Chinese herbal medicine is an ancient healing modality that dates back thousands of years. Different herbal theories and styles of healing have been developed throughout different Chinese dynasties, many of which modern practitioners draw from today in their herbal remedies for patients.
Chinese herbal medicine is famous for its delicious cooking smell and scrumptious taste (I had you there for a moment didn't I?). Actually it is the opposite. Some herbal brews can be quite the experience on the nose and the taste buds! But not all of them, it just depends on what is prescribed according to the needs of the patient. And patients will often report that at a certain stage of their herbal medicine treatment timeframe, the same batch of herbs begins to taste different, which is a sign that the herbal formula may need to be adjusted according to what has already been balanced in the patients health.
Traditionally practitioners were either herbalists or acupuncturists. Each is an entire universe of medicine. It is a modern day concept that Chinese medicine practitioners will offer both herbs and acupuncture.
Just like any other medicine, Chinese herbs are extremely powerful, but they need to taken correctly. There is a good margin or error that exists between practitioner and patient when it come to clear communication, expectations, and overall understanding of how they need to take their herbs.
In this article I would like to break down some of the common misunderstandings of Chinese herbs, and the errors that can occur in a herbal medicine treatment plan.
1. The herbs can be prepared and taken differently according to tradition and modern convenience:
If you have ever been prescribed Chinese herbal medicine it could have been given to you in a variety of different ways. Traditionally each herbal formula had a very specific way that it was intended to be prepared and then administered (how you ingest it). Depending on whereabouts in the body the practitioner was guiding the herbs, the formula may have been given in a liquid, a powder or a pill. So let's briefly go over the different ways in which you might be given your Chinese herbal medicine and explain the differences between them.
Granules are most definitely a modern day adaptation of herbal medicine. If you are given a granulated formula it will look like a powder in a small container and you will be instructed to take 1-2 teaspoons mixed with hot water 2-3 times per day for a specified period of time.
A granulated formula has been created by a herbal company who have done the arduous task of cooking the herbs for you, and then preparing them into a bound powder for you to take in a quick and easy way.
The benefit of granules is definitely the convenience. And whilst they do often glean great results in terms of improving health conditions, granules are overall seen to be less potent when compared to cooking up the raw herbs yourself. And sometimes if patients have been taking granulated herbs for a while and they are not helping to create any change, raw herbs will be encouraged as a step up in the treatment plan.
This is the more infamous version of Chinese herbal medicine. You get given a bag of sticks, twigs flowers and fruit (if you are lucky), and then you are instructed to cook the bag of herbs multiple times until you are left with the liquid extract. The liquid extract then needs to be consumed 2-3 times per day for a specified period of time.
Cooking up her herbs is time consuming, and this is the typical reason a patient might prefer granules. 2 weeks worth of a herbal formula might be given to you in roughly 6-8 bags al containing the same herbs. Each bag needs to be cooked up 3-4 times, and each cook takes about 30 minutes. So it is quite the process. All bags don't have to be cooked up on the same day. You might do 2 bags, and then cook up another 2 bags in 4 days time. Although it takes a while, I will say it is a really lovely experience to prepare the herbs, and when I am cooking them I will also be cooking my food for the week, or doing house chores so it feels like the experience is an all-round self-care/getting on top of things kind of afternoon. I fully appreciate that many people don't have the time to do this, and that is when the granules are most appealing.
A last point to be made here, is that cooking up the raw herbs yourself can give you a really lovely personal connection with the medicine. Seeing the different herbs, touching them, watching them change as you cook them can be quite special. Especially if you have a real fondness for plants, natural medicine, being in nature, and being really included in your healing journey rather than other people simply dictating your health and treatment interventions to you.
Herbal powders are not really prescribed frequently in modern times. There are plenty formulas that are traditionally intended to be taken as a powder, but mostly you will see these formulas given in granule form or raw.
Raw herbs can be ground into a very fine powder and taken as if they were a decoction. You need a very good herb grinder to do this as you want the finished product to be very fine, not course and chunky sitting in the bottom of your mug. There are some fabulous folk making this more readily available these days, but these formulas will typically only be sold to practitioners not direct to the public so as to protect the public from self-diagnosing without proper medical guidance from a qualified practitioner.
My understanding is that a raw herbal formula that has been ground into a powder is a very strong and powerful way to take the herbal medicine. And from my own personal experience I can say that this administration of the herbs gets some very amazing results.
These sweet little bottles of herbal medicine are filled with little black pea sized pills, each containing a very weak dose of the herbal formula. They are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased over the counter. This is typically ok for the public as the dosages of the formulas contained within are very weak. These can be very helpful to have around for times when you might have indigestion from overeating (Christmas day anyone?), or need a little support from an upset stomach or painful periods, but they are not very strong if you needed some serious help for very heavy periods, chronic insomnia, anxiety, hot flushes and other big health imbalances. For more serious ailments, raw herbal decoctions or granules will be a better choice.
2. The dosage that has been prescribed for you is intentional and needs to be taken as described.
All too often Chinese herbal medicine gets a bad rap for not working. But I have to ask the questions, did people take their herbs correctly? If you take too little of the herbs, or too much of the herbs, they will not work in the manner that the practitioner expects them to. A good analogy here is taking 1/5 of a Panadol and hoping that it will bring pain relief for a headache. It probably won't because the dose you have taken is far too small.
The same goes for people taking too much of their herbs, thinking it won't matter because it is "natural" or that they are "only plants". I once worked with a chef who went to see a Chinese herbalist for digestive issues, and she gave him a number of packets of herbs to be taken strategically over a week. He was impatient and decided to take them all at once, and to his horror, spent half a day with violent diarrhoea and then blamed the Chinese medicine practitioner for not fixing his digestive issues.
