What are “Chinese Herbs”

chan-tui-2When I suggest Chinese herbal medicines for my clients, many people are concerned that

  • The ingredients are weird animal parts
  • or worse:  endangered, weird animal parts
  • Toxic perhaps?
  • Will interfere with medications
  • Have side-effects
  • You have to take them forever
  • Will taste bad (well, let’s just say they’re an “acquired taste”)

There are around 6,000 herbal species in use in Chinese herbology.  Around 1,000 of those are derived from animals.  Around 100 of those are from minerals.  But we call all of them “herbs.”

We learn about 300 of the 6,000 herbs in Chinese medicine school.  Out of those, we learn about 500 different combinations of those herbs.  Chinese herbology is confusing!  There is tons of memorization involved, and even now, after studying this system of medicine for over 16 years, I still have to look things up from time to time.  

A traditional Chinese herbal formula has on average between 2 and 20 different herbs.  Each herb has one of four main functions:  

  • Chief or Emperor herb(s) – the primary function of the formula (for example to stop a cough)
  • Prime Minister herb(s) – enhances the function of the chief herb (for example to nourish the Lung Qi to stop a cough)
  • Minister herb(s) – enhances functions of Emperor and Prime Minister herbs, and also mitigates side effects of those herbs (for example, nourishes Spleen Qi to support digestion and clear phlegm to stop a cough)
  • Envoy herb(s) – mitigate side effects of all the other herbs in the formula (for example, nourishes yin in a formula that otherwise would be very drying to stop a wet cough)

These formulas are very balanced and rarely have adverse side effects.  

Most qualified herbalists will never give you just the same formula indefinitely.  

We change the formula at least every 2 months to mitigate any side effects in your body.  Plus, in two months of taking herbs, your body will change and necessarily the formula will need to change too.  

Since the herbs are helping your body function better, you actually can heal from taking them.  As your body heals, your need to take the herbs lessens until you eventually don’t need them anymore.  Although, some people enjoy taking a maintenance dose of herbs (like me) once a day as a general tonic.  

Most people who are concerned with taking Chinese herbs are concerned with one of these three things:

1. TOXICITY

Herbs from China can be toxic.  Studies have shown all kinds of stuff in herbs from China:  heavy metals, snow leopard DNA(?), pharmaceuticals(!)…  

To resolve this, I get all my Chinese herbs from California!  Evergreen herbs has great quality control so that’s who I order my products from.  

You may have heard of “aristolochia” being toxic.  Aristolochia refers to Aristolochic acid is found is some varieties of Chinese herbs like Guang Fang Ji and Guang Mu Tong.  So one option we have is to not use that variety at all, which is usually what we do.  

As scientists have been testing herbs over the last hundred years or so, when toxic substances are found, we do our best to just not use them.  

2. ANIMAL PARTS

Okay, so I have to come clean here.  I use 4 herbs that are based on animal parts in my office.  

  • “Dragon Bone”/Long Gu  No worries here.  No one likes dragons anyway.  Just kidding, it’s fossilized animal bone, which is full of trace minerals like calcium and potassium.  It’s combined with other herbs that protect the digestion in formulas for “calming the spirit.”
  • “Earthworm”/Di Long  I know you’re gagging and maybe also wondering if you have in fact swallowed earthworm in your “tea” from my office.  It’s for severe, chronic pain or blocked blood vessels.  If you don’t have either of those, you’re OK.
  • “Leech”/Shui Zhi  My herbal teacher would say, “If you have crazy patient, give them the leech.  They will be so happy.  They come back to you and say, ‘what was in that tea?! give me some more; I feel great!”  It’s very true.  
  • “Cicada Moulting”/Chan Tui  In Chinese medicine school I gave a bag of raw herbs to a friend of mine who had a skin rash.  He called me later to ask, “Nicole, just curious…did you put BUGS in my formula?”  Note to self:  use powdered bugs in the future.  

We do NOT currently use:  deer horn, bear gall bladder, any type of animal penises, sea cucumber, lizard tails, or scorpion venom.  

3. MEDICATION INTERACTIONS

As far as interfering with your medication, they probably will not.  That is, if you get herbal medicines from a QUALIFIED HERBALIST.  Please do not self prescribe herbs!  That is why ephedra is illegal now.  People were using it to lose weight; taking it by itself in high quantities for long periods of time.  Then their liver and kidneys stopped working.  In Chinese herbology, we only use ephedra in very small quantities, combined with other herbs, for only 2 weeks max to treat asthma.  But now no one can use it…jerks.  

Most prescribed herbal formulas will just help your medication actually work better.  For example, taking herbs for depression will help your antidepressant maybe actually work.  

Some herbs we do not use if you’re taking a certain medication.  For example, we do not use strong blood invigorating herbs if you’re on blood thinners.  That’s really the only possibly dangerous situation I can think of in regards to combining herbs with pharmaceuticals.  

There are several herbs that are contraindicated during pregnancy.  That’s easy enough to avoid as well.  

So, in all, herbs are cool and great and very helpful with healing your body.  Just have a good herbalist to point you in the right direction.  

Oh, and never ask your doctor for his opinion on Chinese herbs.  You wouldn’t ask me if you should take a western pharmaceutical, right?  I didn’t study pharmacology, just as they didn’t study Chinese herbology, so they have no right to dismiss the herbs based on their limited knowledge of this system of medicine.  

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