By Joshua Harrelson (DAOM '16) June 6, 2016

Though Chinese medicinals are a few thousand years old, to people in the field, it seems as though only practitioners of Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) know much about them. Because we believe that this important knowledge should be available to all, we offer you this primer. Traditional Chinese medicine is a term referring to the medicine studied by acupuncturists, including classic herbal medicine. In this article, Chinese herbs and medicinals refer to the use of the entire Chinese pharmacopeia.

Q: What are Chinese herbs?

A: While Chinese herbs are mostly plant materials, there are also minerals and animal byproducts as part of the Chinese herbal pharmacopeia. Most Chinese herbs-plants or otherwise, are used in formulas, so that many herbs with similar functions may work together to yield a more potent medicine. The formulas can be produced as cooked soups and teas; ground powders and pills; or tinctures, topical creams, and plasters.

Q: Where do Chinese herbs come from?

A: Although there are herb farms in the United States, most Chinese herbs are grown in and imported from China and other parts of Asia, where there is a much longer production history. Companies that import herbs do their own lab testing for heavy metals and pesticides, and to confirm the authenticity of the herbs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does have some restrictions on imports: Some herbs have been outlawed because of improper use by nonherbalists; and now, even licensed acupuncturists cannot import them. The most common example is ma huang, or ephedra.

Q: How many different herbs are there?

A: The short answer is: infinite. Because herbs can include minerals and animal products, the number of herbs is only restricted by our knowledge of their use. One common textbook used in schools has more than 530 substances in it, although at ACTCM at CIIS, we were taught roughly 300 herbs as part of the master's program. Many practitioners with full herbal pharmacies often wind up using 80 to 100 herbs to treat the majority of common ailments.

Q: Does ACTCM at CIIS use any endangered species as herbs?

A: Definitely not. Not only has the school been actively campaigning against the use of endangered species as Chinese medicinals, but also any student of a holistic medicine understands that the idea of hunting of any species down to extinction is abhorrent. Back when tigers roamed and killed humans and livestock, killing one was a positive thing. Using every body part was a good way to avoid waste, and it was found that tiger bones could be used as a tonic for the elderly, similar to modern bone broths. But this is no longer a sustain-able or moral practice, at least here in the U.S. The ACTCM clinic, a strong advocate for the defense of endangered species, has been dispensing herbs for 35 years.*

Q: What ailments can Chinese medicinals treat?

A: Chinese medicinals can treat almost every disease to some extent. In China, it is said that 90% of TCM is herbal, and only 10% is acupuncture. While I do not know if that is specifically true, herbs are very flexible. Some common, treatable problems include digestive disorders, menstrual problems, and common colds. I personally have treated emotional stress, addiction, muscle pain, postsurgical pain, and swelling; and the side effects of medication, including HIV and cancer treatments, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and tinnitus-all with Chinese herbs.

Q: A TCM practitioner could use two different formulas to treat the same disease in two different people, or in the same person on different days. Why is that?

A: Say you come down with a cold. A doctor may recommend a medicine that treats nasal congestion. It will help the congestion and perhaps some other symptoms as well. But we know that congestion is only one part of a cold. With TCM, we could treat a cold based on all involved symptoms, not just the major sign. In fact, an acupuncturist may differentiate a cold with a sore throat from one with an itchy throat. We, as holistic health professionals, look at all symptoms involved on the day we see a person, not just at the major symptom. Therefore our herbs and treatments must also change day by day and patient by patient.

Q: Combining Chinese herbal treatments with Western drugs is a common practice in China. Why is this not used in the United States? Is it a safety issue?

A: In part, yes. Herb-and-drug interactions are still being documented by Western science. However, the practice is common in China because practitioners there have studied the basic interactions and feel safe mixing medications. Furthermore, here in the U.S., it is common practice to sue whenever anything goes wrong, which makes all doctors absolutely insistent on not mixing drugs with anything they are not personally trained in.

Because studies done in China are considered "inferior" to those done in Western countries, the science of herbal medicine is severely handicapped. But more and more doctors are beginning to embrace mixed usage. For example, there is a full in-hospital herbal pharmacy in the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, headed by an Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (DAOM) graduate from ACTCM.

Joshua Harrelson, a licensed acupuncturist (LAc), who practices in Sacramento, CA, loves all things Chinese medicine.

*Read about Lixin Huang's conservation work in CIIS Today Fall 2015.

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