Chinese Herbology 101

Atlantic Institute is the parent company of Atlantic Acupuncture, Earth Wind Botanicals and Prof. K Enterprises. Our goal is to provide education and therapeutic support for people who are interested in alternatives to conventional medical paradigms and modalities. As part of our ongoing educational outreach we are publishing a series of articles on acupuncture, herbal medicine, meditation and Qigong to help our patients and friends develop a greater understanding of the dynamics of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Herbal medicine is the primary foundation for the theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Until very recently, little information was available to the Western world regarding the practice of this medicine that existed since prehistoric times in China. Archeological evidence demonstrates that at the dawn of Chinese history, before the second millennium BCE, The primary health care providers were Shamans (Wu). This is true for all cultures throughout the prehistoric world.

Among the first written medical works on this planet was the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic (Huang Di Nei Jing also known simply as the Inner Classic), compiled by unknown authors between 500 BCE and 100 CE, during the period of Chinese Spring-Autumn Fighting countries. Also known as the Warring States Period this was the time period during which formal Confucianism, Taoism, Medicine and other Philosophies appeared in standardized written form.

The Inner Classic is divided into two sections, Basic Questions (Su Wen) and Miraculous Pivot (Ling Su), Ling Su is also called the canon of Acupuncture.

Foundation of Materia Medica

The Divine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica (Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing), also known as the Classic of the Materia Medica (Ben Cao) was the first written iteration of herbal research and the empirical processing of medicinal herbs. The Ben Cao was first developed to elucidate the secrets of longevity, primarily for the Imperial Court, and was compiled by unknown authors between 221 BCE and 200 CE.

The “great grandfather” of Herbal prescriptions was Zhang Zhong Jing; a  doctor in the Eastern Han dynasty (300 CE). His book Jin Kui Yao Lue (Synthesis of Prescriptions of Golden Chamber) contains 260 Herbal prescriptions. Prior to this time only single herbs were known to have been prescribed for illness.

The Ben Cao was a compilation of 361 medicinals that were mostly herbal in nature along with some animal and mineral sources. Medicines were classified by seven types, also called the seven forests. They were Jades and Stones, Herbs, Woods, Animals, Fruits, Vegetables and Cereals. Compare this number to contemporary volumes of the Materia Medica which list ten times as many medicinal substances all of which we loosely refer to as “herbs”.

General Principles

 Each herb has its own specific nature or character. The different natures of herbs are employed to treat diseases, rectify the hyperactivity or hypo activity of Yin or Yang, and help the body restore its health. The various natures and functions of these herbs concerning medical treatment include the herbs properties, flavors, actions (lifting, lowering, floating and sinking), channel tropism, toxicity, etc.

It needs to be understood that these principles of herbal medicines are true for Indian Ayurvedic herbs, European and North American herbs and any other herbs on the planet that can be used medicinally. The key is to use one’s knowledge of herbal medicines to decipher the nature, function and tropism of any herb, and translate that into the language of TCM.

Properties and Flavors of Herbs

 Properties and flavors are also known as the Four Qi and the Five Tastes. Every herb has its property and flavor. “Properties” or the Four Qi refers to the cold, hot, warm or cool nature of an herb. These properties of herbs are sorted out according to the different actions of the herbs on the human body and their therapeutic effects. For example, herbs which treat heat syndromes (Yang syndrome) have a cool or cold property, whereas herbs which treat cold syndromes (Yin syndrome) have warm or hot property.

Herbs of cold and cool natures and herbs of warm and hot natures are of opposite properties. A cold-natured herb is different from a cool-natured one only in degree, as is a warm-natured herb from a hot-natured herb. Herbal medicine is therefore allopathic medicine in that medicines are used to treat diseases that have the opposite nature. This is contrary to the concept of homeopathic medicine in which, for instance, a substance that produces fever like symptoms is used to treat febrile conditions.

“Flavors” or the Five Flavors of herbs are pungent, sweet, sour, bitter, salty, tasteless and astringent. Since sweet and tasteless usually correspond, and since sour and astringent herbs have the same effects, pungent, sweet, sour, bitter and salty tastes are the cardinal flavors and are known as five flavors.

The flavors don’t necessarily refer to the actual tastes of the herbs. Sometimes they are sorted out according to herbs actions as opposed to what the tongue actually tastes.

Pungent flavors disperse and circulate, and are for symptoms that are superficial or mild and tend to enter the lung. Herbs that are pungent in flavor have the effects of dispersing exo-pathogens from superficial aspects of the body and promoting the circulation of the vital energy and blood. Pungent herbs are usually used for the treatment of superficial and mild illness that are due to affection by exo-pathogens, stagnation of vital energy and blood stasis. Pungent herbs tend to have warm or hot natures.

Sweet flavors nourish and tonify or harmonize other drugs and relieve pain. Sweet flavor herbs typically enter the spleen and stomach. Herbs of sweet flavor have the effects of nourishing, replenishing, tonifying, or enriching the different organs or parts of the body, normalize the function of the stomach and spleen, harmonize the properties of different drugs and relieving spasm and pain. Sweet herbs tend to have warm natures.

Sour flavor herbs are astringent and usually enter the liver. Herbs of sour flavor have the effects of inducing astringency and arresting discharge. Sour herbs tend to have cool natures

Bitter flavor herbs clear heat, purge fire, correct the flow of Qi and enter the heart. Herbs of bitter flavor have the effects of clearing heat, purging fire, sending down the adverse flow of Qi to treat cough and vomiting, relaxing the bowels, eliminating dampness. Bitter herbs tend to have cold natures.

Salty flavor herbs purge, soften, and enter the kidney. Herbs of this taste have the effects of relieving constipation by purgation, and softening and resolving hard mass. Salty herbs tend to have cool to cold natures.

Tasteless or neutral flavor herbs eliminate damp and are for the urinary system. Neutral flavor have the effects of excreting dampness and inducing diuresis, and are commonly used for edema, disurea and others. This class of herbs is linked with sweet flavor herbs because they both focus on disharmonies related to the spleen and stomach. Neutral herbs tend to be slightly cool or warm in nature.

Astringent herbs are sour in nature. Herbs of this flavor have similar actions as those of sour flavor, are functionally interchangeable with them, and tend to have cool natures.

We mix and match the various flavors of herbs in order to provide a more complete therapeutic experience and to eliminate the potential for negative side effects. For instance, if we are using salty and bitter flavored herbs to relieve blockage due to an internal heat we would include in the formula some warming and moistening herbs to prevent the potential development of internal cold and dry causing constriction and blockage.

In our next segment we will look at the actions and “channel tropism” of herbal medicines.

Yours in good health,

Robert Kienitz, DTCM