Contemporary Chinese Herbalism
by Dr. Joseph Thomas
Printed in: Natural Horse Magazine
Volume 11, Issue 1
Medicinal herbs in our country have become a popular “do it yourself” alternative to allopathic medicine. As people are becoming more aware of the need to tend to their own health and the health of their horses, herbs are a natural choice. Typically, people choose their herbs by "matching" the particular health concern with those listed either on the bottle of the herb or from a chart of relevant symptoms. If the herbs are used in combination with other herbs, those herbs are also chosen similarly with no medical theoretical base or interactive consideration. Although this use of common “medicinal” herbs may have therapeutic value for some mild health issues, it cannot be effective for any serious, complex, or chronic illness. This is not because the herbs aren’t potent but rather that they are not targeted to the source of the problem.
Chinese Medical Theory
Unlike this symptom-to-herb selection process of herbs that is typical in Western herbalism, Chinese herbalism is rooted in Chinese Medical Theory. This means that herbs are formulated following the “rules” and “systems” of a complete and effective medical system and not on a one-to-one relationship between symptom and herb.
Chinese medicine is founded on the understanding that working with nature is far superior to trying to fix it. In other words, Chinese medical theory begins with the assumption that nature has provided a living being with a “physiology” that normally contains all it needs to “self-regulate” and adjust to internal and external influences to maintain health. When this self-regulatory system breaks down, the physician of Chinese medicine works to assist the being’s physiology to return back to its natural capability of self-regulation so as to recover health and self maintenance. There is no attempt to “fix the problem” or treat the symptoms directly. Rather the root of the illness is the focus of intervention. To use an analogy from nature, if the root of a tree is diseased, you will see it in the branches, i.e. the symptom. But if you treat the branch, and ignore the root, the tree will continue to wither.
Chinese Herbal Materia Medica
The experienced herbalist of Chinese medicine has available a pharmacopeia of thousands of herbs, each extensively researched and compiled into the current Materia Medica of Chinese Herbal Medicine.1 Each herb is categorized in the metaphorical language of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM); e.g. exterior releasing, heat-clearing, wind-damp dispelling, blood-invigorating and stasis removing, water-regulating and damp-releasing (this is just a small illustration of categorizations). Within each category the herbs are further categorized according to a number of other aspects, e.g. properties, channels entered, contraindications, chemical constituents and an extensive compilation of therapeutic actions and indications.
Each herb in Chinese medicine is delineated according to “sections”, with each section having different therapeutic actions. As an example, the root of the herb dang gui is divided into three sections: the body of the root (dang gui shen), the head of the root (dang gui tou), and the tail of the root (dang gui wei). While all are considered within the herb’s category in the Materia Medica, each is used differently depending on the effect to be enhanced and the properties of other herbs to be combined with it.
TCM’s medical metaphors and their relationship to nature are embedded in the Materia Medica. For example, the herb’s therapeutic actions are described in terms relating to nature and natural function and natural “disturbances,” e.g. wind, heat, cold, damp, obstruction, regulating, salty, bitter, sour, astringent, and so on. These actions are well delineated according to organs and to organ functions and dysfunctions so that herbs can be formulated in order that health can be “allowed” to return, not forced to happen.
In recent decades there has been extensive research into the world of Chinese medicine, particularly herbalism.2 This work has added important information to the knowledge base of the Materia Medica regarding the chemical compounds and the pharmacological effects of each single Chinese herb.3,4 Researchers who concentrate in both pharmacology and Chinese herbalism have contributed valuable information concerning the possible drug-herb interactions for each herb in the Materia Medica.5 A practitioner can now know what, if any, inherently toxic effects may be found in a particular herb and at what levels it has a toxic effect, how to counteract the toxicity, as well as possible drug-herb interactions for people taking medications.
Although many of the herbal preparations on the market are food grade, the premier herb companies have applied current technology to prepare their herbs to pharmaceutical grade. To meet this standard, each herb is screened, tested and prepared with surgical precision in a bio-medical laboratory so that each herb is guaranteed GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) pharmaceutical grade. This insures that they are free from any chemical contaminants, additives, toxicity, pollutants, and heavy metals. In order to insure the safety, purity, authenticity and therapeutic action of the herbs prescribed to horses and people, this is essential.
Herbalists of Chinese medicine do not prescribe a single herb for any health issue. When an herb is used in isolation, the therapeutic actions are not directed to the source of the issue, the properties are diffused, and the body can only use it as a general tonic. Without the direction of a combination of other herbs to synergize the effect, the body is unable to sort out the intention of use of the single herb from all of its inherent therapeutic actions. It is through the precise “grouping” of the single herbs within the formula that the therapeutic properties of each of the single herbs are united for a cohesive intent. This is why the careful and precise blending of a number of herbs, strictly following the rules of Chinese medical theory, is essential to provide direction in a language that the body can understand.
About the author:
Joseph Thomas, PhD has been a practitioner of Chinese medicine for twenty five years. Prior to his commitment to Chinese medicine Dr. Thomas was on the research staff at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engaged in medical research. He united these two skills with his life-long love of horses and developed For Love of the Horse, a Natural Health Horse Care company focusing on his personal precise Chinese herbal formulations for a vast number of horse maladies.
- Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica, 3rd edition; D. Bensky, S. Clavely, E. Stoger, 2004, Eastland Press
- Wu Yao You Xiao Cheng Fen Shou Ce (manual of Plant Medicinals and their Active Constituents) 1986
- Zhong yao Yao Li Du Li Yu Lin Chuan (Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Clinical Applications of Chinese Herbs), 1998
- Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi (Journal of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine) 1988
- Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology, J.K. Chen and T.T. Chen, Art of Medicine Press, Inc. 2004