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Right Tool for the Job – Chinese Herbal Medicine

By Shihan Mary Bolz
President, Acupuncture Plus

The typical Chinese herbal medicine shop conveys a feeling that little has changed for thousands of years. Rows of wooden drawers or transparent jars, simple scales and old fashioned crucibles, and the age-old varieties of the herbs themselves are still used today in a Chinese herbal pharmacy. Allopathic physicians may wonder why they don’t modernize the ancient art of herbal healing. Why don’t they refine and purify the crude herbs, extract and concentrate their active ingredients, and produce modern medications in capsules and ampules? The answer is that the modern Western way is not necessarily nature’s way, and nature’s way, which never changes, is the way the Chinese have been following since the early beginning of herbal medicine. It is also the way that herbal medicine works most effectively.

Because the herbs are whole food, there are very little to no side effects when ingested by humans. Nature has endowed itself with the perfect balance for survival. As Hypocrites, the Greek physician quoted, “Let medicine be thy food and food thy medicine.” When the herb is used in its whole form, all of its chemical makeup and parts are balanced. When only the active ingredients are extracted from the plant, the natural balance of that herb is destroyed. So is the natural balance of the effect that it will have on the human body when ingested. All of the components of the plant are balancing each other. Nature has done this in the most perfect way. Scientists can not get that balance when they extract the chemicals from a plant. Since nature gave us our own medicine already, all we need to know is how to use it.

Take, for example, the Chinese herb ma huang, (Ephedra sinica). The roots and stems contain up to one percent of the alkaloid, ephedrine, which is the world’s most effective preventive for bronchial asthma. This herb has now become scarce and quite expensive in Asia because the Western pharmaceutical industry buys up most of the available supply to refine the “modern” drug ephedrine from it. Refined, concentrated ephedrine brings immediate relief to those who suffer from bronchial asthma, but not only is the cost of the drug high, but so is the cost to the body: in its refined Western form, ephedrine over-stimulates the heart muscle, causing palpitations and hypertension; it raises the blood-pressure; and it induces a general state of nervous sensitivity. Obviously, such effects are exhausting in the long run and intolerable for patients with high blood pressure or weak hearts. It has been used extensively in the “natural” drug industry as an energy booster and dietary supplement. Now, the FDA in the USA has prohibited its use in dietary supplements.

The Chinese herbalist, however, uses ma huang in its crude, natural form. While the desired healing effects are slower, there are no ill side-effects. the plant, in its natural state is more suitable for gradual absorption into the metabolism of the body because the active ingredient, ephedrine, is accompanied by other natural ingredients in the plant. These act as natural metabolic buffers and prevent the shocks to the system caused by concentrated chemicals. Using the raw, unprocessed form, the Chinese herbalist has the option to select not only the appropriate ingredients but also the appropriate method of preparing them for each individual patient. The traditional methods of mixing herbal prescriptions permit the herbalist to balance precisely and tune carefully the net effects of the prescription. These methods of mixing and administering herbal medications are therefore every bit as important as the ingredients themselves.

Mixing herbal prescriptions is a science and an art. The classification of all herbal ingredients according t their essential natures and primary effects is the starting point for mixing effective herbal prescriptions. The herbal distinctions of Four Energies and Five Flavors, ascend-descend, elevate-suppress, tonify-sedate, and moisten-dry all correspond to equivalent distinctions in diagnosis and symptomology. Applying the universal principles of yin-yang and the Five Elements as well as the specific natural affinities of each herb, the Chinese medicine doctor uses the basic herbal classifications to select the right tools for the job of curing disease by matching herbal pharmacology to disease pathology.

It is also worthy to note that Chinese herbal medicine differs vastly from Western folk herbalism in that Western folk herbalism primarily treats disease or symptoms, such as headaches, runny nose, menstrual pain, etc. Chinese herbal medicine, when practiced as part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), is based on an individualized pattern diagnosis and cause of the disease, as well as a disease diagnosis.

Chinese medical diagnosis and herbal medicine is based on looking at and understanding the balance of nature according to the theories of yin and yang, the Five Elements, the Vital Organs, the Vital Connections, and the cause of the disease. The universal principles of yin-yang and the Five Elements apply equally in plants and man, thereby providing a common theoretical framework for both human pathology and herbal pharmacology. The pathology of the disease and the pharmacology of the herbs used to cure it match like lock and key to get the right tool for the right job.

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