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Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine

Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine Categories

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