Herbal Medicine is the main treatment modality of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and TCM is the world’s oldest, continually practiced, professional medicine. Its written history stretches back over 5,000 years and its practice is undoubtedly much older than that. The theory of Chinese herbal medicine is also the basis of TCM internal medicine and TCM cannot be practiced as a complete system of medicine without a refined understanding of herbal medical theory.
Although acupuncture was the first Chinese modality to gain wide acceptance in the West, Chinese herbal medicine is quickly establishing itself as one of the most popular and effective alternative therapies.
North American and European folk herbalism treat disease by singular symptoms such as headache, runny nose, menstrual pain, etc. Chinese herbal medicine is based on an individualized pattern diagnosis as well as a symptomatic diagnosis. This means that the TCM patient receives a custom herbal formula for each condition. In this way, two patients presenting with seemingly identical symptoms of a common cold could receive two different herbal formulas based upon their individual constitution as well as their cold symptoms. The TCM pattern diagnosis is made up of a person’s signs, symptoms, body constitution and emotional temperament.
Another distinction between Western herbalism and Chinese herbalism is that Western Herbology uses single herbs for single symptoms or a group of related herbs all treating the same symptom. Chinese herbalism utilizes many herbs in each formula designed to address not only the acute symptom, but the underlying condition and the patient’s entire pattern as well.
Although called herbal medicine, TCM practitioners us ingredients from all three kingdoms: animal, plant and mineral. The Ben Cao or Materia Medica lists over 3,000 entries of medicinal substances. However, the majority of these are from plant sources. Leaves, flowers, twigs, stems, roots, tubers, and barks are some of the plant parts used.
More than 90% of the pharmaceuticals prescribed by M.D.’s have plant, animal and mineral origins. The closer we are to the source of our medicine, the more harmonious it will be in our mind/body system. The chief cause of the negative side effects of pharmaceuticals is that they work too quickly and/or too powerfully. Your system does not have time to metabolize and harmonize them and is thrown into a state of unbalance. Chinese herbal medicine allows your body time to metabolize nourishing or dispersing substances and there are no negative side effects when professionally prescribed.
The traditional Doctor sees the struggle between the body’s defense mechanisms and the pathogens that try to invade it as a war between two opposing armies. If the pathogenic force is strong, the patient will succumb to illness. If the patient’s defensive mechanisms are strong, good health will be victorious. The strategies a Doctor uses for fighting disease are as clearly defined as the strategies military leaders use to defeat the opposition.
The herbal formulas used in this fight were developed with clearly military-like strategies and the herbs that make up the formulas have military designations such as the General, Lieutenant, Soldier, and Envoy. A typical herbal formula may have many ingredients but all the herbs in the formula will fall into these four categories.
The General’s job is to lead the formula and this herb sets the tone for the entire formula, its energy is the one that has the most impact on the patient’s condition and it is usually the most powerful herb in a formula.
Our next herb in a formula is the Lieutenant, which supports the action of the General and addresses secondary conditions that occur in an illness. For instance, in a common cold there may be fever as the main concern and body ache as the secondary concern. The Lieutenant in this case would support the function of the General to reduce the fever and also work to relieve the body ache.
The Soldier herb supports the main function of the formula, but also is used to offset possible harsh effects on the other herbs. The herbs used to reduce fever are often so cooling that they can cause nausea. The Soldier can be used to calm the stomach so that the optimum effect of the formula is achieved without adding an upset stomach to the patient’s list of complaints.
An Envoy herb plays a dual role in an herbal formula. The first role is that of guiding the medicine to the area where it is most needed. This is called tropism and ensures that a formula that is intended to clear heat from the lungs gets where it needs to be. The second role of an Envoy herb is to harmonize the actions of the other herbs in the formula and keep the group cohesive and working to a common treatment principle. In Chinese medical philosophy, the traditional Doctor is viewed as a great military strategist whose talent lies in the analysis of his patient’s condition so that the appropriate herbal medicine can be given. Just as an army without a skilled leader is a dangerous mob, so herbal medicine without a skilled Doctor is dangerous at worst and useless at best.
Although there are a few tonic herbal formulas that can be safely taken by anyone, the key to the professional prescription of Chinese herbs is the individual pattern diagnosis. That is the method by which the practitioner determines the pathological mechanism that is the cause of the symptoms of disease. Pattern diagnosis is achieved by the study of the patient’s pulse, tongue and eyes, through the patient’s health history and analysis of specific signs and symptoms. Chinese herbal medicine treats the full range of human disease. It treats gynecological disorders, autoimmune diseases, chronic viral diseases and degenerative diseases due to aging. In particular, Chinese herbal medicine is especially good for promoting the body’s ability to fight off disease through an improved immune function and in TCM, the emphasis is on disease prevention. There is no sense in waiting to dig the well until one is already thirsty.