The Benefits of Chinese Herbal Medicine

Based on thousands of years of experimental research, this system actually works.

Originally published 2004

Herbal Medicine vs. Western Medicine

Herbal medicine is a good concept — it’s a much better concept than Western allopathic medicine, which works by trying to kill things. Whether the doctor is using a drug or a knife, the goal of Western medicine is to remove what’s wrong, either by killing invading microbes or removing parts of your body that are diseased. In fact, the Materia Medica (list of drugs) says that a drug is by definition a poison — if it isn’t killing anything, it isn’t doing anything.

Needless to say, ingesting poisons is generally ill-advised. Because they’re poisonous, drugs have undesirable side effects. That’s why they can only be obtained with a doctor’s prescription, on the assumption that a doctor’s training and careful evaluation of your condition will produce the best possible results with minimal side-effects. Obviously, though, there is a risk.

Nutritional and herbal approaches, on the other hand, attempt to give your body the encouragement it needs to heal itself. Both approaches aim to supply the nutrient building blocks your body needs. The cures take longer, but in the end your body heals itself without side effects. It also becomes stronger and better able to resist disease in the future, As if that isn’t enough, herbal medicines put your energy system into high gear, so find yourself running on all cylinders!

That’s the theory of nutritional healing, anyway. It’s a great concept, because it takes a long-term view that builds health. Western medicine, on the other hand, takes a very short term view. It goes for immediate results. And if there are side-effects? The doctor’s cavalier attitude is generally, “We’ll take care of those when they happen”. Yeah. It’s not their body. Or their money they’re spending. It’s income to them. To you, it’s nothing but cost.

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Then there’s “homeopathic medicine”. Not! The original theory is an interesting idea. When a symptom manifests itself, you intensify the symptoms to help the body do what it’s trying to do anyway. So if you’re experiencing nasal discharge, you take something that helps you discharge even more. But that’s not always a good idea. It’s a lot like throwing gasoline on a fire. Like any stimulant, a homeopathic potion can drive your body even harder — but you may be borrowing against your future health to do it. Maybe that’s why the homeopathic devotees figured out that “less is more”. The concept is that the more you dilute the potion, the better it works. At the extreme, you’re pretty much paying medicine-level prices for water. It’s snake oil, without the oil. Or the snake.

On the other hand, there are risks with the herbal./nutritional approach, as well. If the condition is serious, that approach might require time you don’t have. Or it simply might not be effective. For example, it could speed the healing process for a broken bone, but you would still want to get an X-Ray and make sure the bone was set properly. Finally, there is the simple matter of education and training. Even if a great remedy exists, it doesn’t do you much good if you’re getting something different!

When I’ve investigated (Western) herbal medicines in the past, I haven’t found them to be very effective. For example, I’ve tried Echinacea and such, without seeing any differences one way or the other. And when I’ve tried to investigate the area, the subject seems to be hodgepodge of anecdotal information, unrestrained by the principles scientific investigation. So the fact that uncle Silas took comfrey and cured his gout, or some such, might have been related to the herb. Or it might have been ready to subside on its own, or he stopped eating the food that was causing it, or the weather changed. Who knows? It was difficult to find a good source of well-organized information that made it possible to find a remedy to actually worked.

That’s why I’ve always preferred nutritional supplements to herbs. With nutritional supplements, there has been a lot more investigation and scientific study. There have been double blind tests that can identify supplements that really make a difference, and there have been investigations into the biochemical mechanisms of action, so we know both what works, and why.

There are limits to the value of supplements, however. In the 60’s, when everything was simple, we thought that we only needed to understand a dozen vitamins and minerals, and we were all set. That was a subject we could reasonably expect to master. Then came amino acids. Then antioxidants. And probioitics to improve intestinal flora. Fats loomed large, as well, when it became clear that not all fats are created equal. The list kept growing. But it was still of manageable size, even taking into the count the importance of supplement combinations, because two or three together generally work much better than one alone.

Around that time, a great new word emerged: synergy — a synthesis of energies such that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We owe Buckminster Fuller for that one. It was clear that synergistic combinations of ingredients were vastly more powerful than individual ingredients. But we had the capacity to figure out all the combinations, eventually.

