What is Chinese herbal medicine?
Imagine living in China. If you got sick and had to go to the hospital, chances are you wouldn't only receive surgery, prescription medicines, and other therapies that we have here in the United States. Doctors in China practice a system of medicine called traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). TCM includes treatments like acupuncture
, and herbal formulas that are mixed specifically for every patient.
TCM has been used in China for thousands of years. It's based on the belief that sickness—everything from colds to chronic conditions like asthma—happens when the flow of energy inside your body is unbalanced. This energy, called qi
(pronounced "chee"), is believed to flow throughout your body and keep you healthy. The aim of Chinese herbal medicine is to correct imbalances in qi
and get your body back on track.
Chinese herbal medicine uses more than 5,000 herbs to keep the qi
flowing. If you were a patient in a Chinese hospital, or if you visited a Chinese herbalist here in the United States, you may get a mix of a dozen or more different herbs (and, in some cases, animal parts and minerals) that was put together especially for you. back to top
What is it used for?
Some people in the West turn to Chinese herbal medicine to treat health problems that conventional Western medicine doesn't have much success with, such as chronic fatigue syndrome or allergies. Chinese herbal medicine is also used for acne
, migraine headaches, and chronic bronchitis and sinusitis, among other conditions.
So far there has been little scientific research done in the United States to see if Chinese herbal medicine works. However, one recent study showed that it helped relieve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, a condition that involves abdominal pain, diarrhea
, and constipation
. back to top
What forms do Chinese herbal medicines come in?
Chinese herbal medicines can be so complicated that they seem a bit like magic potions. Some are given in the form of raw plants to take home and brew into tea, while others come as powders, extracts, tinctures, capsules, or tablets. There are also herbal creams or lotions you can use on the outside of the body. back to top
Can I take Chinese herbal medicine on my own?
In a word, no. It takes a lot of training to figure out which of the thousands of Chinese herbs will work best for a particular condition.
Also, be aware that many prepackaged herbal formulas made in Asia are contaminated with lead, mercury, prescription drugs, and other dangerous ingredients. These contaminants can cause serious kidney or liver damage. If you want to experiment with Chinese herbal medicine, find a professional practitioner with enough experience to choose herbs that are both effective and safe. back to top
How can I find a practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine?
As with many alternative therapies, your best bet for finding a good practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine may be word of mouth. Depending on your condition, you may want to combine acupuncture with Chinese herbal medicine, in which case you'd look for an acupuncturist who does both. (See Get the Point: Acupuncture
for tips on finding an acupuncturist.)
Before making an appointment, ask the practitioner some questions. He or she should answer yes to the following:
- Do you have a clinical master's degree in acupuncture or oriental medicine? (This should include at least 450 hours of training in the use of herbs alone.)
- Have you passed the board exam given by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM)? (You can also find this out by calling the NCCAOM directly at 703-548-9004.)
- Have you had success treating other people with my condition?
- Have you treated a lot of other kids or teenagers?
- Can you guarantee that the herbs you use are not contaminated with prescription drugs or other substances? back to top
If you're thinking about trying Chinese herbal medicine to treat a specific health condition, it's a good idea to talk with your health professional first. That way he or she can help you figure out whether the therapy is benefiting you. Your health professional may also want to check your liver function during the course of your treatment to be sure the herbs you're taking are not doing any harm.
Be sure to report any side effects immediately to your health professional or your Chinese herbal medicine practitioner. These may include new symptoms such as stomach or intestinal problems, skin rashes, or abnormal periods.
Unless you have expert advice, never take over-the-counter Chinese herbal formulas imported from Asia. back to top