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— updated 2001-03-04


Introduction to Chinese herbology

How to use herbs safely and avoid common mistakes

Sometimes referred to as traditional Chinese medicine or TCM, the traditional Chinese herbal sciences are a distinct, independently recognized body of knowledge from acupuncture, with a 2000-year history of continual evolution and refinement. Because the term "traditional Chinese medicine" includes a variety of techniques including acupuncture, we refer to the Chinese system of growing, processing, and clinical usage of herbs as the Chinese herbal sciences.

Copyright ©1991-1996 by RMH-Publications Trust; all rights reserved.


To understand how Chinese herbal methods differ from allopathic medicine and western approaches to clinical herbology, consider the following examples:

  • A woman complains of chronic menstrual cramping and inquires about possible herbs to use in this condition. An herbal reference lists over 100 herbs that might be useful. Without more information she must either try them at random, or systematically try each herb until she obtains relief, a potentially time-consuming and expensive proposition. Isn't there a better way?
  • A woman has been medically diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, a chronic, inflammatory autoimmune disorder. She has discovered in the alternative health literature a wealth of suggestions, claims, and pronouncements on herbal formulas, supplements, and dietary recommendations. However, she has been informed by a Chinese (TCM) herbalist that herbal formulas must be tailored to the individual, and that even people that share a common medical disorder may vary significantly in general physiological characteristics; what may be helpful for one individual may not work or may even be harmful for another with the same medical disorder. After spending thousands of dollars in medical tests for a diagnosis, she is understandably skeptical of undergoing yet more probing and analysis. How should she decide what to do?
  • A man has been suffering from chronic fatigue, and has heard that Chinese ginseng is a good "energy booster". This man's friend has been taking ginseng for several weeks and feels much healthier and energetic than before. After trying some for several days, he experiences abdominal bloating and insomnia. Moreover, his fatigue has worsened, and his doctor has detected elevated blood pressure. What went wrong?

To go beyond herbal hype, explore RMHI's website to find the answers to the preceding problems, and discover ways to understand the often conflicting and technical information about herbs. The following is an article we originally wrote for the general public to explain some of the pitfalls in choosing herbs (i.e., side effects), and it discusses the scientific and conceptual differences between allopathic medicine and TCM herbology:

Chinese herbal science provides a means for maintaining and improving health distinct in methods and philosophy from the Western medical tradition, which focuses on biological tissue pathology. Instead, Chinese herbal science integrates the individual's sensations and perceptions with the herbalist's perceptions and experience to arrive at common-sense solutions. Rather than consider only isolated bits of medical data or individual symptoms, precise clinical rules and principles lead to herbal strategies based on whole-body criteria.

Chinese herbal science continually strives to improve how herbal formulas are chosen and developed, so that these formulas will harmonize important physiological functions without side effects. Chinese herbology is one of the most sophisticated clinical systems in the world for analyzing patterns of symptoms and other clinical indicators with repeatability and consistency.

The modern Chinese herbal sciences include a range of subject areas including clinical herbology and research, pharmacognosy, botany, agronomy and plant taxonomy. China, Japan, and other Asian countries actively support research and development of these fields, for the ultimate benefit of TCM herbalists and their clients worldwide.