Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a holistic system of health care that uses a variety of therapies and treatments to combat and prevent illness and achieve optimal health in patients. One of those avenues of treatment involves traditional Chinese medicine herbs. More than 5,700 medicinal substances of plant, animal and mineral origin are used by practitioners of TCM, according to the Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota.
How herbal therapies are used in treatment
Often two substances or more are mixed and prescribed by the practitioner as part of a balanced approach. The Center for Spirituality & Healing notes:
“Although there are literally thousands of traditional herbal formulas for just about every condition imaginable, a formula is almost always modified by the TCM practitioner to suit the subtle nuances of the condition and constitution of the patient, making each formulation highly individualized.”
Your practitioner will evaluate your qi — or life force energy — flow and look for any imbalances or disharmonies that may be causing mental, physical or spiritual problems that need treatment.
The formulations in traditional Chinese medicine
Medicinal herbs are typically dispensed to patients in one of five forms:
Chinese Herbal Decoctions: These tea-like mixtures often have a strong taste and smell and involve lengthy preparation times, making them less popular to use among Western practitioners of TCM.
Herbal Powders: When mixed with water to brew a tea, these herbal formulations typically have a less intense taste and smell than decoctions, making them a more popular option in the west.
Chinese Patent Formulas: These popular and frequently-used formulations come in the form of a pill or tablet.
Syrups: Perfect for soothing coughs and sore throats, herbs that come in the form of a syrup also make a great option for getting children to take TCM.
Liniments, Salves, Compresses and Plasters: Practitioners prescribe herbs that need to be applied externally to the skin in any of these types of formulations.
How to use the materia medica
Practitioners use a book called a materia medica (for example, this visual version) as a reference for TCM herbs. This reference guide is a compendium of substances used in TCM. It will include information like traditional usages, dosages, contra-indications and potential interactions with other drugs. It may also include information like the Chinese, English and Latin names; which channels, or meridians, the herbs will enter; and where they fall on the temperature scale. Some may also have references to published research on the substances.
The Center for Healing and Spirituality describes the process of determining which substances to prescribe like so:
“TCM assesses medicinal substances for their effects on particular vital substances, their resonance with particular zang fu organ systems, the channels of the jing luo system into which the substance is said to enter, and the pathogenic factors and patterns of disharmony that the substance is known to address.”
An imbalance of the five essential substances is what creates health problems and impedes the body’s natural ability to heal itself.
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