Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine

In China, many herbs are used as medicinal substances each year.

Traditional Chinese herbal medicine draws on ancient practices -- herbal medicine is as old as humanity itself. Early human beings were hunter-gatherers whose survival depended on their knowledge of their environment. Direct experience taught them which plants were toxic, which ones imparted strength and sustained life, and which had special healing qualities.

These early discoveries were passed along until thousands of years and millions of human trials brought about the evolution of an incredibly sophisticated system of diagnosis and herbal medicine.


Thousands of medicinal substances are used in China today. Indeed, more than a million tons of herbs are used each year in China. Thirty herbs, mostly tonics, account for more than 50 percent of this figure, with licorice topping the list at 86,000 tons.

This information may seem astonishing to the minds of Westerners, who see herbal medicine as a new development in healing. From a practical perspective, however, a fairly complete pharmacy stocks about 450 different individual herbs.

From this collection of herbs, a clinical herbalist employs more than 250 standard formulas, each of which can be modified to fit a patient's individual pattern of disharmony. The herbalist or practitioner combines herbs based on the diagnosis, using a traditional herbal formula as a foundation and adding other herbs specific to the individual's complaint and constitution.

As the person's health improves, the nature of the imbalance changes, so the herb formula must also change. Some herbs are deleted when they are no longer needed, while others more appropriate to the changing condition are added.

Go to the next page to learn about traditional Chinese herbal medicine categories.

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Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine Categories

The therapeutic categories group herbs according to their effects on the body.

Herbs are classified according to whether they have a warming or cooling effect on the body. Their taste also has significance. Generally, sweet herbs tonify qi, sour herbs are astringent, bitter herbs dry damp and clear heat, acrid herbs disperse cold and stagnation, and salty herbs have a softening, purging effect.

Both individual herbs and herbal formulas are organized into categories, based on diagnostic patterns. For example, if a person has deficient kidney yang, the practitioner selects herbs from the category of "herbs that tonify yang." The therapeutic categories of herbs follow.


Herbs that Release the Exterior: When the body's protective qi is repelling a pathogenic influence, the struggle occurs in the exterior layers of the body. Herbs in this category have an outward dispersing action, preventing the disease from penetrating to the interior of the body. Warm herbs of this type expel wind cold by inducing perspiration and warming the body; cool, acrid herbs are chosen to repel wind heat.

Herbs that Clear Heat: This category of cooling herbs clears all kinds of internal heat -- excess heat, heat from deficiency, heat in the blood, heat with toxicity, and damp heat.

Downward Draining Herbs: These herbs treat differing degrees of constipation and are used as cathartics, purgatives, and mild lubricating laxatives.

Herbs that Drain Dampness: This category contains herbs that remove dampness in the form of edema (swelling due to fluid retention) or urinary disorders.

Herbs that Dispel Wind Dampness: Used mostly for arthritis and skin conditions, these herbs increase circulation and reduce swelling and inflammation.

Herbs that Transform Phlegm and Stop Coughing: Some of these herbs relax the cough reflex, others clear phlegm. For heat phlegm, cooling moistening expectorants are chosen; warming drying expectorants are used to treat cold phlegm.

Aromatic Herbs that Transform Dampness: If dampness overwhelms the digestive organs, these herbs penetrate the dampness with their aroma and revive the spleen.

Herbs that Relieve Food Stagnation: When food is stuck in the stomach and won't move, this category of herbs is chosen in order to move the stagnation.

Herbs that Regulate Qi: These herbs remove stagnation from the digestive system and move qi that is stuck in the liver.

Herbs that Regulate Blood: Herbs in this category are divided into those that stop bleeding and those that increase circulation and remove stagnation.

Herbs that Warm the Interior: Warming the metabolism at a deep level, these herbs dispel cold conditions and revive the digestive fire -- the metabolic energy required to digest food. When it is low (as in spleen yang deficiency), digestion is weak and the person craves warm foods and liquids.

Tonifying Herbs: Divided into herbs that tonify yin, yang, qi, or blood, this is the superior category of medicines. These herbs can prevent disease rather than simply treat disease that has already appeared. Nourishing and strengthening, they can be used long-term to correct deficiencies of the vital substances (qi, blood, body fluids, essence).

Astringent Herbs: These herbs dry excessive secretions, such as diarrhea, excessive urination, or sweating.

Herbs that Calm the Spirit: These substances have a calming effect and are used for anxiety, insomnia, palpitations, and irritability.

Herbs that Open the Heart: Containing aromatic substances, usually resins, these herbs can revive a person's consciousness. Some are used for conditions such as angina.

Herbs that Clear Internal Wind and Tremors: These herbs treat muscle spasms, hypertension, and involuntary movements.

Herbs that Expel Parasites: These herbs can destroy or expel various parasites from the body.

Substances for External Application: These consist of herbs and minerals, many of them toxic if taken internally, that are applied topically for skin problems, bruises, spasms, and sprains. Herbal formulas also are divided into the same diagnostic categories.

The traditional formulas, or patent medicines, are an intricate combination of herbs chosen to address the various aspects of a disease pattern. The chief herb in the formula addresses the major complaint; the formula usually contains more of this particular herb than other herbs.

