An Introduction to Chinese Herbs
The herbal tradition of China is valued scientifically, as well as being a fascinating and popular tradition. Scientists working in China and Japan during the past four decades have demonstrated that the herb materials contain active components that can explain many of their claimed actions. Modern drugs have been developed from the herbs, such as treatments for asthma and hay fever from Chinese ephedra, hepatitis remedies from schizandra fruits and licorice roots, and a number of anticancer agents from trees and shrubs. Several popular formulations produced in China, called “patent medicines,” are relied upon daily by millions of Chinese (in China and abroad), such as the Bupleurum Sedative Pills and Women’s Precious Pills that invigorate the energy, nourish the blood, calm tension, and regulate menstruation, and Yin Chiao Jie Du Pian, which is a reliable treatment for the early stages of common cold, sore throat, and influenza.
More than three hundred herbs that are commonly used today have a history of use that goes back at least 2,000 years. Over that time, a vast amount of experience has been gained that has gone towards perfecting their clinical applications. According to Chinese clinical studies, these herbs, and others that have been added to the list of useful items over the centuries, can greatly increase the effectiveness of modern drug treatments, reduce their side-effects, and sometimes replace them completely.
What are the Different Herb Applications?
The two popular forms to replace the standard Chinese preparations are extract powders (or granules) and smooth, easy-to-swallow tablets or capsules. The extracts are made by producing a large batch of tea and then removing the water and producing a powder or tiny pellets; the resulting material is swallowed down with some water or mixed with hot water to make a tea. Tablets and capsules contain either powdered herbs or dried extracts or a combination of the two. Despite the convenience, one must take a substantial quantity of these prepared forms (compared to the amount of drugs one takes). For example, doses of the dried extracts range from 1-2 teaspoons each time, two to three times per day, and the tablets or capsules range from about 3-8 units each time, two to three times per day.
How are Herbs Collected?
In some cases, a practitioner of Chinese medicine will design a specific formulation for an individual patient, which might be changed frequently over a course of treatment. In other cases, one or more formulas already prepared for ingestion without modification are selected for use. The outcome is monitored, and the determination of whether to continue the current formula, change to another, or discontinue use is made on the basis of actual versus desired outcomes and the obvious or subtle effects of using the herbs.
The main reason that more Westerners are turning to Chinese herbs rather than local herbs is because of the vast scope of experience in using the Chinese materials. In every province of China, there are large schools of traditional Chinese medicine, research institutes, and teaching hospitals, where thousands of practitioners each year gain training in the use of herbs. The written heritage of Chinese medicine is quite rich. Ancient books are retained, with increasing numbers of commentaries. New books are written by practitioners who have had several decades of personal experience or by compilers who scan the vast diverse modern literature and arrange the results of clinical trials into neat categories.
American practitioners are usually trained at any one of about 45 colleges in the U.S., with a three- or four-year series of courses that include basic Oriental medical theory, acupuncture, and herb prescribing. Certification is offered at the national level and licensing or registration is offered now by most states. Many doctors from China have come to the U.S. and currently offer professional services throughout the country, but most often in the larger cities. Continuing education is provided through numerous symposia offered by the colleges and professional organizations devoted to Oriental medicine. Often, these meetings focus on the treatment of specific diseases or training in the use of a specialized acupuncture technique or valuable herb formula.
Chinese herbs are provided in the U.S. as food supplements, now considered as OTC (over-the-counter) drugs. They are not strictly regulated by the FDA except for monitoring the cleanliness of manufacturing facilities (for those materials made in the U.S.; for the imported items, FDA monitors only the listing of ingredients to help ensure no toxic herbs are being used). Quality of preparations is indicated by GMP (good manufacturing practices)and can be found on the herbal preparation label. Random testing of crude herb materials and herb products made in the U.S. indicate that they are free of harmful bacteria and chemical contaminants. Imported products must be used with some caution, as some of them are problematic, yet get past the investigators. There are a few patent remedies that are labeled with only herb ingredients, but also contain several Western drugs. Some patents from China contain only Western drugs (and say so on the box, in Chinese), but purchasers may be unaware of this because they are told only that this is an effective remedy that came from China. Thus, imported Chinese herb products should be taken solely on the basis of a prescription from a trained health professional. Four Gates Oriental Medicine only uses GMP products that contain no Western drugs or toxic chemicals.
Negative interactions with Western drugs have not been noted for any of the common herb materials when used in the normal dosage range. A few people experience allergic reaction to individual herbs, a problem that often cannot be predicted in advance since these are idiosyncratic responses. A more common reaction is a gastro-intestinal response, which might include constipation or diarrhea, nausea or bloating. Such reactions may occur if the individual has poor digestive functions, or if the herbal formula is not quite right for the needs of the individual. Taking the herbs at a different time in relation to meals may be helpful in resolving some of the gastro-intestinal reactions. In a few cases, use of Chinese herb formulas may cause dizziness, headache, agitation, sleepiness, hungry feeling, lowered appetite, sensation of heat or cold, or other sensory reactions. If such responses persist after about three days of using the herbs, it may be necessary to change formulas.
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