What are Chinese Herbs?

Together with acupuncture, Chinese herbs have served as a foundation for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), for over 5,000 years. The fundamental idea of living in harmony with nature and the environment forms the basis for the use of Chinese herbs. Knowledge of the healing power of Chinese herbs and herbal remedies has been passed down from generation to generation. The Chinese pharmacopoeia lists over 6,000 different medicinal substances in terms of their properties and the disharmonies that they were helpful with. There are about 600 different herbs in common use today.

Chinese medical experts recommend a healthful balance of yin and yang – two forces present in all of nature. When yin or yang forces or qi/energy levels are off-balance in the body and spirit, health problems arise. Chinese herbs and herbal remedies are used to help realign an individual’s yin or yang balance in order to improve overall well-being. Chinese herbal formulas include hundreds of popular organic ingredients that work in harmony to produce the desired effects in a person’s body. These ingredients are primarily of plant origin, and may include roots, bark, seeds, flowers and leaves. Each organic ingredient typically has unique characteristics or actions (i.e. yin/yang balancing, qi/energy boosting, etc.) that are reinforced and harmonized in comprehensive ancient Chinese herbal formulas that have been passed down through the years. 

Herbs are classified in two major dimensions: the first dimension refers to the temperature characteristics of the herb: namely hot (re), warm (wen), cold (han), neutral (ping), and aromatic. The second dimension refers to the taste property of the herb, namely sour (suan), bitter (ku), sweet (gan), spicy (xin), and salty (xian). 

The various combinations of temperature and taste give the herb its properties that can influence the yin and yang energy patterns of the body. For example, sour, bitter and salty tastes are related to yin, whereas acrid and sweet tastes are attributed to yang. There are herbs that will warm, herbs that will cool, herbs that will tonify, and herbs that will move stagnation and so on. It is also important to understand that herbs do not possess one quality. They are most always a combination of properties and temperatures and may reach one to as many as twelve organ systems. Warm herbs can be used with individuals suffering from heat disorders, but the herb with warm energy must be mixed with herbs with cool/cold energy so that the overall balance of the mixture is on the cool side. Likewise, cool herbs can be used with people with cold disorders as long as the overall balance of the mixture is warm. Neutral herbs are those that are neither hot nor cold, so they are often considered gentle herbs. There are not too many neutral herbs in the pharmacopoeia. 

Chinese herbs are prescribed in formulas that contain at least four to twenty herbs, in contrast to western herbalism, which are typically given singly or prescribed in smaller combinations. 

Traditionally, Chinese herbal formulas are made via decoctions, or a concentrated form of tea. Typically, you are given an herbal bag for each day, with the instructions to boil the herbs in water from 30 – 60 minutes. The resulting decoction is taken 2 – 3 times per day. In addition, pre-made formulas are also available as pills, tablets, capsules, powders, alcohol-extracts, water-extracts, etc., which are more convenient as they do not require your preparation and are easily taken. However, the concentration of the herbs in these products is low and don't allow the practitioner to adjust the contents or dosages. These products are usually not as potent as the traditional preparation of decoction.

Another modern way of delivering herbs is through granulated herbs, which are highly concentrated powdered extracts. These powders are made by first preparing the herbs as a traditional decoction. The decoction is then dehydrated to leave a powder residue. Practitioners can then mix these powders together for each patient into a custom formula. The powder is then placed in hot water to recreate the decoction. This eliminates the need to prepare the herbs at home, but still retains much of the original decoction's potency. 

Five Tastes of Chinese Herbs::

Tastes

Sour

Action/Function

  • Constricts or consolidates

Indicated for use in:

Perspiration due to deficiency, protracted cough, chronic diarrhea, seminal and urinary incontinences, leakage or spermatic fluid, and other conditions related to hypo-metabolism (under-performance).

Used in deficient or cold patterns


Bitter

  • clearing heat
  • purges the bowels
  • lowers the qi
  • improves appetite
  • drying dampness or wetness

The acute stage of infectious disease, and arthritis or leucorrhoea.

Used in fire-heat patterns and damp-heat or damp-cold patterns.


Sweet

  • tones, improves, moistens and harmonizes many of the important systems of the body
  • has a constrictive action on muscles

Digestive, respiratory, immune and endocrine systems. Also relieve urgency and inhibit pain, dry cough, and gastro-intestinal tract issues, such as spleen and stomach disharmony.

Used in deficiency patterns.


Spicy

  • disperses, circulates qi and vitalizes blood
  • can stimulate the sweat glands to perspire
  • circulates qi
    - activates the function of meridians and organs
  • vitalizes blood to promotecirculation
  • overall effect of activating  & enhancing metabolism

Catching a cold when the function of the meridian and organs is weakened and circulation of blood has been impeded. (In TCM terminology, this is the stage of qi stagnation and blood cloudiness.)

Used in external patterns.


Salty

  • softens firm masses and fibrous adhesions
  • purges and opens the bowels

Sores, inflammatory masses, cysts, and connective tissue proliferation


The revival interest in herbal medicine is a worldwide phenomenon.
— Mark Blumenthal

Dr. Michael Lipelt, founder and practitioner at Stillpoint Family Health Services received a Master of Science in Oriental Medicine at Meiji College of Oriental Medicine, in San Francisco, CA in 1994, his national acupuncture certification in 1993 from the NCCAOM (National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine), and his Acupuncture License for the State of California in 1995. Dr. Lipelt completed post-graduate dental acupuncture studies at the UCLA School of Dentistry in Los Angeles, CA in 1992, and his Dental Acupuncture License for the State of California in 1993. He has practiced acupuncture now for almost 20 years, while integrating it with other holistic healing methods.