What Is Chinese Herbology?

Marlene de Wilde

Chinese herbology is the use of medicinal plants according to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Herbal medicines, which have been used for many centuries in the East, are prescribed according to individual need and may comprise one or many herbs. Prescriptions are made up with herbs interacting with each other to either encourage the medicinal effects or counteract the side effects of the main ingredient. All parts of the plant can be used, as well as some parts of animals and minerals.

A medicated oil used in TCM.
A medicated oil used in TCM.

The goal of Chinese herbology is to support the body in its ability to heal itself. Medicines are prescribed according to the meridians, the four natures, and the five tastes. The degree of yin and yang, or cold, cool, warm and hot, are the four natures. If the malady is of a cool nature such as a cold, then the formula prescribed will be warm, and vice versa. Chinese herbology considers the internal balance of the patient and how best to enhance and adjust the flow of energy to promote healing.

Some people find that the local Chinatown is a good place to look for a Chinese herbalist.
Some people find that the local Chinatown is a good place to look for a Chinese herbalist.

Pungent, sour, salty, bitter and sweet are the five tastes used in Chinese herbology. Functions and characteristics are ascribed to each taste; for example, sour is astringent and nourishes the liver and gallbladder. Sweet herbs relax and nourish the spleen and stomach. As herbs are strong foods full of nutrients, each acts upon specific organs of the body, which are referred to as the meridians.

Ginseng, which increases alertness, is a popular herbal supplement associated with Chinese folk medicine.
Ginseng, which increases alertness, is a popular herbal supplement associated with Chinese folk medicine.

There are more than 3,000 ingredients used in Chinese herbology, which has a history that goes back thousands of years. Of the 300 more-common herbs, some are well known, like ginseng, mushrooms, cinnamon, ginger and licorice. Prescriptions can be filled in the form of pills or teas, with the stronger, fresher teas usually used as the healing agent and the pills as a support. Herbal formulas can also be used externally, as liniments, plasters and poultices.

Sour, salty, pungent, bitter and sweet are the five tastes used in Chinese herbology.
Sour, salty, pungent, bitter and sweet are the five tastes used in Chinese herbology.

Due to the toxicity of some herbs, formulas should always be prescribed by knowledgeable and experienced TCM herbalists. Conditions addressed by Chinese herbology range from sleep difficulties and blood pressure to cancer and Alzheimer's. The ideology is that both the symptoms and the underlying causes must be treated. This is why prescriptions can involve up to 15 different ingredients, each with a different purpose. Herbs are often used in Chinese hospitals in lieu of drugs, and are thought to be especially effective when combined with acupuncture.

Chinese herbs are thought to be especially effective when used in conjunction with acupuncture therapy.
Chinese herbs are thought to be especially effective when used in conjunction with acupuncture therapy.

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