CHINESE HERBAL MEDICINE
The Chinese materia medica (a pharmacological reference book used by TCM practitioners) contains hundreds of medicinal substances—primarily plants, but also some minerals and animal products—classified by their perceived action in the body. Different parts of plants such as the leaves, roots, stems, flowers, and seeds are used. Usually, herbs are combined in formulas and given as teas, capsules, tinctures, or powders.
There are over 400 different types of herbs and different formulas to treat each person individually according to their specific needs.
Herbs used in Chinese medicine are derived from plant, animal, and mineral substances. Although plant-derived herbs, such as ginseng and ginger, are the most common, minerals and animal parts such as oyster shells, deer antlers, and bear gall bladder are also prescribed. In China, herbs in powder form are boiled and made into a tea. In the West, TCM practitioners often premix the herbal remedy or supply the herb in pill form, especially for those patients who find the bitter taste intolerable.
Herbs have four basic qualities and properties: nature, taste, affinity, and primary action.
Nature: An herb's nature is often described as cooling or heating, but it can also be described as moistening, relaxing, and energizing. The peppermint herb, for example, has a cooling energy, and is used to lower the metabolism or reduce gas and bloating.
Taste: Herbs are categorized by five tastes -- sour, bitter, sweet or bland, spicy, and salty, and herbs representing different tastes are used to treat different conditions. Dandelion and goldenseal are two bitter herbs used for their drying properties in treating upper respiratory conditions.
Affinity: This property refers to the affinity that an herb has for a particular organ network.
Primary action: This property refers to the effect of a particular herb. An herb may be used to dispel (move), astringe (restrain), purge (expel), or tonify (strengthen).
In creating the herbal formula for a patient, the TCM practitioner considers the effect or outcome of the remedy, such as aiding digestion, clearing mucus, or strengthening the immune system. Applying the Eight Guiding Principles, they also consider the energy of the illness, such as hot/cold, damp/wind, or some mixture of the principles. Like the diagnostic tools of pulse and tongue reading, the prescription of herbal remedies takes a TCM practitioner years to master because it requires a deep understanding of medical theory and the complexity of herbs.