterial and viral infections without the side effects of antibiotics

Modern clinical research in China has validated 18 Chinese herbs in their efficacy against viruses, and the inclusion of one or more of these known herbs is a benchmark when evaluating the appropriateness of an herbal formula in treating an acute condition.  Some of these herbs include lonicera flower, forsythia fruit, and isatis root and leaf, which are all included in Refuge Acupuncture’s proprietary formula called Cold and Flu Relief. 

Chinese herbs and herbal formulas may also be used to manage acute pain, such as sudden back pain.  For example, corydalis rhizome is widely used for the treatment of pain and inflammation.  One research article published in 2016 compared its effects on pain in mice, and found that extracts of corydalis rhizome effectively lessened acute, inflammatory, and neuropathic pain, without causing tolerance.  This type of research demonstrates that Chinese herbal formulas are excellent at managing acute pain without developing tolerance and with less adverse side effects than common over the counter or prescription pain relievers.

2: Heal chronic conditions

Those with complicated chronic conditions, such as gastrointestinal disorders, immune deficiencies, stress related disorders, chronic fatigue, and respiratory disorders, typically have a combination of a weakness in one part of the body and an excess in another.  In Chinese medicine, in order for a whole system to be in balance, such as the body, each part of the system must also be balanced. This also means that seemingly unrelated conditions in biomedicine may actually be connected when the body is viewed as a whole.  With the skill of a practitioner, a chinese herbal formula may be prescribed to harmonize a person’s imbalance and bring the body back into harmony.

For example, research on a popular chinese herbal formula for insomnia named Suan Zao Ren Tang, showed that this formula exerted sedative and sleep-inducing actions via the GABA and serotonin pathways of the brain.  In addition, research shows that another popular formula called Jin Gui Shen Qi Wan not only helps with chronic asthma but also performs as well as hypoglycemic agents in those with type 2 diabetes mellitus.  

3: Maintain daily health

Health is the ability to respond appropriately to change, also known as adaptability.  Disease is a failure to adapt to this change.  These herbs are not used to correct any specific imbalance, but are used to promote overall well being and enhance the body’s energy.  They gently support and enhance the functions of the body naturally with an emphasis on promoting health rather than “healing.”

These types of herbs are classed as tonics or adaptogens and help the body handle stress with ease.  These herbs are very safe and can be taken for a long period of time.  Some popular tonic herbs include schisandra berries, reishi mushroom, the different types of ginseng, and angelica root.  Schisandra berries show neuroprotective and cognitive enhancement effects, reishi mushroom shows anti cancer activity on on breast cancer cells and has antiinflammatory, antioxidant, and immunomodulatory functions, ginseng and its compounds can improve different types of cardiovascular disease, and angelica root contains ligustilide, a compound known to have anti-atherosclerosis, neuroprotective, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, and pain-relieving effects.

Who can take Chinese herbal medicine?

Chinese herbs can correct unhealthy body patterns and regulate emotions.  The goal is to bring the body back into harmony and restore proper energy.  While it is excellent at treating acute conditions, Chinese herbal medicine thrives as an option for chronic conditions or as a way to maintain good health.

People who desire a holistic approach to their health are excellent candidates for Chinese herbal medicine.  Chinese herbs are also excellent for those with unexplained symptoms, those with autoimmune conditions, those with multiple diseases, those who don’t respond well to medications, or those who wish to decrease or potentially eliminate certain medications. 

Common conditions that respond well to Chinese herbal medicine are frequent colds or flus, chronic respiratory issues, allergies, fatigue, insomnia, chronic pain, women’s health, infertility, menopausal symptoms, anxiety or depression, even recovery from chemotherapy.

Please note that because herbs are plants, they are often perceived as “natural” and thus safe.  However, different side effects to herbs have been reported, including effects from compounds in the herb, side effects from contaminants (common in medicine imported from Asia), and herb-drug interactions.  It is important to enlist the help of a qualified herbalist to help establish what can be appropriately and safely used.

For example, vitex fruit, or chaste tree,  is a common herbal supplement marketed for supporting women’s health by supporting the production of progesterone, which may assist in regulating a woman’s cycle and supporting fertility.  However, if progesterone is low due to excess estrogen rather than just a low level, then vitex fruit alone will not work

Benefits of Taking Chinese Herbs

1: Affordability

One reason why Chinese herbs, and other herbal medicine, is becoming more popular is because Chinese herbs and herbal formulas are more cost effective than some prescription drugs, and in some cases, are equivalent in effectiveness. 

A systematic review published in Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine evaluated whether herbal products provide an affordable choice in the treatment of disease.  The review included nine articles and found that herbal products are cost effective for post operative complications.  Further research is needed in other areas of medicine, but preliminary data suggests herbal products are more cost effective than pharmaceuticals.

2: Easier to obtain

Chinese herbal medicine teas and herbs are often safe and easy to obtain

Herbal products, such as powdered formulas and herbal teas, are available in most health food and even grocery stores, and do not require an office visit and prescription from a doctor.  For the best results, it is recommended that you consult a licensed herbalist before self-diagnosing and purchasing Chinese herbs or formulas.

Chinese herbs are classified supplements so they can be produced, sold, and marketed without going through the FDA.  Even though this makes it easier to purchase Chinese herbs, it increases the need for educated consumers.  Make sure to purchase Chinese herbs from a reputable company that verifies their products, and be sure to read ingredient labels carefully.

3: Easier for the body to assimilate

Since Chinese herbal formulas take the weather and environment, the energetics of each herb, and your unique constitution into consideration, it is much easier for the body to digest and assimilate the healing properties of the herbal formula.  This means that herbal formulas may have less side effects, may negate the side effects of certain medications, and help the body heal itself in ways conventional drugs cannot.  Additionally, Chinese herbal therapy is holistic, meaning it integrates physical and emotional considerations of health concerns. 

This 2010 research article found that Chinese herbs and formulas such as astragalus root, turmeric root, ginseng root, bu zhong yi qi tang, and huang qin tang, have a significant effect on reducing the toxicity induced by chemotherapy and radiation.  These herbs and formulas have an advantage for suppressing tumor progression, increasing sensitivity to chemo and radiation, improving immune function, and lessening the side effects caused by chemotherapy and radiation.

Refuge Acupuncture’s Herbal Formulas

Refuge Acupuncture carries four proprietary Chinese herbal formulas: Tranquil Mind, Undisturbed Sleep, Painless Cycle, and Cold and Flu Relief.  These practitioner-created herbal formulas are based on the most common patterns of disharmony seen in clinical practice for stress and an overactive mind, sleep disorders, menstrual discomfort, and colds and flus.  These herbal formulas are in a concentrated granule form that can be dissolved in hot water and drank as a tea.  Our granules have a 5:1 concentration, meaning one gram of granules is equal to five grams of raw herb.  All of our granules use a base of maltodextrin which is gluten-free and hypoallergenic.  The maltodextrin acts as a binder and preservative and helps the granules dissolve easily in hot water.

If you’re interested in trying one of our Chinese herbal formulas for yourself, feel free to order online or stop by Refuge Acupuncture in LoHi in Denver, across from Forest Room 5, to pick up one of our off-the-shelf formulas.  If you’re interested in a more customized Chinese herbal formula, schedule an herbal consultation appointment with one of our licensed herbalists.

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Denver, Colorado 80211

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