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Chinese Herbal Medicine

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Interest in the use of medicinal herbs is exploding in the West. The marketplace eagerly responds to consumers' demands for the “latest” herb spotlighted by the media.

Very few of these herbs are from the Chinese pharmacopeia, and virtually none of those few are perceived, used, or understood within the context of Chinese Herbal Medicine. Why is this? It's simply because even most "alternative" health care practitioners are schooled in the European model of symptomatic medicine. Since Oriental Medicine is a complete world unto itself, one generally encounters the herbs it uses only when one has become fluent with the vernacular of that world.

So what’s the difference, you may ask? Is there something special about Chinese herbs?

With origins predating acupuncture, Chinese Herbal Medicine has evolved over the millennia into an extremely powerful treatment modality. To appreciate the depth of this science, let's explore some important distinctions between Western Herbology and Chinese Herbal Medicine. The following chart is a good place to start.

The Western Model

The Oriental Model

Emphasis is on
symptomatic effect.

Emphasis is on
energetic nature.

Often used and researched
as single herbs.

Most often used and understood
in synergistic formulas
of multiple herbs.

Focused on eliminating symptoms.

Eliminates the cause of disease.

Historically used as folk medicine.

Used in a clinical setting
for 2000 years.

Understood within a
symptomatic perspective.

Understood within the paradigm
of a complete diagnostic
system of medicine.

Current research of a few decades.

Clinical efficacy of 2000 years.

Please understand, there is no contention with Western Herbology — it includes many powerful and valuable herbal substances. The comparisons are meant to further the understanding of why Chinese Herbal Medicine is so effective.

The first distinction is the most important to understand. A Chinese herb used within the framework of a Western knowledge base has considerably less potential than when used within the context of Oriental Medicine.

Examples of this are seen in the market place. Chinese single herbs are sometimes used out of context in the West, resulting in less than desirable outcomes. Some are simply abused. They are taken so far out of context that they may result in harm to the consumer. Ma huang (Ephedra sinensis), an important Chinese herb, is a vivid case in point.


Ma Huang from Three Perspectives

  • In the proper hands, used within the framework of diagnosis and treatment which is Oriental Medicine, ma huang is a powerful and highly effective medicine used in the treatment of asthma, allergies, and certain stages of the common cold. The “proper hands” would be those of a doctor of Oriental Medicine, fluent in the principles of the medicine and in the pharmacopeia.
  • In the hands of someone trained in Western herbology, the herb is simply not understood in terms of its true medicinal value. Symptomatic results are observed, but the underlying energetics are not apparent, because they have not been observed for hundreds of years through the filter of a system of medicine within which energetic effects are recognized and relevant.
  • In the hands of “free market enterprise,” those symptomatic effects can be used in such a way that they profoundly reflect the flawed perspective of quick fix approaches to short sighted goals, i.e. more energy and quick weight loss. Whether resultant loss of life was the result of pure greed or simple ignorance, we will never know.


The Power of Chinese Herbal Medicine

What makes Chinese Herbal Medicine so effective is the depth of knowledge surrounding the herbs. Each herb is understood in terms of:

  • Its energetic nature. (Is it hot, warm, neutral, cooling, or cold?)
  • Its effects on different aspects of the constitution (such as qi or blood).
  • The channels, organs, and areas of the body it enters.
  • Its energetic movement and direction within the body. (Does it move upward or downward? Does it astringe inward or expand outward?)
  • Its relationship to, and effect on, syndromes (causes of disease).
  • Its relationship and interaction with other herbs.
  • And lastly, its symptomatic effects.

As a simple illustration of the difference between symptomatic treatment and treating the cause of a conditon, let's say you have "stomach pain." Stomach pain is a symptom — not a cause. So if we look under "stomach pain" in a book of Western Herbology, we might see a list of 40 herbs listed for the treatment of stomach pain.

