Traditional Chinese Herbs – How They Work

Posted by Catherine Woodlock



Herbal medicine has been used for thousands of years in countless cultures across the world. Many pharmaceutical medicines are even derived from different plant materials. Our natural world is truly a garden of medicine, which we enjoy exploring through the art of herbal medicine.

The ancient Chinese methods of diagnosing and prescribing herbs is very unique. From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective, illness arises from a disharmony of the natural functions of the body. The body’s internal environment is a reflection of the external patterns of nature; similarly, humans are intrinsically part of nature.

Thus, through careful and astute observation, the ancient Chinese perceived the internal workings of bodily functions. Specifically, what tendencies cause imbalance, and what can help engage the body’s natural homeostatic tendencies.

What Makes Traditional Chinese Herbs Unique

Each herb has a combination of flavours which have certain actions in the body

  • Sweet – Tonify the body, harmonize digestion, moisten dryness
  • Pungent – Disperses pathogens, move stagnation and invigorate the blood
  • Sour – Astringe and stabilize
  • Bitter – Drain and dry
  • Salty – Softens hardness, scatters lumps, drains stools
  • Bland – Drain downwards, leach out dampness, promote urination. 

Each herb has a thermal nature

  • Herbs can be Warm, Cool, Neutral, Hot or Cold. This is why we often ask questions that help us understand your body’s thermal nature. 

Each herb has a tropism or direction in the body

  • Different herbs go to different places. For example – Ji Xue Teng goes to the fingertips and toes, Bai Zhi goes to the sinuses and forehead, and Bai Shao goes to the Liver. 

Herb combinations

  • Herbs are used in combination to enhance, accentuate, counteract or suppress common or opposing effects. TCM herbs are always prescribed in combination – often between 2-25 herbs are used together in a formula to specifically suit the patient’s specific constitution.

One Thousand Questions

When you come for a visit with a Traditional Chinese Medicine Herbal Practitioner, they will ask you ‘One Thousand Questions’, because they want to know every single detail about your health.

With the myriad of details, we perceive the complex pattern that has brought them into imbalance. We can determine the thermal nature and the functional organ system imbalances. Then, we match the complexities of the constitution and nature of the imbalance with an appropriate herbal formula.

For example, if 7 people are struggling with headaches, each of these people will have different presentations: location of the pain, duration of the pain, nature of the pain, triggers for the headaches, different things that create relief or worsening of the symptoms, and more.

On top of the difference in manifestation of the headache, each person’s other signs and symptoms will be different too. The TCM practitioner takes all of these things into consideration, crafting a different custom blend of herbs for each person, ensuring that the formula matches the presentation of illness as well as the constitution.

With all of these complexities, you can imagine the process of deliberation required for each patient!

Classical Herbal Formulas

Many of the formulas we use are ancient formulations, dating up to 2000 years old. These classical formulas are then modified, depending on the patient’s unique constitution and situation as discussed above. Sometimes, we even write a formula from scratch if there isn’t one to fit a patient’s particular situation. There is a general hierarchy present for the herbs in each formula:

  1. The Emperor Herb – this is the most important ingredient of the formula and has the greatest effect on the principle pattern or disease. 
  2. The Minister Herbs – these herbs aid the Emperor Herb in the treatment of the main pattern and can also act as main ingredients to counteract a co-existing pattern.
  3. The Assistant Herbs – these herbs enhance the effects of the Emperor or Minister Herbs, directly treat a less important aspect of the pattern, moderate any toxic or unwanted effects from the Emperor or Minister Herbs, and sometimes even counteract the Emperor Herb if there is an opposing pattern.
  4. The Messenger Herbs – These herbs guide the action of the formula to a particular region of the body and harmonize the actions of the other ingredients. 

As you can see, the construction of an herbal formula is complex. 

Chinese Medicine Constitutional Approach & Epigenetics

In TCM, we have a concept called the Prenatal and Postnatal constitutions. Essentially, it is the same concept as epigenetics and DNA. The Prenatal constitution is everything that we inherited from the moment of conception,  from our parents – it is the genetic blueprint and DNA that makes up our physical body.

The Postnatal constitution is everything that we take in after conception – the air we breath, the food we eat and the thoughts we think. In short, our lifestyle turns on or turns off different parts of our genetic blueprint. It is in the interaction between these two, within the inner environment of the body, that the field of TCM works. 

Substances which interact with our epigenetics in a positive way are known as epigenetically active substances. Some substances, such as green tea or broccoli sprouts, are epigenetically active substances. This means that they have the ability to interact with our epigenetics in a positive way.

Research

Interestingly, in a study in 2011, researchers analyzed 3294 TCM herbs to find out if they have epigenetically active properties. To their surprise, they found that the 29.8% most commonly prescribed herbs have chemical constituents that interact with epigenetic related proteins!

Researchers also analyzed 200 herbal formulas to find out about their epigenetically active herbs. They discovered that each formula contains epigenetically active properties.

Interestingly, researchers found that when organized from the most actively epigenome interacting herbs to the least actively epigenome interacting herbs the results were consistent with the order of hierarchy used in each formula. These results remained the same even if the dosing is set to one gram each! This means that the most epigenetically active herb was exclusively the emperor herb and the least epigenetically active herb was the messenger herb. The pattern here is absolutely fascinating.

This research suggests that TCM herbs may even be influencing the interaction between our inner environment and our genetic expression. It also suggests that, perhaps, when the Chinese medicine practitioner is piecing together the complex patterns from the constellation of signs and symptoms, they are also treating the way the body’s inner environment can express the genetic blueprint.

At Whole Family Health our TCM specialists are always interested in discussing TCM and a care plan best suited for you. 

If you would like to book in for a free 15 minute consultation to discover if herbs would be a good fit for you, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Resources

PMID: 21785634

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