Thursday, November 3, 2011

Chinese Medicinal Herbology Explained

-By Jason Bussell MSOM, L.Ac

As an herbalist, I am often asked questions like, "what are some good herbs for allergies?"  Or for migraines, of fertility, or energy, or whatever.  There is never one particular herb (or herbal formula) for a single symptom.  That is not how Chinese medicine works and it has never been practiced that way.  The health magazines always have stories promoted on their covers promoting this fallacy- "The top 5 headache herbs" or similar.  It is important that you understand how Chinese medicinals are prescribed and why.

But first, if herbs have not been practiced that way, why do we have this notion?  It is only to sell us products.  It is much better for me as a manufacturer to sell one formula to everyone, rather than having to customize a formula to each specific patient.  Supplement makers are guilty of this as well- "This pill is specifically beneficial and necessary for everyone in the world!"  There is no magic bullet and no one-size-fits-all.

Every symptom can come from at least two different imbalances.  We do not prescribe based on the presenting symptom but rather on the underlying imbalance that is causing the symptom.  The same imbalance can cause different symptoms in different people and require the same treatment.  The same symptom can be caused by different imbalance and require different treatments.  There is a saying in Chinese Medicine:  Same disease, different treatment.  Different disease, same treatment.  This is not just Confucious-style obscure communication.  It makes sense and is how Chinese medicine is practiced.

One important difference in the way that the Chinese view the body compared to the way we in the West tend to see it is:  The Chinese see us as being part of our environment (and nature) whereas in the West we view ourselves as distinct and separate from nature.  Because of the Chinese view, they tend to understand the way things work inside the body in terms of how they work outside the body.  In nature, things can be too hot, too cold, too damp, too dry, too still, too active, too windy, too replete, too deficient, etc.

Too much heat in the body can manifest as myriad symptoms.  What does heat do in nature?  It makes things red, it makes things move (like a still pot of water coming to a boil), it can dry things out, etc.  In the body, heat can give you fever, a red face, agitation, hypertension, constipation, scanty menses, insomnia, red rashes, and more.

What does cold do in nature?  It makes things pale.  It makes things contract and slow down.  Heat is necessary for transforming water, so too much cold can impair water metabolism.  Too much cold in the body can manifest as stiff joints or arthritis, feeling cold, constipation, excessive urination, and much more.

You may have noticed that Constipation is on both lists.  Heat can dry out the stool and make it difficult to pass.  Cold can make things contract and stop moving.  So it is not enough for me to know that you have constipation.  I need to evaluate you to determine why you have that constipation and that will help me decide what formula to give you.  If you have cold constipation and I give you a cooling formula, it can make you worse.  This is why you should never take herbs based on an article or the advice of a friend or store clerk.  As much as herbs can help in the right circumstance, they can harm when not used properly.  When you hear about adverse reactions to herbal formulas it is usually when the patient self-prescribed and did not seek the guidance of a trained herbalist. 

So I can see two patients with constipation and give them completely different formulas. I could see patients with constipation, arthritis, wheezing, and excessive urination and treat them all with the same formula.  Same disease, different treatment.  Different disease, same treatment.

Herbs have been studied continuously for the past 4,000 years.  The Chinese invented the printing press and the first thing they started printing with it were medical texts.  The field of Chinese medical herbs is the result of thousands of years of experimentation, observation, and documentation.  Because of the written language, a new physician can start his or her research at the end of the previous generation's research.  The knowlege base has been expanding for millenia.  In the West, we lost all of our classically-gained knowledge with the fall of the Roman empire.  It was not until the Renaissance that we started rebuilding, so our medicine is at best some 500 years old. Chinese medicinal herbs are safe only when properly prescribed. 

In Chinese medicine, there is a saying:  If an herbal formula causes unwanted side-effects, then it is clearly not the right formula.  Can you imagine if we had such expectations from Western medications?  We accept side-effects as just part and parcel of treatment.  We don't have to.  I am not anti-drug.  Medications have helped billions of people too.  For every medication, it will be a great fit for 10-30% of people, a fair fit for about 50% of people, and it will be a lousy fit for another 10-30%  The problem with medications is that they are not easily modified for those patients in whom they are not a great fit.   And there are so many instances where the latest miracle drug has to be pulled off the market because it is killing people.  I worry about every new drug just because they have not been studied long enough.  This is one of the things that I love about Chinese medicine- it's longitudinal research.  I don't prescribe anything for a patient that has been studied for less than 1000 years. 

When you have an ailment, I suggest you start your treatment with the safest, longest-studied, and most natural remedies.  If they fail, then you can progress to the more risky and powerful drugs.  But why take risks if you don't have to? 

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