East Mountain Acupuncture | Chinese Herbal Medicine

Introduction to Chinese Herbal Medicine

In recent years, herbal medicine has evolved into a multi-million dollar business, spurred by media reports of effective treatments for many common ailments, including colds and flu, depression, anxiety, headaches, menstrual cramps, and menopausal symptoms, among other conditions. In any bookstore, self-help books offering herbal advice are easy to find.

Less familiar to most Americans is the branch of herbal medicine that developed within the domain of Chinese medicine. In use for thousands of years in China, the extraordinary power of Chinese herbology lies not solely in the uniqueness of the substances themselves – some we can find in our own backyards – but in how they are used. Chinese herbs are administered in formulas of anywhere from two to 20 individual herbs, in combinations that are carefully designed to ensure that the synergy of the formula is much more effective than the sum of its parts. In a typical formula, certain herbs will be geared to dealing with the main health issue while others will offset the potential side effects of the other herbs. There might be supporting herbs to increase the potency of the principal herbs, and still other herbs to direct the action of the formula to a particular part of the body. A formula for treating a cough, for example, might have a component focusing on drying phlegm, another to loosen the phlegm to allow it to be expelled more easily, another guiding the herbs in the formula to the throat, and another still to strengthen the energy of the lungs, which can be depleted from chronic coughing.

One of Chinese herbal medicine’s great strengths is its ability to discern and treat health problems at different levels. Especially for chronic illness, it is thought that there is a “root” or underlying cause and a “branch” or main symptom for any given health issue. To identify and treat just the symptom often yields an incomplete resolution of the problem, a bit like plugging leaks in a dam without taking the time to repair the dam structure. With chronic respiratory problems, for example, phlegm congestion can be a result of a digestive weakness. To treat it effectively, it may make sense to not only disperse the phlegm to allow the person to breathe more easily, but to improve the digestion so more phlegm isn't created.

The key to safe and effective treatment with Chinese herbs is consultation with an herbalist well trained in their use. Chinese herbs are like very focused prescription medicines, not one-size-fits-all over-the-counter cures. Two patients with seemingly identical health complaints may require very different formulas.

Of all the issues regarding herbal medicine these days, none has gotten as much attention in the press as safety. Although the rate of reported adverse reactions to herbal medicines has been extremely low over the past decades, a few high-profile incidents have created a high level of concern and scrutiny.

For the most part, reports in the media of serious side effects from Chinese herbs have involved the inappropriate use of herbs without the guidance of a qualified herbalist. In one such case, a Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler who had been taking an other-the-counter medication containing ephedra to help lose weight collapsed and died after a baseball practice session. The ephedra (which is derived from the Chinese herb ma huang ) was cited as a contributing factor in his death. What was not reported was the fact that, according to Chinese herbal medicine, ma huang should only be used in very moderate doses (far less than the pitcher consumed), and primarily for respiratory problems, not weight loss. It is contraindicated in cases of heart problems, from which this athlete apparently suffered. More recently, the FDA banned the sale of ephedra, except when dispensed by an acupuncturist or practitioner of Oriental Medicine. The important message here is that although there are some herbal medicines that have dangerous potential side effects, even they can be used effectively and safely with the proper guidance. A thoroughly trained practitioner of Chinese herbology understands potential side effects of herbs and how to prevent them, when to avoid a particular herb altogether, and when there are safety issues regarding possible interactions between herbs and prescription drugs.

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