Chinese Herbal Medicine: It’s Not Just the Herb Du Jour

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), every herb is classified in various ways:

  1. According to its taste (sweet, sour, salty, bitter or spicy-pungent or bland). 
  2. According to which organs it has an affinity for (spleen, stomach, lung, large intestine, kidney, bladder, small intestine, heart, liver, gallbladder, etc.)
  3. According to its temperature (cold, cool, neutral, warm, hot)
  4. According to the part of the plant: root, rhizome, twig, leaf, fruit. 
  5. According to how it is prepared: raw, dried, roasted, calcined, honey-fried, etc.

In addition, TCM herbs are hardly ever prescribed individually.  Instead, they are combined in traditional ways to enhance their beneficial effects.  Each TCM herbal formula contains:

  • A Chief herb (the primary ingredient which treats the main complaint),
  • A Deputy herb (reinforces the chief herb, and treats any related or secondary symptoms),
  • Assistant herbs modify any harsh effects of the principal herbs and help the body assimilate the formula, and
  • Envoy herbs harmonize the formula and direct it to the appropriate organs.

In TCM terms, echinacea strongly clears heat from the lungs, stomach, and blood.  Therefore, this herb will help someone with a cold, who has a relatively strong constitution, and who also has heat in the lungs, stomach or blood.  However, if the sick person also has signs of Qi/Blood/Yin deficiency or Cold, then echinacea will make him or her feel worse.

When the right combination of herbs are prescribed for a person’s unique constitution, the effects are powerful!  When the wrong herbs are taken in a hit-or-miss fashion, the results will be less than spectacular.

It is important to note that food is also herbal medicine.  Foods are categorized according to taste, organ affinity, temperature, etc.  Once you understand the principles of Chinese Medicine, you can apply these principles to your diet.  Diet is your first line of defense!

Western drugs can also be classified according to TCM principles.  For example, antibiotics are extremely bitter and cold.  They enter and weaken the Spleen.  They impede digestion and weaken the body’s immune system.  If you must take an antibiotic, the use of TCM herbs, as well as dietary therapy can prevent the bad side effects of the antibiotic, while still allowing it to do its job.  Warming, sweet* and pungent herbs and foods would balance the cold and bitter nature of the antibiotic.  TCM herbs can ameliorate the side effects of chemotherapy, radiation and many other Western pharmaceutical agents, while still allowing the patient to receive the full benefit of the drug.

*Note that “sweet” means the mildly sweet taste of many herbs like licorice root, astragalus and ginseng.  Many whole foods are mildly sweet and Spleen tonifying, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, certain meats and whole grains.  Versus, the excessive sweetness in sugary junk food and soft drinks damages the Spleen.