An Introduction to Chinese Herbs
The herbal tradition of China is valued scientifically, as well as being a fascinating and popular tradition. Scientists working in China and Japan during the past four decades have demonstrated that the herb materials contain active components that can explain many of their claimed actions. Modern drugs have been developed from the herbs, such as treatments for asthma and hay fever from Chinese ephedra, hepatitis remedies from schizandra fruits and licorice roots, and a number of anticancer agents from trees and shrubs. Several popular formulations produced in China, called “patent medicines,” are relied upon daily by millions of Chinese (in China and abroad), such as the Bupleurum Sedative Pills and Women’s Precious Pills that invigorate the energy, nourish the blood, calm tension, and regulate menstruation, and Yin Chiao Jie Du Pian, which is a reliable treatment for the early stages of common cold, sore throat, and influenza.
More than three hundred herbs that are commonly used today have a history of use that goes back at least 2,000 years. Over that time, a vast amount of experience has been gained that has gone towards perfecting their clinical applications. According to Chinese clinical studies, these herbs, and others that have been added to the list of useful items over the centuries, can greatly increase the effectiveness of modern drug treatments, reduce their side-effects, and sometimes replace them completely.
In China, the two most common methods of applying herb therapies are to make a decoction (a strong tea that must be simmered for about an hour or more) and to make large honey-bound pills. Both of these forms meet with considerable resistance in Western countries. The teas are deemed too time-consuming, smelly, and awful-tasting to justify their use, and the honey pills (boluses) are sticky, difficult to chew, and bad tasting. Thus, modern forms that are more acceptable have been developed for most applications.
The two popular forms to replace the standard Chinese preparations are extract powders (or granules) and smooth, easy-to-swallow tablets or capsules. The extracts are made by producing a large batch of tea and then removing the water and producing a powder or tiny pellets; the resulting material is swallowed down with some water or mixed with hot water to make a tea. Tablets and capsules contain either powdered herbs or dried extracts or a combination of the two. Despite the convenience, one must take a substantial quantity of these prepared forms (compared to the amount of drugs one takes). For example, doses of the dried extracts range from 1-2 teaspoons each time, two to three times per day, and the tablets or capsules range from about 3-8 units each time, two to three times per day.
The herb materials used in all these preparations are gathered from wild supplies or cultivated, usually in China (some come from India, the Mid-East, or elsewhere). There are an estimated 6,000 species in use, including nearly 1,000 materials derived from animal sources and over 100 minerals, all of them categorized under the general heading “herbs.” Herbs are processed in various ways, such as cleaning, soaking, slicing, and drying, according to the methods that have been reported to be most useful. These materials are then combined in a formulation; the ingredients and amounts of each item depend on the nature of the condition to be treated.
In some cases, a practitioner of Chinese medicine will design a specific formulation for an individual patient, which might be changed frequently over a course of treatment. In other cases, one or more formulas already prepared for ingestion without modification are selected for use. The outcome is monitored, and the determination of whether to continue the current formula, change to another, or discontinue use is made on the basis of actual versus desired outcomes and the obvious or subtle effects of using the herbs.
As a general rule, acute ailments (those that arise suddenly and are to be treated right away) are treated for a period of 1-30 days. If an outbreak of influenza or eruption of herpes virus is caught early enough, a one or two day treatment will prevent further development of the disease. In the case of acute active hepatitis causing jaundice, a treatment of 15-30 days may be necessary. For chronic diseases (those that have persisted for several months or years), the treatment time is often dependent on the dosage used and the ability of the individual to undertake all necessary steps to overcome the disease (perhaps changing diet, lowering stress, and increasing exercise). When a high-dosage therapy is applied, most chronic ailments can come under control (and some are cured) by a treatment of about three months duration. If the daily dosage is lowered (because of inability to take the higher doses), the treatment time increases-perhaps to 6-12 months. Examples of chronic ailments are autoimmune disorders and degenerative diseases associated with aging. In some cases, herbs are taken daily, for an indefinite period, just as some drugs are taken daily. This is typically the situation when there are genetic disorders or permanent damage that cannot be entirely reversed, problems of aging, and ailments that have been left for too long without effective treatment.
The main reason that more Westerners are turning to Chinese herbs rather than local herbs is because of the vast scope of experience in using the Chinese materials. In every province of China, there are large schools of traditional Chinese medicine, research institutes, and teaching hospitals, where thousands of practitioners each year gain training in the use of herbs. The written heritage of Chinese medicine is quite rich. Ancient books are retained, with increasing numbers of commentaries. New books are written by practitioners who have had several decades of personal experience or by compilers who scan the vast diverse modern literature and arrange the results of clinical trials into neat categories.