What are Chinese herbs?

 

The word “herb” in English tends to be used to refer only to plants and plant parts. In Chinese medicine, however, the word “herb” may refer to a plant, mineral or even animal part that is used as a medicinal. That said, 90+% of all Chinese herbs commonly used are plant parts of one type or another. Only a small minority are of animal origin – and none used by reputable licensed practitioners in the US are endangered or threatened, ecologically.

All parts of the plant (or animal) may be used as the medicinal substance. Sometimes a plant that has a very medicinally important root may have no medicinal impact at all in the rest of the plant. Roots are the most common plant part used, but stems, leaves, flowers, seeds, whole fruit are all used. Sometimes specialized techniques are applied to change the natural plant substance in some way – this is called Paozhi. Ginger, for instance, can be used as a cooking additive to another herb in order to detoxify it. These techniques allow us to use a single plant substance in multiple ways.

Chinese herbalism developed in much the same way that most global herbal traditions developed – through the accumulated experience and thinking of generation upon generation of ancient people.

However, Chinese herbalism experienced the same quick early development that many aspects of Chinese culture did, and so became very highly professionalized and sophisticated far earlier than most herbal traditions. Combined with the remarkable preservation of Chinese culture in even modern China, what you have is a very advanced herbal tradition that has been continually utilized, challenged, revised and developed for 20+ centuries.

Most herbs used by Chinese medicine practitioners in the US are grown and processed in China and Taiwan – and are absolutely safe

Other Southeast Asian countries contribute particular herbs that are best grown in their climates and soils, and a few are even grown here in the US – such as American ginseng. The herbs are imported through highly regulated and skilled distributors such as our favorites, Spring Wind and Legendary Herbs.

During the customs process, plenty of testing and verification is done to ensure purity and fidelity. While you should be careful about buying random herbs from your local markets, at Watershed we make herbal safety one of our highest priorities.

Herbs are carefully tracked and kept in mold and pest free environments once they arrive at the clinic.

Herbs come in a variety of forms with different costs, convenience factors and rates of efficacy

Raw or bulk herbs are dried and, sometimes, processed with various substances to detoxify or otherwise modify – this work is done at the producer or distributor. These bulk herbs are then put in bags for you and you take them home to boil. The boiling process takes from 30-60 minutes and, depending on the situation, may need to be done 1-2x per week. The liquid from the boiling process can be kept in the refrigerator between doses. Bulk herbs are essential in very severe acute illnesses, in the common cold and flu and secondary infections related to them.

Bulk herbs are also often preferred by people who have difficulties with strange textures, for reasons that become clear when you read about granulated herbs. Finally, bulk herbs can often give a more interesting or holistic experience to treatment by forcing you to see the medicine you are taking directly, and smelling it as it boils.

The most commonly taken herbal form in most American acupuncture offices is granules. Granulated herbs are boiled for you in large industrial facilities and then are centrifuged on to a carrier starch. This starch is chosen specifically to dissolve as quickly as possible – the granule company we use – Legendary Herbs – uses hypoallergenic dextrin as its starch. You'll receive your formula as a group of single herb granules dry mixed together. These granules work somewhat like instant coffee. You add the granules to hot water, let soak and then stir to dissolve.

This approximates the final product of a bulk herb boiling. Because the herbs are not boiled together, it is possible that some synergistic effects that are produced in the more lengthy boiling process are not available in the single herb granule situation. That said, I have found granules to be effective in my practice and they are certainly more convenient since they are pre-cooked.

There are a few formulas I utilized in an encapsulated form – all from my teacher's company Classical Pearls. This is obviously a very convenient form of administration for most people – except those who cannot or will not swallow pills. That said, with pills you have the least amount of interaction (smell/taste) with the herbs themselves. I believe that there is psychological benefit to interacting with the herbal substances that enhances treatment, so I try to minimize this form of administration when I can.

 

 

Written by Eric Grey

Co-founder of Watershed Wellness, Chinese herbalist, Acupuncturist and Teacher. I enjoy Oregon, the natural world, music, Star Trek and philosophy when I'm not practicing and studying medicine.