Where will you start? Perhaps a third or more of these herbs will actually make your stomach pain worse, because the cause of your stomach pain is unknown, and the energetic nature of the herbs is unknown. If your stomach pain is due to "cold," for instance, and you take cold herbs, your condition and your pain will certainly be worse, whether the herb you took is supposed to be "good for stomach pain" or not! In Oriental Medicine stomach pain is understood to be caused by as many as a dozen different basic syndromes. And these syndromes are treated quite differently. Likewise, the results will be quite different from the symptomatic approach, because the cause of the pain will be eliminated, assuming the diagnosis is correct.

This total understanding of the herbs of the Chinese pharmacopeia and their use within the context of a causative diagnosis hints at the potency of Chinese Herbal Medicine. And the Chinese have had lots of “practice” — two thousand years of clinical experience!

Many Western herbologists who see the value of this knowledge have begun the long and arduous task of studying energetic attributes of the Western pharmacopeia. This worthy endeavor is to be applauded because it will benefit many patients in the future, but to acquire this body of knowledge will require more than a few decades of clinical experience or research.


Synergism in Chinese Herbal Medicine

There are three major advantages to prescribing herbs combined into formulas rather than singly.

  • Formulas are more potent than the sum of their parts. Herbs may be added to synergistically increase the strength of the chief herb or herbs, thereby making a more potent medicine.
  • Herbs may be added to a formula for specific effects. For example, herbs are often added to guide the action of the formula to a specific location in the body. Harmonizing herbs, such as gan cao (licorice, which has its own beneficial effects), are added to formulas to soften the harshness of more powerful herbs.
  • And finally, a formula may be custom-tailored to precisely address the individual's constitution and condition.



The differences between Chinese Herbal Medicine and the latest herbal "darling" of the media also reflect our divergent worldviews. Western culture embraces the myth of the "silver bullet" — "The Cure" for each and every disease. "Just give me a pill, please, and make it go away." Physicians practicing ancient medical traditions know that such a concept has no lasting value in medicine or in life. Indeed, this perspective is proving to be the Achilles' heel of contemporary health care.

Systems of traditional medicine the world over recognize that the path which leads from disease back to good health is a complex and deeply layered journey. There is no quick fix. Lasting good health is an unending journey — the result of skillful unraveling of multiple puzzles, requiring, at a minimum, the resources of the physician as well as the sincere effort of the patient. This truth will be rediscovered many times before the unfolding new paradigm is revealed.



In 1990 Dr. Kezhuang Zhao was teaching Chinese Herbal Medicine at the International Institute of Chinese Medicine in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Dr. Zhao’s English was not particularly fluent, but what he lacked in technical language skills, he more than made up for in his remarkably astute understanding of Western thought and personality. We used to joke that he could have hosted Saturday Night Live. Having devotedly studied Chinese Herbal Medicine from childhood, his knowledge of the medicine was cleverly conveyed to us in a way that still inspires gratitude. If only the school had paid him a living wage, the Oriental medicine community might still have access to his brilliant teaching skills. I am fortunate to have benefitted from three years with him.

Dr. Miki Shima was the next major influence in my understanding of herbal medicine. From him, I learned Fukushin, the Japanese art of prescribing Chinese herbal formulas directly from abdominal palpation. Dr. Shima’s thorough understanding of both Oriental and Western medicine makes him a remarkable diagnostician, and it pointed me in the direction that I am generally following to this day.

A more recent influence has come in the form of Jimmy Chang, a Taiwanese pulse master who prescribes directly from pulse and ear diagnosis. Dr. Chang’s unique use of herbal medicine represents a new trend in Taiwanese practice. It incorporates effective local herbs which are not a traditional part of the pharmacopoea of mainland China. Some of these are very effective in circumstances where the population may have become overexposed to herbs which have been used for thousands of years.


The path of learning never ends. It continually builds on the foundation established by generous and brilliant teachers such as these. Their willingness to share the wealth of Chinese Herbal Medicine continues to serve us all so well.



2202 Menaul NE
Albuquerque, NM 87107


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