Chinese herbal medicine is thought to have first started around 3000 years ago, with herbs being described in the Classic of Changes (Yi Jing) and the Classic of Poetry (Shi Jing)1. However, it wasn’t properly developed until around the 12th century AD, which incorporated the deeper principles of TCM for herbal-based practises. It was later refined in the 14th and 19th centuries, remaining in China up until the 20th century, where it spread to the West and was refined further to incorporate some Western disease concepts.
In China today, herbal medicine is used alongside conventional pharmaceutical medicine. It also made its way to Japan, where it was adapted to become Kampo—a system that is officially approved and recognised by the Japanese Health Ministry.
Chinese herbal medicine is based on TCM, which proposes that everything is composed of five earthly elements: earth, fire, water, wood, and metal. In this system, the five elements are constantly shifting, becoming dominant at different types in the natural cycle, and affecting a person’s health.
Each element corresponds to a group of organs, an emotion, a flavour, a weather phenomenon, and a colour. A Chinese herbalist will take all these things into consideration when deciding on the best herbal remedy to restore your balance. For example, Apart from the presenting signs and symptoms, they may also note the appearance of your complexion, sound of your voice and constitution type during their diagnosis, which allows them to select the herbs that will balance the elements in your body and promote healing.
Here’s a breakdown of the elements and their corresponding factors:
Spleen, stomach, mouth, muscles
Heart, tongue, pulse
Kidney, ears, bones
Liver, galbladder, tendons, eyes
Lungs, nose, skin
The Four Natures is another theory that is important for selecting the right herbs. These are warm, hot, cool, or cold, and their herbal “opposites” are often chosen to treat specific illnesses. For example, if someone has a fever, the herbalist may select a “cold” herb to treat it, to help restore the person’s balance.
Chinese herbal medicine has shown success in treating a variety of disorders, particularly gastrointestinal, gynaecological and liver issues2. It may also help with the following conditions:3,4
Some herbs recommended by Chinese herbalists can also carry high levels of antioxidants, adaptogens, and anti-inflammatories, which can provide excellent health benefits.
Insomnia is a condition that is treated with Chinese herbal medicine. A 2012 review of randomised controlled trials found that there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove its efficacy5, however, a more recent 2019 study found it to be highly effective6. More high-quality studies are needed to strengthen our understanding.
Some Chinese herbal remedies are believed to help with weight loss. These include remedies with the following herbs:
There are also some herbal remedies that help you get a better night’s sleep, which can assist in weight loss. Chrysanthemum tea is great for calming your nerves and helping you to rest, and jujube seeds calm your mind and improve your blood circulation. As mentioned above, Chinese herbal medicine may also help to treat insomnia, which can have a big impact on treating weight gain.
There are over 300 herbs commonly used by Chinese herbalists. These are some of the most commonly used:
Herbal remedies are often a concoction of multiple unique herbs and substances, which provide primary and ancillary effects, as well as cancel out any side-effects that may occur. This holistic approach ensures Chinese herbal formulae provide a more synergistic effect over using just one or two herbs when treating illneses.
Here are some guidelines to follow when choosing a Chinese herbal medicine practitioner:
TCM and Chinese herbal medicine take a holistic approach to optimal health. While practitioners can focus on particular symptoms, they will thoroughly assess you to determine your overall health, and make a diagnosis based on the principles of TCM.
As part of this diagnosis, the practitioner may ask about your family’s medical history, your diet, exercise regime, lifestyle, sleeping patterns, digestive state, emotional health and any medications or supplements you are taking. They will talk to you about your general health, and any potential issues you’re trying to fix. They might also examine your pulse and tongue, and palpate your abdomen and problematic areas of your body.
Once complete, they will make a diagnosis, and design an individualised treatment plan for you, with herbal formulas that will help you to achieve good health. They will prioritise immediate concerns and offer long-term solutions, and their focus should be on helping you to feel better as soon as possible.
Chinese herbalists may also be trained in other areas of TCM, and so may recommend therapies such as acupuncture, massage, cupping, heat lamps, and more. You may also be given lifestyle and/or dietary advice, therapeutic or corrective exercises, breathing practises and/or meditation techniques.