Herbs Overview



The use of medicinal plants (roots, bark, flowers, seeds, fruits, leaves and branches) as the first medicines is a universal phenomenon. Every culture on Earth, through written or oral tradition, has relied on the vast variety of natural chemistry found in healing plants for their therapeutic properties.
Chinese use of medicinal plants started long ago and can be traced up to 1,000 B.C. Empirical data accumulated over the past 3,000 years and were gradually supplemented by modern research techniques proving their pharmacological values. The continuous improvement over time led to forming an incredibly rich and powerful system relying both on centuries of empirical information as well as advanced contemporary research.
Around the second century B.C., the Classic of Materia Medica listed already 365 healing remedies. In the end of the 16th century, Li Shi Zhen wrote the Ben Cao Gang Mu, or Great Herbal, where the list reached 1892 single herbs and 11096 formula. Today's Materia Medica lists 5000 components, of which 1000 are commonly used.
The only Western country with official herbal monographs, Germany, has a list of 300 medicinal plants.

Study and Place of Herbs in China

The contemporary study of herbal medicine in China occurs within over 26 official traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) universities. General medicine Bachelors degrees are five years long, masters are an additional three years, and PHDs an additional three years. Masters' topics include identification, processing, phytochemistry, botanical pharmacology, and so forth.

This thorough education reflects in the integration of herbs in health care system: Herbal medicine is widely used in contemporary Chinese hospitals and is even specialized by departments (i.e. Internal, Gynecology, Pediatrics, Surgery ...).

The Prescription

One herb can be used in different ailments. Inversely, one ailment can be addressed by different herbs. In addition, different symptoms or syndromes may have the same source and require the same treatment.

For example, headaches can be caused by different pathological conditions. On the other hand, fatigue, diarrhea, or dizziness can actually be caused by a same pathology, such as deficiency of Spleen Qi.

Normally, several herbs are used in a combination, forming a prescription where the individual effects are strengthened, and the functions complemented.

There are three ways to combine herbs. (1) Mutual reinforcement involves combining two similar herbs to create a strong effect. (2) Mutual Assistance is the method of using one herb to promote the action of another one. (3) Mutual restraint relies upon one herb reducing or eliminating side effects of another herb in the combination.
In addition, two other types of combinations show why one should be adequately trained before combining herbs. (1) Mutual inhibition occurs when one herbs reduces the action of another. (2) Incompatibility occurs when the combination of certain herbs produces side effects or become poisonous. This is why people say "Ginseng is a treasure as well as a poison."

The Chinese herbal pharmacopeia is one of the most extensive in the world. Average practitioners know about 100 to 200 individual herbs that can be combined into prescriptions. Experienced practitioners know more than 400 individual herbs.

The combination of two to 12 herbs into a prescription, the amount of each herb in this prescription, and the choice of the herbs easily shows the incredible variety of pathological and pre-pathological conditions that can be addressed through herbs.

Reasons for customizing formulas

This is closely related to TCM theory. Only detail diagnosis leads to an appropriate prescription (formula). This formula is unique to the patient and is modified according to several parameters: (1) symptoms change, (2) symptoms do not change but the quality of symptoms change (i.e. level of fatigue), (3) no change perceived by patient but diagnostic measurements (tongue and/or pulse) change, (4) new condition appears (i.e., flu, food intoxication, periods, or stress), (5) change in Western drugs and/or supplements.

All these parameters are taken into account during patient's follow-up and lead to a modification of the customized formula. This is impossible with patent formula. Pre-mixed formula are similar to over-the-counter drugs. Their indications and potency are limited by nature.


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