Traditional Chinese medicine has a number of components, of which Chinese herbal medicine is one. With an ancient history spanning many thousands of years, the popularity of Chinese herbal medicine has now spread to Australia, Europe and America.
Traditional Chinese medicine looks at the health of the body from a different paradigm to Western medicine. There is no mechanised view of the body, but rather the body is viewed as a series of systems that interact with each other and the external world to achieve harmony or disharmony. When the body is in a state of “dis-ease” then restoring harmony is seen as the key to restoring health. Central to this idea is the concept of life force, life essence or “qi” (chi). When Qi is not flowing through the body as it should – when it is blocked or lacking in vitality – then illness can occur.
Many people have heard of the ideas of “yin and yang”. This is the idea of opposing, perhaps complementary, forces. When one dominates, the other is weak and the organs and body systems that relate to the now weakened area can be impacted. Imbalances in yin and yang can result from lifestyle choices, environment, a bad diet, stress, emotional upsets and infections.
Chinese medicine also considers a number of other factors, such as hot and cold, internal, external, deficiency and excess; and elements such as wood, water, fire, metal and earth. In the area of Chinese herbs, the plants and their benefits or impacts are classified according to tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and pungent. An organ or system that is ailing would be treated according to the element, factor and taste most appropriate to bring it into back into balance.
The TCM approach to health is complex. It has been evolving for 5000 years and has formed a series of strict conventions for treatment regimes. It is applied to a range of health areas including: fertility and birth, digestion, skin problems (such as psoriasis and eczema), liver complaints, heart health and stamina, stress, inflammation and allergies.
Chinese herbs used to help improve these health areas can come in many forms, though the most commonly prescribed are liquids, powders and pills. It is also possible to find herbal lotions and pastes, which are more appropriate for differing conditions. They can be applied externally, where pills and so forth are generally ingested.
Chinese medicinal formulas are not always just made from herbs. They can also include minerals and some animal products. There is a massive blackmarket for the trading of illegal (often endangered) animal products, supplied by poachers for use in Chinese medical products. This is the dark side of Chinese medicine. While many herbs have been shown in clinical research to have active benefits to the body, this is not true of the animal ingredients. The poachers continue to kill off these wild animals though to provide their parts for human medical consumption.
Increasingly, however, Chinese medicinal herbs are farmed, in order to keep up with demand. Still, however, about 50 percent of herbs used in Chinese herbal medicine are “wild sourced”. This has a number of negative environmental impacts, of course.
If you are considering trying Chinese herbs be sure to let your doctor know, and be careful of any side-effects or interactions with pharmaceutical medicines you may be taking. Herbs are not always inert or harmless and though they come from nature if used incorrectly there can be serious health consequences, as well as benefits. Most pharmaceutical drugs have been derived from substances in nature so remember that being “natural” is not the same as being “safe”. All medicines need to be taken under proper consultation with an experienced and qualified practitioner.
Vanessa Blake is a freelance writer and health freak with a ridiculous general knowledge of nutrition and the body. No wonder she decided to study for a Diploma of Nutrition in 2003. She also loves yoga.