Acupuncture FAQ

Chinese Herbal Medicine

A Patient's Primer

Herbal medicine is the main modality or treatment method within traditional Chinese medicine or TCM. TCM is the world's oldest, continually practiced, professional medicine. Its written history stretches back more than 2,500 years and its practice is undoubtedly much older than that. 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 in the West.

What's the difference between Western folk herbalism and Chinese herbal medicine?

Western folk herbalism primarily treats diseases or symptoms, such as headaches, runny nose, menstrual pain, etc. Chinese herbal medicine, when practiced as part of TCM, is based on an individualized pattern diagnosis as well as a disease diagnosis. This means the TCM patient receives a custom-written herbal prescription designed to treat both the symptom or disease and also their individual pattern. A TCM pattern identifies a person's emotional temperament and bodily constitution as well as their signs and symptoms.

Are there any other differences?

Western folk herbalism primarily uses single herbs or groups of herbs that treat the same symptom or disease for everyone. TCM formulas include 6-18 herbs and include herbs addressing a person's main symptoms as well as their particular pattern.

Are all the "herbs" vegetable in origin?

Although called Chinese herbal medicine, TCM practitioners use ingredients from all three kingdoms: vegetable, animal, and mineral. However, the majority are from vegetable sources. Leaves, flowers, twigs, stems, roots,, tubers, rhizomes, and barks are some of the many vegetable parts used.

Do all the herbs come from China?

15-20% of the standard Chinese repertoire of 500 ingredients originated from outside China. The Chinese have adopted and incorporated into their materia medica herbs from all over the world. What makes these "Chinese" herbs is that they are prescribed according to Chinese medical theory and a TCM pattern diagnosis.

Do Chinese herbs work for Western patients?

Yes, empirical evidence has proven that Chinese herbal medicine works for Westerners just as well as for Chinese. Chinese herbal medicine has been used successfully in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and throughout Asia.

How are Chinese herbs taken?

The most common method of taking Chinese herbal medicine is as a decoction. This means that the herbs are boiled for 30 minutes to an hour or more and then strained and drunk 2-3 times per day. However, there are also herbal pills, tinctures, and powdered extracts for those who do not have the time or taste for traditional decoctions.

What are the benefits of drinking Chinese herbs in decoction?

This method allows the practitioner maximum flexibility in writing a prescription. They can put in just what is necessary in just the right amounts. The formula can be changed even on a daily basis if necessary, and decoctions tend to be more potent than other means of administration.

Why do herbal decoctions taste so bad?

Chinese herbal teas tend to taste very bitter because they are made mostly from roots and barks where the strongest medicinal ingredients are found. If the formula is correctly written, the bad taste should go away after 1-2 days. After that time, the patient may even crave the taste. This shows that the medicine is working.

What are the benefits of pills and powders?

Pills and powders are good for prolonged administration in the case of chronic disease where formulas do not have to be very potent nor changed on a frequent basis. Pills and powders are also commonly used to consolidate therapeutic results after a successful course of therapy with decoctions.

Does Chinese herbal medicine have side effects?

No, not if the formula has been correctly chosen and written. Most of the medicinals in the Chinese materia medica have a very low toxicity compared to common, over-the-counter Western drugs. When they are prescribed according to a correct TCM pattern diagnosis, they should have no side effects, only beneficial healing results. If a patient experiences any discomfort while taking Chinese herbs, they should tell their practitioner, who will then modify their formula until there are no side effects.

What is Chinese herbal medicine good for?

Chinese herbal medicine treats the full range of human disease. It treats acute diseases, like intestinal flu and the common cold, as well as chronic diseases, such as allergies, 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 heal and recuperate.

Can pregnant women take Chinese herbs?

Yes, if prescribed by a professional TCM practitioner. Chinese herbal medicine has been used for more than 2,500 years to treat greater than forth diseases and symptoms occurring during pregnancy without harm to the fetus. Likewise, lactating mothers can take Chinese herbal medicine safely as long as they are prescribed by a trained practitioner.

Can children take Chinese herbal medicine?

Yes. Pediatrics is a specialty within TCM, and children are given smaller doses. There are also specially-prepared pediatric medicines in pill, powder and liquid form. Chinese herbal medicine can treat colic, the fussiness of teething, earache, diarrhea, cough, and fever in babies and children.

How long does it take to see results with Chinese herbal medicine?

In acute conditions, results can be expected in a matter of minutes. In chronic conditions, some results should be seen within two weeks. Although chronic conditions may require taking Chinese herbal medicine for a long time, nonetheless, signs that the medicine is working should be apparent to the patient and practitioner almost from the very start.

How do I know if a practitioner is professionally trained in Chinese herbal medicine?

In some states, such as California, all acupuncturists must pass a licensing test that includes Chinese herbal medicine. In addition, the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncturists & Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) has created a certification process for Chinese herbal medicine. Practitioners who have passed that certification process are entitled to add the abbreviation Dipl. C.H. for Diplomate of Chinese Herbology after their name. If they have been certified in both acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, in some states they may append Dipl. O.M. after their name. Although Chinese herbs are safe when professionally prescribed by a trained, knowledgeable practitioner, they are strong medicine nevertheless. Therefore, it is important that a practitioner be adequately schooled and experienced in their use. A prospective patient should feel free to ask about the training and credentials of a potential practitioner.