As a practitioner of Chinese medicine, I have recommended taking Chinese herbs to a number of my patients. Some are all in and ready to try them on my suggestion, and others are a bit hesitant. It’s understandable—and a good thing—to want a little more information before taking any new herb, supplement, or medication. So here are some things to know before deciding whether or not taking a Chinese herbal formula is a good idea for you.
What are Chinese herbs?
There are literally hundreds of plants, minerals, and occasionally animals that are found in the Chinese Materia Medica (formulary of herbs). If you’ve ever had ginger, licorice (the real stuff), or even mint, you’ve taken a Chinese herb. In practice, Chinese herbs are almost always mixed into a combination, called a formula. That’s because in most cases, no one single herb does everything that you or your practitioner need it to do.
While Chinese formulas were originally boiled into a tea from raw plants and materials, today you have a number of choices as to how you want to take your herbs. There are concentrated powders and tinctures that are diluted in water, as well as capsules and pills. And you can still make your own herbal decoction by obtaining raw herbs from a Chinese herbal pharmacy. In most cases, you will need to take your herbal formula two to three times a day for them to be effective.
What are the benefits of taking Chinese herbs?
Chinese herbs have very real healing properties. There is a great deal of research on the clinical effectiveness of herbs used in Chinese medicine. Furthermore, a number of Western medications, such as aspirin, digitalis, codeine, and malaria drugs, actually have been developed from Chinese herbs. It’s accurate to say that Chinese herbs have the attention of Western scientists and doctors.
In most cases, your practitioner will prescribe an herbal formula as a way to augment or extend your acupuncture treatment. Herbal medicine works on the same principles as acupuncture. For example, if you were struggling with heartburn and were receiving acupuncture for a diagnosis of Stomach heat, you might be also be prescribed a formula that clears heat in the Stomach, as a way to enhance the effectiveness of your treatment.
The beauty of Chinese herbs is that each formula can be constructed for your individual needs. Your practitioner can create a prescription just for you, choosing from hundreds of herbs and mineral ingredients. In addition, the nature of Chinese herbology is that it’s flexible; your formula can be fine-tuned as your condition changes. In most cases, an herbal formula is prescribed for a week or two, so your practitioner can check in and reformulate it as your health changes.
Many patients want to know if Chinese herbs can treat their particular health condition. Because of the wide variety of substances in the Chinese formulary, as well as the flexibility in combining herbs to suit a patient’s needs, Chinese herbs can be effective for a wide variety of conditions. Some of the conditions that have been successfully treated with herbs include sinus congestion, digestive issues, anxiety, depression, bladder infections, hot flashes, and fatigue.
Are Chinese herbs safe?
There are a couple of things you need to know when considering the safety of the herbs you’re taking. One is the training of the practitioner who is doing the prescribing. Look for an acupuncturist who has also been trained in herbal medicine. Their education should encompass years, not months, of training.
A second safety issue surrounding Chinese herbs is the manufacturer. Reputable manufacturers of Chinese herbs will detail how their herbs were processed, as well as any assays of ingredients and tests for purity that they undertake. You can get this information from either your practitioner or the manufacturer’s website.
What about side-effects?
Side-effects associated with Chinese herbs tend to be minimal and rare. In fact, if you experience any side effects from taking an herbal formula, it’s likely that you’ve been prescribed the wrong formula for your particular condition. This is in sharp contrast to Western prescription medications, which tend to cause a number of side-effects. That’s because prescription medications are strong—they get the job done, but often with the unwanted effect of creating new problems.
The difference is that while prescription meds tend to have a single strong active ingredient, Chinese herbs use whole parts of the plant, and the result is synergistic. That means that all the ingredients work together to achieve a combined effect. Basically, the herbs work, but they’re kinder and gentler.
Are there any drawbacks to taking Chinese herbs?
There are a couple of reasons why you may choose not to take Chinese herbs. The most important is if you’re taking a prescription medication that may interact with the herbs. Furthermore, if you’re taking a number of medications, it may be difficult to sort out any possible interactions that could occur. If this is the case, your best plan is to consult with your Overland Park Chinese medicine practitioner.
Another downside to taking herbs is that the effects tend to be slower than with Western medications. As mentioned above, Western prescription drugs are strong and they work quickly, however in many cases they work by masking symptoms. While your Chinese herbal formula may take a while for you to feel the effects, the goal is to treat the underlying cause of your symptoms so that they won’t reoccur when you’re finished with your course of herbs.
So should you take Chinese herbs for your condition? My best answer is to be informed as best as you can, talk to your practitioner, and ask a lot of questions.
Cindy Chamberlain is an acupuncturist in Overland Park, KS and the founder of Eastern Healing Solutions, LLC. She is licensed in Kansas and Missouri and has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine since 1996.