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What is Chinese Herbal Medicine?

Herbal medicine is a major component of traditional Oriental medicine, a comprehensive health care system used for over 3,000 years in China and throughout the world today.

Oriental medicine views the body as a dynamic, interrelated whole possessing a vital energy or life force called Qi (pronounced "chee"). Health depends on the free-flow of this energy and the interplay of the body, mind and spirit. When disease occurs, specific herbs are chosen to rebalance the energy and allow the body to heal itself.

Herbs affect the Qi and promote healing in one or more systems of the body. Usually herbs are combined into formulas that address the main health problem and support the mind-body system.

Are Chinese Herbs Safe?

In the hands of well-trained herbal practitioner, Chinese herbs are effective and safe. Careful attention to dosage and combination of herbs, as well as any known drug-herb interactions, are covered in comprehensive Chinese herbal medicine education programs. In addition, the Chinese herbal profession is working with the FDA to ensure the quality and safety of Chinese herbs imported into this country.

Herbs have a balancing or regulating effect on the body and are usually more gentle than pharmaceutical drugs. Side effects from herbs are possible, but are usually minor. The most common problem is gastrointestinal upset, gas and bloating due to slight difficulty digesting the herb material. If this or any other problem occurs, discuss it with your practitioner so he/she may change your formula.

Herb-drug interactions are rare. However, in order to allow your health care providers to treat your effectively and work in partnership, you should inform your Western medical physician that you are taking Chinese herbs just as you should inform your herbal practitioner of any prescription medicines you are taking.

How Are Herbs Administered?

Chinese herbal medicine is actually composed of over 5,000 plant, mineral and animal substances. Most herbalists, however, work with 200-300 herbs. The traditional method of preparing herbs is to cook the raw herbs in water to form a decoction or tea. Depending on your preference, or the recommendation of your practitioner, you may take herbs in pill form, as a tincture, or in a powdered or granulated form easily dissolvable in fluid. Although the taste is sometimes bitter, most people find this acceptable given the health benefits.

What To Expect At An Herbal Consultation?

Your Chinese herbal practitioner will ask a variety of questions regarding your specific complaint and your general health. Your practitioner may take your pulse and/or look at your tongue in order to form an Oriental medicine diagnosis.

After completing an evaluation, your practitioner may recommend an herbal formula consisting of several herbs. Although Chinese herbal medicine can effectively address a wide variety of conditions, sometimes Western medicine consultation and treatment may be appropriate. In this case, your herbal practitioner will suggest that you see your primary Western medical provider.

As in any form of healing, your attitude, diet, determination and lifestyle will affect the outcome of your course of treatment. You are encouraged to actively participate in your healing process to obtain the best possible results.

Conditions Treated by Chinese Herbs

Chinese herbal medicine is a comprehensive form of medicine that can effectively address a wide variety of conditions. It has a long clinical history of treating acute and chronic conditions. It excels in treating conditions that Western medicine has difficulty in treating as well as condition that do not have a Western medical diagnosis. Chinese herbal medicine may be used to treat infants, elderly patients and pregnant women.

Below are some of the many conditions that may be addressed through Chinese herbal medicine:

  • Respiratory Conditions such as colds and flu as well as chronic respiratory conditions such as allergies, asthma, emphysema, sinusitis and bronchitis
  • Emotional Conditions such as anxiety, depression and mood swings
  • Gastrointestinal Condition such as acute or chronic diarrhea, constipation, indigestion, gastritis and ulcers
  • Urogenital Conditions such as urinary tract infections, prostatitis and sexual dysfunction
  • Gynecological Conditions such as irregular or painful menstruation, infertility, PMS and menopausal symptoms
  • Musculoskeletal and Neurological Conditions such as neuralgia, migraine headaches, insomnia, dizziness and low back, neck and shoulder pain
  • Circulatory Conditions such as hypertension, angina pectoris, arteriosclerosis and anemia
  • Supportive therapy for other chronic, painful and debilitating disorders such as hepatitis and fibromyalgia

How Do I Find A Qualified Practitioner?

Oriental medicine has been practiced in countries around the world for hundreds of years, including Asia, Europe and North America. Consequently, there are many colleges, both in the U.S. and abroad, with excellent Chinese herbal medicine programs. In the U.S., Chinese herbal practitioners are usually licensed as acupuncturists since there is no independent license for Chinese herbs.

In seeking a qualified herbalist, it is advisable to look for a practitioner who is comprehensively trained in Chinese herbal medicine. Some states, such as California, require that all licensed acupuncturists be trained and tested in Chinese herbal medicine. Others do not. You should feel free to ask your practitioner about his/her training and experience in Chinese herbal medicine.