The use of Chinese Herbal Medicine (CHM) has been traced back as far as the 3rd century BC. The philosophy is rooted in the belief that the life and activity of individual beings have an intimate relationship with the environment. The two most important consequences of this philosophy are a holistic approach that treats each individual as a whole taking into account his or her environment and constitutional traits; and a tendency to continually develop in response to changing clinical conditions due to an ever-changing environment.
Like acupuncture, Chinese Herbal Medicine is based on the concepts of Yin and Yang. When Yin and Yang are in balance and harmony, there are no symptoms of disease. When symptoms appear, by questioning, observation and careful examination of the pulses and the tongue, the practitioner will look for the origin of the Yin/Yang imbalance, and the ways in which a person’s Qi or vitality may be depleted or blocked. Clinical strategies to resolve the imbalance are based upon these findings which will be presented in the form of a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) diagnosis.
The emphasis is placed not only on restoring harmony through treatment but on preventing further disharmony. This is why advice on lifestyle choices including diet, emotional health and exercise is an important part of treatment. This not only improves health but empowers us to take control of our lives so that we can achieve longevity and happiness.
How are Chinese herbs administered?
Each herbal medicine prescription is a mixture of specific herbs chosen for their suitability to deal with a patient’s disharmony. The herbs can be taken either as dried herbs that have to be boiled up and the resulting decoction taken over one or two days; or as powders to be dissolved in hot water. Dried herbs are considered to be most effective but require extra time for preparation and have a stronger taste. No matter what format the formula is taken in, it will invariably contain a combination of herbs that will act in synergy with each other to adjust to the presenting condition of the particular patient. Unlike Western medications, the balance and interaction of all the ingredients are considered more important than the effect of individual ingredients. In addition, a key to success in TCM is the treatment of each patient as an individual.
Another form in which Chinese herbs are found is as patent medicines. These are standardized traditional herbal formulae containing dried herbs that have been mixed into a powder and formed into pills bound with honey. They are characteristically little round black pills that are easy and convenient to take. Although pills are not the most quick-acting form of treatment, they are suitable for the treatment of many acute and chronic conditions and their gentler action allows them to be taken over long periods. These formulae are not designed specifically for the individual but there are patent medicines for a wide variety of conditions.
What conditions can be treated?
Chinese Herbal Medicine (CHM) is the most important treatment modality used in China as part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM); and herbal pharmacies are found in every state hospital in that country. In the West however, lack of familiarity with CHM and bad press resulting from lack of appropriate training and misuse, have slowed down its popularization making acupuncture a preferred form of treatment. In reality, although acupuncture is an effective treatment for many health complaints, Chinese Herbal Medicine can be more effective or render quicker results for the more deep-seated/long-term problems and can even prove effective where acupuncture has failed.
In many cases, Chinese Herbal Medicine has a great deal to offer where Conventional medicine has had difficulty in resolving certain conditions especially in their chronic form. The results that can be expected and the length of treatment required will depend on the severity of the condition, its duration, and the general health of the patient.
Chinese medicine is successfully used for a very wide range of conditions. Amongst the more commonly treated disorders are:
- Skin disease, including eczema, psoriasis, acne, rosacea, urticaria
- Gastro-intestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome, chronic constipation, ulcerative colitis
- Gynaecological conditions, including pre-menstrual syndrome and dysmenorrhoea, endometriosis, infertility and menopausal symptoms
- Hepatitis and HIV: some promising results have been obtained for treatment of Hepatitis C, and supportive treatment may be beneficial in the case of HIV
- Chronic fatigue syndromes, whether with a background of viral infection or in other situations
- Respiratory conditions, including asthma, bronchitis, and chronic coughs, allergic and perennial rhinitis and sinusitis
- Rheumatological conditions (e.g. osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis)
- Urinary conditions including chronic cystitis
- Psychological problems (e.g. depression, anxiety)
- Children’s diseases
Are Chinese herbs safe?
We have all read news reports that at one time or another condemn Chinese herbs as unsafe, toxic and causing almost fatal side effects. These things can happen for two reasons:
- Herbs need to be taken under the supervision of a qualified practitioner who knows how to combine them (Chinese herbs are rarely taken one by one) so that a balanced and safe formula is taken by the patient at a safe dose.
- There is also a problem of adulteration of herbs and formulae with heavy metals and sometimes conventional drugs. Only buying from an approved supplier through a qualified practitioner will ensure that the herbs obtained are safe for consumption and free from harmful adulterants.
Another source of controversy around CHM is that not only plants parts but animal and mineral products are used. As a member of the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (RCHM), I am committed to following the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) guidelines that also prohibit the use of herbs that have been proven to be highly toxic; and to using only herbal suppliers included in the Approved Supplier Scheme that ensures herbal supplies are free of harmful substances and come from a reputable source. As part of the planned Statutory State Regulation, RCHM members are also voluntarily committed to not using any products of animal or mineral origin until further notice. For more information, visit http://www.rchm.co.uk/index.htm and http://www.cites.org/.
Who can have treatment?
Chinese medicine can be used by people of any age or constitution. A full medical history will be taken, and previous illnesses, family history and medication are taken into account before providing treatment. A qualified practitioner can also adjust herbal combinations and dosages so that they are safe for children and pregnant women.