Deconstructing the Chinese Herbal Formula

Chinese herbology developed alongside but independently from acupuncture in many ways. Acupuncture likely emerged out of early Shamanic traditions, qigong and meditation practices, and by cross-cultural influences. Acupuncture’s origins and development  are not documented. By the time the earliest medical texts were written, between 2,500-5,000 years ago, the meridian system and basics of acupuncture had already evolved.

Chinese herbology, however, shows a path of clear development. Medical texts follow a logical path of trial and error on thousands and thousands of subjects, of all ages, classes, ethnic groups, climates, etc. Ship voyages and diplomacy with other nations were fueled not so much by imperialism as a desire for knowledge; herbal knowledge in particular.

The result is a system of herbology that is far more complex than its Western cousin. It is often difficult for those adept at Western herbology to understand Chinese Herbal formulas. For one thing, Chinese herbs are rarely taken alone. With the exception of such herbs as Ren Shen (ginseng) or Gou Qi Zi (gou gi berries), most Chinese are taken in formulas containing anywhere from 3-15 herbs. The formulas follow a very specific reasoning based on a Confucian ideal of harmony. The ideal Chinese herbal formula has no side effects.

First the core disease pattern(s) is chosen for the patient. The underlying constitution, most pronounced symptoms, and other factors are taken into consideration. One or two king herbs are chosen to address the pattern of greatest concern. Herbs that directly support its action are added. Then herbs to to address specific symptoms, additional patterns, neutralize potential side effects, etc. are added.

There are more than 400 herbs in the Chinese pharmacopoeia, originating from all over the world. They are organized in categories of main function, thermal property (hot, cold, neutral, warm), and the channels they affect.

Herbs are taken in various forms: raw herb decoctions, tinctures, honey pills, tablets, and tea pills. Externally they are used as soaks and plasters.

Chinese herbology is part of the training of Licensed Acupuncturists in the state of California. It takes 3600 hours of schooling to be licensed, and a lifetime to master.

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