Chinese Herbalism


Chinese herbalists and Western herbalists use many of the same herbs. The differences between the two therapies stem from the fact that Chinese herbalism is just one aspect of Chinese Traditional Medicine - an ancient and complex system of healing, based on the concept of Qi (chi), which consists of the two opposing forces, yin and yang.

A network of 'meridians' is said to run throughout the body, carrying the Qi - life energy - to all the organs of the body. Any blockage in the flow of Qi, or imbalance between the yin and yang natural forces, results in illness. Emotional turmoil, accidents, infection, poor diet and pollution may disturb yin and yang balance. In addition, each of the organs is associated with a particular element, taste, emotion and season. The practitioner understands that to treat a condition affecting a certain organ, herbs with a particular taste will be most effective. Equally, certain conditions are diagnosed as being 'hot'/'cool' or 'dry'/'damp', and must be treated with herbs with the opposite quality.

FIRE Summer Bitter Joy/sadness Heart, small intestine, tongue, blood vessels
EARTH Indian Summer Sweet Worry/sympathy Spleen, stomach, mouth, muscles, pancreas
METAL Autumn Pungent Grief Lungs, large intestine, nose, skin, nerves
WATER Winter Salty Fear Kidneys, bladder, ears, hair, bones, hormones
WOOD Spring Sour Anger Liver, gallbladder, tendons, eyes

Like most complementary therapies, Chinese herbal medicine is a holistic system: no symptom is treated in isolation. Indeed, the elements are said to influence each other in a specific way, for example, water nourishes wood, which burns as fire… The whole person is treated, not just the problematic condition, which is regarded as an indication of underlying disharmony. It is also the case that the same herb may be used to treat apparently different conditions, if the underlying unbalance is the same.

What conditions are commonly treated?

Children's diseases
Chronic bronchitis
Digestive complaints (such as irritable bowel syndrome)
Disorders of the immune system
Gynaecological problems
Psychological problems
Respiratory conditions
Skin disease (such as eczema, psoriasis)

What does treatment involve?

At the first consultation, the practitioner will assess your state of health by means of verbal and physical examinations. The areas the practitioner will be most interested include: your symptoms, medical and family history, lifestyle and diet, bowel movements, how you react to stress, heat and cold, and whether you are an anxious person. Physical indications include: hair quality, eyes, tongue, what your voice sounds like, pulse.

The practitioner will then prescribe a mixture of herbs, and provide you with them, as whole herbs, roots or powders or tablets. Most often, the herbs are to be boiled in water, which is then drunk several times a day, for a few days. Ensure that you are given precise instructions as to how to prepare your remedy. The 'tea' may taste unpleasant.

At subsequent visits, your progress will be monitored, and any necessary adjustments made to your concoction. Frequency of visits will depend on the specific nature of the condition being treated. Treatment sessions may cost around £20 - £40.

Side effects & cautions

If the quality and purity of the herbs, and the skill of the practitioner are assured, adverse reactions are rare. Not all herbs suppliers in the UK are regulated; East West Herbs and May Way Herbs have quality controls in place, but many smaller importers do not. Possible problems with low quality herbs include: they may not be what they claim to be; they may be contaminated - intentionally or unintentionally - with toxic substances (such as lead, arsenic, mercury, or conventional drugs, such as corticosteroids or paracetamol). Buying herbs from the Internet is not advised.

A herbalist is not required to list the ingredients in a remedy they prescribe. It is therefore essential that this person is trustworthy. The best way to find a practitioner is through the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (see below). Their members have a minimum of five years training, including three in Western medicine.


In 1992, The British Journal of Dermatology reported that Dr David Atherton and Dr Mary Sheehan, consultant dermatologists at the Hospital for Sick Children, London, studied 47 children with severe atopic eczema, which was treated with a herbal preparation devised by Dr Ding Ho and Dr Guang Xu. The majority of the children experienced a 60% improvement within four weeks, with no side effects.

Cerebra (previously The Rescue Foundation Tel 01267 244 200) reports in 1996 that Professor Peng Gui-chen has produced a mixture of herbs, known as 'Jing Ling', which significantly improves the symptoms of ADD, with fewer side-effects than are associated with ritalin.

For further interesting experimental evidence, visit: http://vvv.com/healthnews/chinese_medicine.html


The Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine (UK) Ltd
78 Haverstock Hill
Tel: 020 7281 2898

Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine
PO Box 400
HA9 9NZ Tel: 020 8904 1357

National Certification Commission for Acupuncturists and Oriental Medicine
11 Canal Center Plaza
Suite 300
VA 22314
Tel: 703/548-9004


Ody, Penelope
- DK Secrets of Chinese Herbal Medicine ISBN: 0751335665

Tierra, Michael; Tierra, Leslie
- Chinese Traditional Herbal Medicine Set ISBN: 091495539X

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