Herbal Medicines has been used for centuries through out the world. Many indigenous people throughout the world as well as countries like China and India practice Herbalism and use herbal medicines. Herbalism is originally based on traditional and cultural medicine in traditional societies. It is believed based on world statistics from the “World Health Organization” that as of today 80% of the world depends on plants for their medicinal needs. Today in societies like ours Herbal Medicines falls under the category of alternative medicine although many of our conventional pharmaceuticals are plant derived as well.
Chinese Herbal Tradition
Historically Herbal Medicines have been used in China for centuries. The first traditional herbalist according to Chinese Mythology was Yan Emperor, Shennong or Emperor of the 5 grains. He was said to have tasted hundreds of herbs for their medicinal value.
The first Chinese pharmacological manual “Shennong Emperor’s Classic of Materia Medica” lists 365 herbs 252 of them date back to the 1st century or Han period. Other works, which in fact was compiled several thousand years after Shennong’s existence in the Han period listed all the herbs founded by Shennong with given grades and rarity ratings. These are the first Chinese Herbal Medicines pharmacology texts. The writings included 365 medicines derived from plants, animals and minerals. He personally tested these herbs and found antidotes to 70 of the poisonous ones. There are earlier texts that included prescriptions for specific ailments found in MaWangDui Tomb dating back to 168 B.C.E.
Shennong created the idea of using tea by tasting the “tea” of burning tea twigs which were carried up in the air by the fire and landing in a boiling cauldron. The Chinese date the discovery of tea at around the year 2737. Shennong is also credited with the discovery of acupuncture. In fact he is considered the father of Chinese traditional Medicine.
Chinese Herbal Medicines utilizes various medicinal herbs. This is one of the most important aspects of Chinese Traditional Medicine. Chinese Herbal Medicines are combinations of Herbs, plants and roots that are tailored to meet the needs of the patient individually. The herbs are primarily steeped or boiled twice within a given period to make their extraction concentrated.
The practitioner usually uses one or two main herbs that focus on the primary illness or condition. He then adds other herbs to balance the patient’s yin and yang. Yin is female passive energy and Yang is male active energy. It is believed in Chinese medicine that these two polarities exist simultaneously in the body and need to be in harmony with one another to achieve a healthy state of being.
Some ingredients are added to the Chinese Herbal Medicines to offset the toxicity or side effects of a particular herb or main ingredient. There are some Chinese herbs that require a catalyst herb for its effectiveness to occur. The medicine may require a complimentary herb or else the herbal medicine would be ineffective. This added herb serves as a catalyst. It stimulates the properties of the primary herb.
One of the main features of Chinese Herbal Medicines is that it treats the individual. Herbal remedies are made as the patient is treated. They are not pre-made as in western medicine. Chinese Herbal medicine utilizes the whole plant, stems, leaves, flowers, and roots. It will also incorporate various animal parts and minerals in the healing medicinal mixtures. Some of the original traditional remedies requiring endangered animals parts have been replaced with substitutes. Some of the animal parts used in traditional Chinese herbal medicines are rhino horns, sea horses and tiger bones.
Chinese herbal Medicines incorporate the ideas of The Four Natures, Five Tastes and the Meridians.
- The Four Taste utilizes the concept of Yin and Yang and applies them to the herbal treatments. Extreme Yin, which is cold to cool, to neutral to warm to extreme hot Yang are considered when giving the type of herbal medicine to a patient. For example if a person has a cold, their constitution in turn is viewed as cold or Yin and a Yang herb would be used to balance the extreme cold.
- The Five Tastes are related to the type of herb used in a given herbal medicinal prescription. They are pungent, sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Each has a specific function and characteristic. Pungent herbs make a person sweat and also direct the generation of qi in the blood. Sweet herbs, which have a bland taste, harmonize the body systems. Sweet herbs also serve as a diuretic ridding the body of excessive dampness. Sour tasting herbs serve as an astringent or what is called a consolidator. Bitter herbs purge the bowels and release heat, getting rid of dampness by drying them out. Salty tastes decrease and soften masses and also purge the bowels.
- The meridians refer to the organ that the herb interacts with. For example Menthol is associated with the lungs. It is considered pungent and cooling. So if you have a hot lung ailment such as bronchitis you may have menthol in your Chinese Herbal Medicine because it cools the hot toxins caused by hot wind.
Herbal Medicines are based on a holistic system of healing that uses plants or plant derived preparations to treat, prevent and even cure various illness, ailments and conditions. Herbal medicines utilize the whole plant. Roots, stems, seeds, leaves and flowers are used for medicinal purposes from plants that have medicinal properties. It is believed by herbalists the patient is treated according to his individual needs to re-balance his body back to health through the medicinal preparation of particular plants. The herbs are made into teas, used in infusions, made into extracts and tinctures, used in creams and ointments. Chinese Herbal Medicine is also used as a part of a holistic approach in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Lets say you go for an acupuncture session. Chinese Herbs would also be included in your treatment, not just the acupuncture.
For people like myself who don’t like bitter and pungent herbs, the herbs can be ground into powder and put into capsules instead of you drinking a medicinal tea.
There are two ways to make herbal medicinal teas. One is infusion and the other decoction. Infusion is steeping parts of the plant like leaves, flowers and light stems for four to eight hours. Decoction is boiling the herbs and parts like roots and heavy stems for a longer period of time. When the herbs dry some of the medicinal properties are compounded making it stronger. So for the most part for drinking purposes, medicinal teas are primarily dried.
Herbal Medicinal Tinctures are plants that are steeped in a grain or other organic alcohol. When steeped the plants properties are extracted into the alcohol. Plant tinctures are the basis of homeopathic medicines.
Fluid Herbal Medicinal Extracts are more concentrated in strength than tinctures. They are preserved with alcohol or glycerin. Herbal Extracts are made by distilling off some of the alcohol used in the tincture process. The final product is 40 times more potent than a tincture.
Glycerates are herbal extracts that use glycerin as the sole extractant. Glycerates have completely different medicinal properties than alcohol based extracts. Tinctures and Extracts that are considered alcohol free have the alcohol removed after the extraction and replaced with glycerin as the preservative.
Essential oils are the extraction of plant liquids and their aromatic compounds rendering the oil of the plant. Some Essential oil can be used internally and some externally.
Today in many Vitamin shops there are herbal supplements. What herbal supplements are, are basically extraction of the constituents in the plant that is dried and either pressed into a tablet or put into a capsule either in a dried or liquid form.
In order to use herbs for medicinal purposes you have to know what you are doing. Although all plants are “natural” not all plants are safe. Some are poisonous. Some herbs if not taken under the care of a skilled herbalist can have bad side effects or even prove lethal. When in doubt about and herb or plant get some literature on it before actually using it.