How we utilize herbs

Chinese herbal medicine enjoys a three thousand year tradition. Countless books have been written about herbs in China, and all across Asia hundreds of journals publish research on herbal medicine annually. The knowledge and experience garnered in this tradition is immense, culminating in arguably the most advanced and specialized herb tradition still in practice. Herbs are often used in conjunction with other treatment modalities such as acupuncture, Qi Gong, and diet and lifestyle adjustments. This combined approach is often important for treatment and cure.

Knowledge and use of herbs in East Asia is based upon understanding the relationships between individual herbs when used in combination. Thus, herb prescriptions nearly always consist of formulas containing two to fifteen herbs, cooked together and drunk as a decoction (broth). In some cases powdered herbs, herbal pills, externally applied herbs, and herbs to be cooked in foods are prescribed.

Below I have provided some detailed general information to help you better understand Chinese herbal medicine, and what to expect from your treatments.

The basic idea - elegance over coercion

East Asian Medicine does not maintain the illusion that mankind is separate from nature. The human body is a continuation of the natural world, and herbs are part of our intrinsic and complex relationship with nature. The plants, minerals and animals used as herb medicinals possess qualities that relate in beautiful exactitude with how the body functions. Western pharmaceuticals are an extension of herbal medicine, with nearly all modern drugs rooted in traditional herbal remedies. The primary difference between herbal medicine and pharmaceuticals is emphasis. Western drugs extract one primary chemical constituent, concentrating its effects into a coercive agent that forces the body to act in the way the drug wants it to. Herbs, as whole plants, are gentler, their effects less forceful and more elegant in their effectiveness. When practiced correctly, herbal medicine produces noticeable results relatively quickly, but without dangerous side effects.

Herbs and diagnostic theory

East Asian medicine recognizes that no two patients and no two diseases are exactly alike. Thus, there are no simple "disease = herb" correlations. For example, when treating a cough there may be more than twelve potential diagnoses for that cough. The herbs for each diagnosis may be completely different, and herbs that treat one person's cough may make another person's worse. It has long been recognized in East Asian Medicine that herbs beneficial for one person may be harmful to another, though the disease may seem to be the same. Herb prescriptions are always matched to the individual patient, and to how that patient's disease manifests. This is called "same disease, different treatment", and distinguishes East Asian Medicine from many other herbal and medical traditions.

Construction of herb formulas

The knowledge accumulated about herb medicinals over the past three thousand years is almost entirely based upon how individual herbs behave in combinations. Herbs are always combined with at least two, but usually five to fifteen different herb substances. Each herb in a formula has a specific function in relation to the other herbs. In general, herb formulas are constructed in such a way that (1) symptoms are addressed to alleviate immediate suffering, (2) the underlying root problems are addressed to provide cure (3) support herbs are provided to enhance the beneficial qualities of the chief herbs, (4) if necessary, controlling herbs are included to protect against less desirable effects of certain herbs, and (5) courier herbs target specific areas of the body. In this way, herb formulas are balanced and focused at specific targets, allowing for accurate treatment trajectories and clear feedback for the practitioner.

Are herbs safe?

Herbs are safe in the hands of a well trained and experienced herbalist. It is not safe to simply take herbs just because you think they are “all-natural” and are sitting out on the shelf of a health store. Herbs are powerful medicinal agents, and no competent Chinese herbalist will tell you that they lack any potential for harm or side effects. Herbs simply need to be treated with respect and care, and not administered lightly.

Chinese herbal medicine has a three thousand year tradition with many well- established and detailed precautions. Herbs are still the most prevalent form of medicine worldwide, with billions of people taking herb prescriptions each year. Chinese herbs comprise a large portion of the herbs administered worldwide. Most of the herbs in the Chinese Materia Medica can be taken long-term without any harmful effects. However, only a trained practitioner will know how to prescribe correctly to ensure safety.

All of the herbs used at our clinic are tested for correct identification, and many of the most commonly used herbs are tested for pesticides, fungicides and other contaminants. When possible, organically grown herbs are provided.

Are herbs safe to take with prescription medications?

A fair and well-researched article from an herbalist's perspective can be found at I recommend reading it. Below I give my own brief take on this issue.

This is an area of intense debate, often with opinion masking factual evidence on all sides. Clinical experience shows a low occurrence of harm when herbs and pharmaceuticals are taken concurrently. Out of millions of people who report taking medicinal herbs each year in the United States, only a handful of negative herb-drug interactions are reported. Most of these are with the drug Warfarin (Coumadin), or the Western herb, St. John's Wort. Otherwise, the majority of dangers described about herbs by doctors and nurses are based upon laboratory studies rather than actual patient experiences, and are given on a "may cause" rather than a “will cause” basis. Unfortunately, the dosages prepared for these studies usually far exceed the normal or safe dosage utilized in clinic, and fail to take into account that herbs are often used in combinations rather than alone. While these studies are important in gaining further understanding on how herbs work and interact with medications, their clinical relevancy is not readily apparent. This is unfortunate as the most accurate data possible would be helpful to have.

The prevalent research in China and other Asian countries is that a combined approach utilizing both herbs and pharmaceuticals results in better clinical outcomes for many diseases than when either is used alone. Thus, in Chinese hospitals millions of patients are prescribed herbs alongside pharmaceuticals and acupuncture every year. Herbs are not simply used simultaneously with pharmaceutical medications, but are prescribed intentionally to enhance the effects or reduce the side effects of medications. An excellent example is in cancer treatment, where herbs are prescribed to both potentiate the anti-cancer effects of chemotherapy and radiation, and reduce nausea, fatigue and other side effects. While this level of integration is rarely utilized in the West, the widespread use of integrated medicine in Asia supports the clinical experiences of most Chinese herbalists here in the US whose patients are often taking medications and herbs without problems.

Still it is necessary to be as cautious as possible, and not prescribe herbs in an unsafe way. Herbs will be prescribed carefully when administered to those on medications, and will not be prescribed to any patients taking the drug Warfarin.

Will I need to take herbs forever?

No, only in certain chronic or incurable diseases can treatment regimens be seriously long-term. The ideal purpose of East Asian Medicine is to simultaneously relieve symptoms and reverse the root of the disease process as quickly as possible to keep you out of the doctor's (and acupuncturist’s) office.