The practices involved in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) have evolved and been refined over centuries, but are based on a few ancient beliefs:
• The human body represents a tiny version of the greater universe - health comes from harmony between the yin and yang forces.
• The five elements (earth, metal, water, fire, and wood) symbolically explain the body's functions and changes during illness.
• A vital energy, called qi, flows through the body, regulating function and maintaining health.
TCM practitioners often recommend the use of both mind and body treatments (acupuncture, tai chi, and/or qi gong) and herbal medicines to balance the body's forces and promote health. The Materia Medica, the Chinese reference book used by TCM practitioners, lists and describes thousands of medicinal substances (including minerals, plants, and animal products) and their uses. The book also lists nearly 300 formulations of the individual substances to treat a multitude of ailments and prevent disease.
Herbs are given in combined formulations. One or several herbs in a formula might be given to treat a symptom, while others the illness itself, and specific herbs to act as vehicles for the active ingredients. Depending on the illness to be treated (or prevented) and the substances to be taken, Chinese herbal medicines can be administered in variety of ways:
• Traditionally, Chinese herbs are administered as decoctions, a sort of tea. These involve a complicated process of preparation, and are known for their strong taste and odor. For this reason, decoctions are not popular in the west.
• Chinese herbs can also be reduced to a powder/granule form. This powder mixes easily with hot water to create a more subtly flavored tea.
• Some traditional herbs are available in syrup form to soothe coughs and sore throats. These are also more easily administered to children.
• Not all herbal treatments are to be taken orally; some are available in liniments for topical use. These external treatments usually come in the form of compresses, salves, and plasters.
• Patent formulas are also readily available in pre-made pill form. These are convenient and easily administered.
Chinese herbs can be used for several reasons from promoting general health and physical balance to treating specific ailments like pain, breathing problems, and cardiovascular disease. Used in conjunction with other TCM practices, Chinese herbal medicine can help promote overall wellness.
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Schoenbart, Bill; Shefi, Ellen. “Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine.” Discovery Fit & Health. 2014.
Hafner, Christopher, L.Ac. “Chinese Herbs.” University of Minnesota, 2013.
American Cancer Society. “Chinese Herbal Medicine.” 2011.
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. “Traditional Chinese Medicine: An Introduction.” 2009.