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I’m often asked about Chinese herbal medicine.  I use herbal formulas for patients, when needed, and they wonder how these formulas are different from herbs you purchase at health food markets and other stores. 

Herbs are nutritious and used as both food and medicine.  When you purchase them at your local pharmacy or health food store, you often choose individual herbs, or perhaps a combination, known to be helpful for a particular condition such as cold or flu, weight gain, etc.  You may have read about a particular herb being used for a certain condition and you’d like to try it yourself to see if it will help you.  These herbs can often be helpful, but taking them this way can sometimes do more harm than good. 

Herbs have complex properties that direct how they act in our bodies.  Some will direct the medicinal qualities inward to nourish and heal internal organs, some will be directed outward to get rid of an illness, some will move upward to help with symptoms of a head cold, while others will be directed to the digestive system.  If you have symptoms of a cold, for example, and you take certain herbs thinking they will help with the symptoms, you might be directing that cold virus deeper into your body causing it to linger longer, perhaps making you more miserable in the long run.  While most are quite safe, if you aren’t experienced in the use of herbs, for best results it’s often better to seek advice from an herbologist or a health care professional experienced in the use of herbs as medicine to make sure you choose the appropriate herbs for your condition. 

In Chinese medicine, after a thorough diagnosis,  herbs are prescribed to suit each individual condition.  An herbal formula  is not just a group of herbs added together for one effect.  A formula might contain only a few herbs or it might contain several herbs, all designed to work synergistically together.  They’re complex recipes where each substance affects the actions of the others in the formula.  They’re carefully balanced to accentuate strengths and reduce side effects, making them both effective and safe.  The combination of herbs in a formula can be much more therapeutic and effective than each herb individually.

A doctor of Oriental medicine studies herbs and formulas extensively  and must be familiar with individual herbs and particular herbal combinations with a knowledge of their effects on the body.  To be optimal in how they affect a condition, the herbs are organized in an orderly way.  This way of organizing herbs in a formula is called a hierarchy.  Since herbal formulas have been around for thousands of years, the names of the different parts of the formulas were taken from the hierarchy in traditional Chinese society. 

The ingredient that has the greatest effect on the disease, and treats the primary disorder, is called the chief, or emperor.  This usually has the highest dosage in the formula.  The ingredient that aids the chief ingredient, also treating the primary disorder, and which can also treat a co-existing condition, is called the deputy, or minister.  There will be a lower dosage of this herb, and other herbs, than the chief herb in the formula.  The next ingredient in the formula will be the assistant.  The assistant herb can reinforce the effects of the chief or deputy ingredients or it can treat a less important aspect of a disease.  It can moderate or eliminate any harsh qualities or side effects.  It can also sometimes have an effect that is opposite of the chief ingredient if used in very serious and complex disorders.  Lastly, the envoy, or guide,  can focus the actions of the formula on a certain area of the body, or it can harmonize and integrate the actions of the other herbs in the formula.   

You can see how complex a Chinese herbal formula can be, with particular ingredients working together and with particular dosages of each ingredient.  Not all formulas contain the entire hierarchy of ingredients.  Some contain a chief and one or two deputies.  If the ingredients don’t have side effects there won’t necessarily be a need to add an assistant.  Sometimes the chief ingredient focuses on the location of the disease so an envoy, or guide herb, isn’t needed. 

Let’s look at an example of a Chinese herbal formula, called Cinnamon Twig Decoction, or Gui Zhi Tang, in Chinese.  This formula is used for a condition known as wind-cold and is used for releasing the exterior, as it’s called in Chinese medicine.  There are specific indications for using this formula, and certain actions that the formula has on the body.  The formula has cinnamon in it, as the name suggests.  It also contains white peony, ginger, jujube (red date), and fried licorice root. 

The chief in this formula would be the cinnamon.  It releases the wind-cold from the muscle layer.  The deputy is the white peony which aids the cinnamon, helps with immunity, and together they have a powerful effect on the condition.  The ginger is an assistant which helps the cinnamon, the chief, do its job by warming the body and also helps with nausea and vomiting.  The other assistant, the red date, helps the white peony, the deputy, nourish and harmonize.   The envoy, the fried licorice, harmonizes the other ingredients, helping them to work together elegantly. 

A Chinese medicine formula might consist of dried herbs that are decocted, or it may be in a powdered granule form, or prepared in a capsule, tablet or little round pills called tea pills.   While the dried herbs and granules are very powerful, many in our modern society prefer the convenience of the prepared formulas.   Whichever type of formula you receive, you will be given a safe herbal formula based on your individual needs and condition.    


 


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