I completely appreciate that the remembering to take the herbs is one of the biggest roadblocks to the medicine. But if a patient is only having one dose of the herbs a day (approximately 3 grams), and a daily intake is three doses at 3 grams, then the practitioner will be assuming that the patient is taking 9 grams per day. If the intention was 9 grams but the reality is only 3 grams are being ingested, then that is a little bit like taking a child's dose of the medicine and hoping it will work. It is an ineffective dose.
On the back end, each herb prescribed needs to be considered carefully as well. A single herb given at 6 grams in a formula, might do something very different if it were prescribed at 12 grams. Some herbs will travel upward in the body at a small dose, and then move downward in the body at a large dose. It really is a magnificent art form. But once again, I stress, that the prescribed dosage is really important when it comes to the desired health outcomes.
3. Healing with herbal medicine may take some time to recorrect the imbalances in the body.
In an age where we want everything fixed yesterday, it takes some open mindedness and good education to manage the expectations of healing with herbal medicine. One round of your prescribed formula may not make miracles happen (on some rare occasions it does!). If the communication between you and your practitioner is good however, there will be certain markers or signs and symptoms that you will be encouraged to observe for changes to know that the medicine is doing its job.
For example, when I am working with patients and our primary concern is digestive issues. I will be asking them to notice if and when their bloating after meals decreases, their bowel movements become more well-formed (or easier to pass, depending on what their initial report was), when they no longer feel sleepy directly after a meal, if their white tongue coating starts to decrease, and so on. I want my patients to be present to the small changes as well as the big ones. And because we are all so conditioned for the instant fix, those changes are not easily noticed to begin with.
This is often a new (and sometimes frustrating) concept for patients as many people are well conditioned to reach for pain killers when they have pain in the body and within 20 minutes feel a notable change in their pain levels (albeit it temporary). And slowing down has not ever really been encouraged in our modern culture. So a treatment program of 3 to 6 months might sound really unappealing to begin with, but lasting changes take time to be recorrected in the body. A good question to ask yourself is, how badly do I want to feel better? In my experience the patients who are the most ready and enthusiastic for change are the ones that get on board with the program and have terrific health outcomes.
Herbal medicine is going to be addressing some of the imbalances in the body that may have been out of whack for a very long time. What is it that you are wanting to heal with this medicine and how long has this been happening for you? How long have you had your gut issues? period issues? insomnia? etc. And how long have you been eating poorly, not sleeping well, drinking too much coffee and alcohol and letting your stressful job rule your life?
Tough questions I know, but we have to remember that in holistic healing, we are looking at all the things that influence your health, not just the symptoms of bloating, heavy periods, fatigue etc. We want to investigate how these symptoms have manifested in you and help to get down to the root of things to make the changes you desire. Your Chinese medicine practitioner is going to need your help with that. The healing journey is a team effort.
4. The medicine will work even better if you are willing to make some changes to your lifestyle.
If a patient came to me and said they wanted help to lose weight, but they were not willing to change their diet or start adding in some movement to their week, I would still be able to help them lose weight, but it could take 6 months to a year. If they were willing to make some changes and get on board with me, we could cut that time frame down by a half or even two thirds.
In western medicine, many of the biggest health issues we are facing as a population today can we drastically improved if people were to change their lifestyle habits. Im talking about diabetes, heart disease, obesity (and its complications), atherosclerosis, and so on. Often these conditions (minus the genetic links) have escalated because of a persons diet and lack of exercise. Hard truths. These habits are hard to break, and often we just want some one, or some magic potion to fix the problem for us.
Take digestive issues for example. In Chinese medicine we would be looking at what is happening in the spleen and stomach organs (and also the pancreas). The digestive area of the body is the quickest region to get thrown out of balance because we eat too much sugar, eat when we are distracted or emotional, over eat, eat too close to going to bed, eat too much rich and fried food, and consume too much cold food. Our eating habits are usually associated with some kind of emotional story playing itself out as well; eating to self-soothe, eating to fill up a sense of lack, eating to numb out, eating because our cravings are in charge. These kinds of habits are really hard to change if we just simply try to stop doing it. A deeper investigation of compassion and curiosity is often needed when trying to create new healthy habits around food.
5. The medicine does not work if you don't take it!
Straight up. You have to actually ingest the herbs for them to work. If you don't take the medicine (ok if you have missed one or two doses here and there) it won't work. End of.
6. Lots of deep programs and stories can surface when we are on a healing journey.
Lots of deep unconscious stories can play out when you are on a healing journey. Some of those can bring up all sorts of fears around what happens if you actually get better? If you are clearing out a health issue that has plagued you your whole life, then it may have woven itself into the fabric of your identity. What happens if that ailment is gone for good? What happens if you get your hopes up that it will be gone and then it comes back? Sometimes thought patterns like this can lead to all kinds of sabotage-like behaviour. Testing out your new and improved digestion with all the beer, fried foods and gluten to test and see if the medicine has really worked.
Healing trajectories are not straight lines. They go up, they go down, they go forward and they go back. An honest healing trajectory probably looks much more like a jagged topsy turvy line rather than a clean neat inclination. As big and small shifts happen in your body and your mind it is important to reach out to those supportive your health journey and ask all the questions that arise, help to clear out the fears and doubts that might have crept in, and get that reassurance you need to know it is safe to proceed.
I hope this article has been helpful in clearing up any questions you might have had around herbal medicine. They may taste revolting, and it may be hard to remember to drink them, but they really do work!
Love Karina x