Then came phytochemicals.

Phytochemicals, some of which are known as bioflavinoids, and which are now generally known as polyphenols, are a previously unknown collection of compounds found in plants. They have dozens of antioxidant and immune system effects, and they work synergistically both with themselves and with other nutrients. The problem is that there so many of them. There are 2,000 phytochemicals that we understand, 20,000 we know about, about 10,000 of which may have the potential to treat cancer, according to the Wikipedia article on the subject. (Which means they boost the immune system.)

And when we start talking about combinations, the numbers go through the roof. There is a mathematical potential for more than two hundred thousand (200,000).

The nature of phytochemicals suggests that herbal medicine is the right way to go for nutritional healing. But each time I’ve approached the subject, I’ve found it to be both confusingly impenetrable and less than truly effective.

But that was Western herbal medicine. Chinese herbal medicine is a bit different.

Chinese Herbal Medicine

The most important thing to understand about Chinese herbal medicine is that it is based on serious scientific inquiry, from studies that took place over a period of about a thousand years. Of course, there weren’t any microscopes at the time, so there was no way to study the mechanisms of action. As a result, there is little of understanding of why things work. But there is a great deal of understanding about what works.

The goal of Chinese herbal medicine was to keep the Emperor healthy. Whenever the Emperor came down with something, the staff of court physicians roamed the countryside looking for people with similar symptoms. They tried things out, and kept track of what worked. In short, they carried out organized, detailed experimental studies to find out what works.

To know what to recommend, the Chinese system of medicine evolved complicated diagnostic procedures. Some are based on energy meridians. Some on hot and cold, yin and yang. Others are based on detailed, specific observation of the eyes, skin, nails, urine, and solid effluvia. In some cases, the diagnostics and theory of disease are reminiscent of the Copernican world view, where the sun and the planets revolve around the earth. It’s a complex system, hard to understand and use, but it works after a fashion. (On the other hand, the idea of using observable phenomena like hair, skin, and nails is brilliant. The body is a system, after all, so it stands to reason that inputs to the system would have multiple effects, some of which can be observed externally.)

The resulting diagnostic techniques and theory of disease represented the best explanations that smart people could come up with, given the limited techniques they had to acquire information. But within those limits, the system is remarkably effective.

I first came into contact with Chinese herbal medicine when I visited my doctor — Doctor Graheme Shaw, in Los Altos, California. I knew he specialized in nutritional remedies, which is why I went to him. What I didn’t know that was that he was also trained in Chinese herbal medicine. I had been living with a flu I had been unable to shake for several weeks. In that first visit, he gave me an herbal formula that raised my energy level almost immediately, and restored my health completely in a day and a half. To say I was impressed would be an understatement.

The two ingredients I recall in that formula were morinda (an herb), and cordyceps (a mushroom). Since then, I found a Chinese health food store here in Mountain View, where the proprietor speaks English. There, I found a Rhinitis formula that works great on stuffy nose and sinus conditions. And a bronchitis formula (Zhihankeye) that has fixed a nagging cough. (It’s a like a cough syrup, only it’s healthy. So it builds my immune system at the same time that it soothes the cough.)

In my eyes, Chinese herbal medicine is batting a thousand. For each of three problems, the Chinese herbs have had an immediate, beneficial effect. At this point, I’m sold.

But there is clearly a wonderful opportunity here. With Western medicine’s unequalled diagnostic capabilities, and the capacity of Western science to investigate and understand the mechanisms of action, Chinese herbal medicine could enter a whole new era. We could vastly improve both diagnostic capabilities and theoretical understanding for a system of medicine that is already astonishingly effective.

Of course, to do that, we have to get universities and government funding programs back on the track of doing research for the benefit of humanity, rather than for the benefit of corporations. The lack of profit potential is the main reason that nutritional and herbal remedies have gone so under researched, compared to drug research. That is a much larger social issue, but it’s one we need to solve — for our children’s health, if not for our own. But we will only get there after we get the money out of politics. (That’s the goal of the Voting Advice System I propose.)

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