• I make custom Chinese herbal formulas with raw and granule herbal pharmacies in my office as a non pharmacological solution.
  • I have one of very few raw herbal pharmacies in Maine.
  • 85% percent of my patients benefit from Chinese herbs as a integral component of their treatment plan.

Herbs have been used medicinally by all cultures throughout history. The World Health Organization (Who) estimates that 4 billion people, making up 80 percent of the world population, presently use herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care. An increasing number of Americans are using herbal medicine to treat their health conditions.

An herb is a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, aromatic or savory qualities. Herb plants produce and contain a variety of chemical substances that act upon the body. Many drugs commonly used today are of herbal origin, such as digitalis, derived from foxglove. Indeed, about 25 percent of the prescription drugs dispensed in the United States contain at least one active ingredient derived from plant material.

WHO notes that of 119 plant-derived pharmaceutical medicines, about 74 percent are used in modern medicine in ways that correlate directly with their traditional uses as plant medicines by native cultures. Major pharmaceutical companies are currently conducting extensive research on plant materials gathered from the rain forests and other places for their potential medicinal value

Chinese Herbal Formulas: Why Should I Use Them?

Chinese herbs work synergistically with acupuncture. Used safely and medically for over 2,000 years, Chinese herbs have minimal side effects when prescribed correctly by a trained herbalist. What makes Chinese herbs particularly safe and effective is the art of combining herbs to form a carefully balanced prescription, or herbal formula. (Chinese herbs are rarely taken individually.) These individualized formulas not only treat the patient’s main, presenting problem but also address associated, secondary problems.

Chinese herbal formulas are based on standard, classical prescriptions that have been tried and tested through millenniums of clinical use, and are modified to fit the individual needs of the patient. The herbalist modifies the prescription by taking out unnecessary herbs or those with redundant functions and adding herbs to address any additional symptoms the patient has.

Nourishing and harmonizing herbal formulas serve as excellent tonics, strengthening those weakened by overwork, serious illness, childbirth or poor diet and irregular eating. Herbs with a cooling action can counteract fevers, night sweating and hot flashes. Similarly, herbs with a warming action can help those who feel cold. They work on the mind (shen, in Chinese) as well as the body, treating stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia. Herbs can be used for acute and chronic conditions, e.g. colds, allergies, digestive disorders, menstrual conditions, rashes and pain .

How does the herbalist construct a Chinese herbal formula?

The medicinal use of each Chinese herb is determined by the herb’s properties, therapeutic functions and by the herb’s ability to influence certain channels (where Qi flows) or organs. TCM herbalists combine herbs to form synergistic pairs that enhance their common herbal function. They also include herbs with different therapeutic functions when designing formulas to treat a particular complexity, or subtlety in a patient’s condition.

One to three of the herbs in the formula are considered the ‘chief’ herbs that direct the formula to treating the main symptom or problem. Additional herbs are called ‘assistant’ herbs. Assistants support the chief herbs in treating the main problem and perform other necessary functions or treat additional symptoms, that are not addressed by the chiefs. Assistant herbs help the body to absorb and assimilate the herbs ingested, and counteract any potential adverse side effects that could be caused by the more powerful herbs used.

Often a third type of herbal function is used in the formula, called the ‘envoy’ or ‘messenger herb’. Envoys direct the formula to the particular area of the body requiring treatment, such as the back, knee or chest. Envoys are particularly useful in pain formulas. For example, certain herbs hone to the forehead, top or back of the head, a useful function for treating headaches.

Can I take Chinese herbs instead of drugs?

Yes. Chinese medicine successfully treats most conditions treated by drugs, often with superior results. Examples include: headaches and pain conditions, allergies and sinus infections, insomnia, anxiety and depression, acid reflux disease, bowel problems, rashes and skin conditions, menstrual cramping, Perimenopausal syndrome, hypertension, Parkinson’s disease and chronic illness. Patients don’t like the undesirable drug side effects nor the necessity of remaining on these drugs long term. When beginning TCM treatments, patients on western drugs may continue taking their medications. As the condition improves, they can begin titrating (weaning) off the drug under their prescribing doctor’s supervision. Once they are completely off the drug and symptom free, we begin lowering the herb dose and frequency to see if we can stop the herbs without symptoms recurring. In most cases patients can stop TCM treatment as well.

Will I experience side effects when taking Chinese herbs?

Chinese herbal formulas offer high clinical efficacy with minimal side effects. Patients occasionally notice gas, indigestion or bowel functional changes. When herbs cause side effects, the unwanted symptom stops when patients discontinue taking the herbs. To prevent future recurrence, the herbalist can modify the formula by adding herbs that improve digestive function to counteract the irritating property of the herbs.

Will Chinese herbs interact with the drugs I take?

Because drugs are strong, powerful medicine, they have a tendency to negatively interact with each other and with other substances, such as food or herbs. In the majority of cases patients can take drugs and Chinese herbs without negative interaction problems. In over 20 years of practice with Chinese herbs, I have only had one instance of an issue. 

However, we need to take particular care with drugs with narrow therapeutic margins, such as Cumadin or Plavix (Warfarin). These drugs have a small dosing range that can easily be affected by changes in body chemistry. In this case, the introduction of Chinese herbs will affect the dosing of the drug. Actually, most herbs combine successfully with Warfarin, but herbs that invigorate blood with cause bleeding issues, so herbalists can not give those herbs. When drugs have a narrow therapeutic margin, the prescribing physicians (conventional and TCM doctors) should work together to insure patient safety.

Raw Herbs, Powdered Herbs, Pills and Tinctures

Herbs come in many forms, and patients should work with their herbalist to determine their optimal delivery method. Traditionally in China , herbs were made as teas, or herbal decoctions (a.k.a. raw herbs). The individual parts of plants, minerals or shells are simply cut and dried in preparation for decoction and storage. The herbalist weighs out each ingredient individually, and prepares a packet of ‘sticks and twigs’ for the patient to brew at home into a tea. The patient drinks one cup of tea twice a day, and a packet lasts for two days.

In modern times other forms of processing herbs have become available. The dried, bulk herbs can be processed into a concentrated powder (a.k.a. granulated herbs, or granules). The herbalist still doses and weighs out each herb individually, giving the patient a container containing the powdered herbal formula. The patient mixes the powder with warm water, taking the herbs two or three times daily. Herbs can be extracted in alcohol to make an herbal tincture. The patient places a few dropperfuls of the tincture in warm water and drinks the solution. Another common form of herbal delivery is pills. In this case, herbal manufacturers process commonly used herbal formulas into tea pills or tablets. The formula is decocted, concentrated and mixed with a binder to form the pills. Traditionally, the raw herbs were powdered and mixed with honey to form pills.

Raw herbs (teas) are the most common and traditional way for herbs to be delivered in China . They are also considered to be the most effective form. However; though many satisfied western patients cook and drink these teas, some don’t like the herbs’ earthy or malty flavor, others do not want, or lack facilities to cook the herbs twice a week. Granulated (powdered) herbs generally satisfy these concerns. They are not quite as strong or powerful as the raw herbal teas, but they are a common delivery method and offer satisfactory results. Tinctures, though convenient, are less easily individualized or modified by the herbalist, so are not as precisely targeted as the raw and granulated herbal formulas. Many Chinese herbalists object to the alcohol extraction method. Finally pills, while tasteless and easily swallowed, cannot be individualized and therefore are more broad-spectrum and less specifically targeted than the individualized raw or powdered formulas. In addition, because the pills are small, the patient must swallow a large number of them several times a day to achieve a therapeutic dose near to that of raw herbs. So pills are weaker and less effective than the other forms of herbal preparation.