Many cultures share a long history of ‘folk’ or local usage of nature’s gifts for healing purposes. In China, however, dovetailing with this tradition has also developed a recorded system rich in theory and substance (the word ‘herbs’ as used here includes many animal and mineral products in addition to plant material). Over the centuries, the Chinese have described the natures of thousands of substances, including those imported from foreign countries. Their formal medical use has consistently been applied in formulae that treat the whole of a person’s condition, as opposed to simply matching symptoms to individual herbs. As such, Chinese herbalism forms a complete form of medicine.
The growing, harvesting, and processing of these medicinals has traditionally been regulated as a special branch of Chinese medicine requiring special knowledge and skill. Today, modern standards also apply, including laboratory screening and the push towards organic and local production. From the fields, oceans, and forests these medicinals are transported to companies, pharmacies, and also direct to practitioners for formula preparation.
Traditionally, herbs were prepared in a variety of simple ways. Most commonly, the fresh and/or dried medicinals were boiled together in water and taken as a highly concentrated tea. This method yields strong medicine that excels at ridding acute diseases, especially those of respiration and digestion. Otherwise, they might have been dried, ground into a powder, and either taken as a draft or formed into pills with honey. This method was more suited to chronic ills that required long-term treatment. In some cases, especially those involving circulation, the herbs were extracted in alcohol or vinegar and taken as liquor. Other methods included: the simmering down of decoctions to syrups for irritated membranes like sore throats; preparation into plasters, poultices, liniments, and oils for external use on strains, fractures, and joint pain, or to heal skin conditions; and the special extraction of volatile oils for aromatherapy.
All of these methods are still in use today. A visit to a typical Chinese Pharmacy, usually found in urban centers in the US, will provide a lively view of this world of medicine. One will see Chinese doctors diagnosing clients, pharmacists weighing out raw herbs for home brewing, and a host of pre-prepared products. Most non-Asian Americans, however, do not visit these herb shops, excepting practitioners. And it is increasingly rare, even for Asian- Americans, to smell the distinct aroma of simmering Chinese herbs wafting from the kitchen.
More often, clients receive a diagnosis from a private practitioner, or even self-diagnose from a common source on Chinese medicine, and purchase patent type formulae in pill, powder, or extract form for easy digestion. These formulae are available from these Chinese pharmacies, from practitioners themselves, and increasingly from common grocery stores as well. They are usually time-honored prescriptions that treat general patterns of disharmony matched as closely as possible to the client’s presentation. Unfortunately, there is little room for improvisation to the person’s unique presentation and to the natural flux of disease. Along with this trend has also ebbed traditional home care with poultices, washes, steams, and especially remedial cooking.
To counter this situation, some practitioners are making use of herbs processed as single powders or liquid extracts, and then combining these as custom formulae for the client. This practice more closely resembles the traditional way, and lends itself to a closer relationship between the client and doctor, leading to better results with minimal side effects.
Indeed, the methods of traditional Chinese medicine differ greatly from those of the modern western medicine, including western herbalism and naturopathy. They deserve special focus for an adequate appreciation of their art and science. We will devote next month’s article to this topic, differentiating East from West, and illustrating how each is put into practice.