The deputy herb assists the chief herb in its function, while the assistant herb reinforces the effects of the chief and deputy or performs a secondary function. The envoy directs the formula to a certain part of the body, or it harmonizes and detoxifies the other parts of the formula.

For example, Ephedra Decoction is used for wind cold with wheezing, stiff neck from cold, and a lack of sweating. Ephedra is the chief herb, since it treats all of the main symptoms. Cinnamon twig is the deputy because it assists Ephedra in promoting sweating and warming the body. Apricot seed acts as the assistant by focusing on the wheezing, while licorice is the envoy because it harmonizes the actions of the other herbs and restrains the Ephedra from inducing too much sweating.

Larger formulas may have multiple herbs that produce the different functions, depending on the desired action of the formula. Herbs can be taken in the form of decoctions, pills, liquid extracts, powdered extracts, and syrups.

Decoctions tend to be the strongest medicine, followed by concentrated liquid extracts, concentrated powdered extracts, and pills. All are effective, and the use of the different forms depends on the individual's personal choice.

If you don't have the time to make a decoction or you don't like the taste, pills or capsules will be more effective, simply because you'll be more likely to take them. The concentrated liquid extracts tend to take effect quickly, so they are useful in cases where fast action is important, and the syrups are good for sore throats or as tonics. However, many of the more concentrated extracts are available only from a health care practitioner.

In whatever form they are taken, though, accurately prescribed herbal formulas are exceptionally effective in restoring health and vitality. This ancient art of traditional herbal medicine is, without a doubt, one of China's great gifts to humanity.

Go to the next page for some traditional Chinese herbal recipes.

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Traditional Chinese Herbal Recipes

Herbal tea is one common form of delivering therapeutic ingredients into the body.

Traditional Chinese herbal recipes deliver therapeutic ingredients to the body. The following page includes recipes for two common forms of herbal medicine.

How to Make a Traditional Herbal Decoction

The strongest herbal medicines are in the form of decoctions. A decoction is a concentrated herbal tea made by boiling herbs in water. Making a decoction requires some patience, and drinking one requires a tolerance for very strong tastes and aromas.


To make a standard decoction:

  1. Place the herbs in a pot, preferably one made of ceramic or glass. Stainless steel is an acceptable alternative, but never use iron or aluminum because they have a tendency to react chemically with the herbs. Aluminum is also a toxic heavy metal, so it should not be used for any type of food preparation.
  2. Add 3 cups of cold water to the herbs. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Reduce to medium heat and continue to boil the herbs until 1 cup of liquid remains (approximately 20 minutes).
  3. Strain this liquid and set it aside. This is one dose of herbal medicine.
  4. Add 2 cups of water to the previously cooked herbs (they have already absorbed water, so they need less). Boil them again until 1 cup of liquid remains.
  5. Strain this liquid and add this second dose to the first.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 to make a third dose. Mix the doses thoroughly so you end up with 3 cups of concentrated decoction.
  7. Discard the herbs, preferably in your compost pile.
  8. Take 1 cup of decoction three times a day for an acute ailment or one cup per day over three days for chronic conditions.

The reason for making three 20-minute decoctions instead of one 1-hour decoction is simple. Some of the herbs in a formula will likely contain volatile aromatic oils as their active ingredient. These volatile oils can be captured in a 20-minute boiling, but they will be lost by the end of an hour. On the other hand, it might take a full hour to fully extract the medicinal constituents in hard roots. For this reason, combine all three doses and then separate them again into three equal doses to ensure that all three doses have the same balance of constituents and flavors.

How to Make an Immune Tonic Soup

A number of tonifying herbs in Chinese medicine also strengthen the immune system, in addition to their other valuable functions. Of these, a few have a bland or slightly sweet taste, making them suitable as ingredients in soups. Incorporating medicine with food is quite a common practice in China, and it is especially useful with children or adults who don't like to take herbs in other forms. The most commonly used tonic herbs in a soup stock are Astragalus root, Codonopsis root, Dioscorea yam, and lotus seed. The following simple recipe makes about two servings.

  • 10 grams Astragalus membranaceus root (huang qi)
  • 10 grams Codonopsis pilosula root (dang shen)
  • 10 grams Dioscorea opposita yam (shan yao)
  • 10 grams lotus seed (Nelumbo nucifera) (lian zi)
  1. Boil the herbs in 6 cups of water until half the liquid is gone.
  2. Remove the Astragalus and Codonopsis and add some kale, carrots, potato, shiitake mushrooms, seaweed, or other vegetables in season.
  3. Continue cooking until the vegetables are soft, and remove from the heat.
  4. Mix in some miso according to taste. The yam and lotus seeds should be soft and edible at this point.

These herbal ingredients can be adapted to any soup recipe; simply boil them and remove after about 30 minutes. The remaining liquid can be used as stock in your favorite soup recipe.

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Bill Schoenbart has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) since 1991, when he earned a Masters degree in TCM. He teaches TCM medical theory and herbalism at an acupuncture school in California, and also maintains a clinical practice.

Ellen Shefi is a licensed massage technician, licensed acupuncturist, and registered dietician. She is a member of the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, the American Herb Association, and the Oregon Acupuncture Association.