Medicinal Herbs Not All The Same
Chinese Herbs & Supplements

Medicinal Herbs Not All the Same


How many plants are in your backyard? How many different types of rock? How many animals come through? Is it possible to imagine how many more exist in your state, region, or country? It is almost unfathomable to consider all the species of plant, animal and mineral that exist across the globe when just under 2.5 acres of the Amazon alone contain 750 different types of trees and 1500 different plants! (Who’s ever counted anything above 100?) And yet, despite the challenges, some brave folks have made great leaps and bounds in identifying what they find, what may be dangerous, and what may be potentially medicinal. You can imagine that even being able to do this for your own backyard would be challenging enough – but for an entire state, country? You’d need time– a few lifetimes!

It makes sense given the context of possibility, that natural medicinals are largely split into subsections. It’s the only reasonable way to know these medicinal well and to learn how they interact with other medicinals in preparation. Here in Washington, many folks see Naturopaths and are taking what we call, “Western herbs;” and anyone seeing a Chinese herbalist is likely taking “Chinese herbs.” You can imagine these were the medicinals people originally found in their backyards on either sides of the globe; and as they started to record what they found and talked to other folks in their area their findings began to expand. Truth be told, what we call “herbs” in Chinese medicine is actually quite a bit more expansive than just plants; it also includes minerals and animal by-/products. For simplicity’s sake I will use the words interchangeably.

Within the Chinese pharmacopeia [of traditional medicines] alone there are  close to 13000 medicinals. Multiply that number by about 7600 and you start to see the number of ways recorded in historical text that these herbs have been combined in formula to treat illness and prevent disease. (My mind already blew at the first paragraph.) In most TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) schools in the US a student is trained to know about 300 – 400 medicinals. What does it mean to know an herb?

Each medicinal in Chinese medicine has certain properties that affects the what, how, and where of its function. For example, let’s look at chrysanthemum flower, first mentioned in medical texts around 200 CE in the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing. Remembering that even the same plant has many different species, we’re talking about Chrysanthemum morifolium Ramat here. We consider this herb to be slightly cold in nature, sweet and bitter, entering the Lung and Liver channels. (No, this isn’t Greek!) Let’s break it down:

TEMPERATURE: We need to know the temperature to see if it is warming or cooling to the body system. Can you imagine you’re sweating under the hot summer sun – what would you prefer, a cooling, refreshing watermelon or a piping hot, pungent curry dish? (I think of my father saying if you were in the desert, you should wear a black wool sweater to stay cool – but that’s cheating! Of course the hot wool sweater will make you sweat–but it’s the sweating that keeps you cool, not the wool! So, let’s stick to the basic principle that certain things warm us us inherently, and others cool inherently.) Here, we can expect where there is heat, there may be cooling with this herb.

NATURE: The nature, in this case sweet and bitter, helps us know how it affects function in the body. For instance, everyone’s seen a child on sugary candy – all that sweetness has a tonic effect. Similarly, each taste has a certain action. Here, we can see Chrysanthemum, because it is sweet and bitter, may drain (bitter) and protect (sweet tonic) at the same time.

PROPENSITY: Lastly, what channels an herb enters tell us what aspect in the body may be affected. Channels connect organs all the way through to the outside skin. Each organ is like an umbrella for physiological functions in the body. Here, Chrysanthemum enters the Lung and Liver channels – so we can expect it treats symptoms associated with these pathways.

THE MORE IMPORTANT STUFF: Dosing. What amount of this herb is safe? Therapeutic? Too much? How does this herb interact with other herbs? Drugs?

AND THEN THE EVEN MORE IMPORTANT STUFF: What farm did the herb come from – what are their growing and processing practices (i.e. was anything added to this herb)? What testing has been done to ensure this herb is what we think it is?

I’ve tried to keep the example relatively vague just to give you an idea that for us herbalists, there’s a lot more to choosing an herb and building a formula than meets the eye. It’s really not safe for you to self-diagnose and self-treat! It’s an art that requires years of education and an appreciation of a person’s constitution, present condition, other contributing factors, and tolerability for an herb. Multiply this by usually 5 to anywhere up to 30 different medicinals and you get a formula that may be of some great use.

So, next time you think you’ll try something – try calling your herbalist first. I’m around on Tuesdays and Thursdays for consultation. ; )


5 thoughts on “Medicinal Herbs Not All the Same

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