Chinese Herbal Medicine

Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) is one element of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which is an integrated system of primary healthcare that also utilises herbal medicine, massage, exercise and diet, that has an uninterrupted history of development dating back around four thousand years in China and other parts of East Asia. Some practitioners practise both Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture.

Based on the concepts of yin and yang, the tradition holds that energy known as qi (pronounced chee) or “life energy” flows through the body’s meridians (a network of invisible channels through the body). If the flow of qi in the meridians becomes blocked or there is an inadequate supply of qi, then the body goes out of balance and fails to maintain harmony and order, and disease or illness follows. This can result from stress, overwork, poor diet, disease pathogens and environmental conditions, and is evident to TCM practitioners through observable signs of bodily dysfunction. TCM in general takes a holistic approach to lifestyle management to prevent the occurrence of disease, and regards good health as the basis for wellbeing and happiness.

Although there is some evidence to suggest that the historical usage of plant remedies relate to known properties of their active ingredients, herbal medicine remains apart from systems of medicine based on pharmaceutical drugs. Pharmaceutical-based treatments are generally based upon single isolated active ingredients, whereas in CHM a single plant material will often contain many active ingredients in small quantities, which are seen to balance each other and so provide a much safer side effect profile. Also, herbs are usually prescribed in a combination designed to balance the various components and create a synergy, which increases the efficacy and provides an enhanced safety profile.

The herbs used in a prescription are chosen for their properties which include energy(cold, cool, warm or hot), flavour (pungent, sweet, sour, salty or bitter); movement (upward towards the head, downward towards the lower extremities, inward towards the organs or outward towards the superficial regions of the body); and its related meridians to which it connects.

Herbal medicine is commonly used to treat skin disease (including eczema, psoriasis, acne, rosacea, urticaria); gastro-intestinal disorders (including irritable bowel syndrome, chronic constipation, ulcerative colitis); gynaecological conditions (including pre-menstrual syndrome and dysmenorrhoea, endometriosis, infertility); hepatitis and HIV (some promising results have been obtained for treatment of Hepatitis C, and supportive treatment may be beneficial in the case of HIV); chronic fatigue syndromes (whether with a background of viral infection or in other situations); respiratory conditions (including asthma, bronchitis, and chronic coughs, allergic and perennial rhinitis and sinusitis); rheumatological conditions (osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis); urinary conditions (including chronic cystitis); psychological problems (e.g. depression, anxiety).

Herbal medicines (like all medicines), have an effect on the body and thus should be used with care. People often mistakenly assume that because a product is natural it must be safe; there are many flora and fauna that are poisonous to humans. Some herbal medicines can interact with prescription medicines, so you should not take them at the same time. It is important therefore, that the practitioner is made aware of any prescription medicines the patient may be taking (and indeed the GP made aware of any herbal medicines a patient may be taking).