Eye of newt…

by Mary Beth Ladenheim

A November 8 Huffington Post story highlighted 25 herbs they’re calling among the “Best For Your Body.”

Of that list, we use 17 in Chinese herbal medicine. Licorice, mint, nutmeg, rosemary, schizandra, saffron, turmeric, ginseng, ginger, fennel, dandelion, cinnamon, burdock, and astragalus are all used in herbal preparations made for ingesting. Lavender, rosemary, oregano, and thyme are used in essential oil blends that are applied topically to acupuncture points.

It can be a shift in thinking for people to consider herbs – something they typically use “just” for seasoning – as medicine. As is often the case, we can recognize the potential of these things if we consider what happens when we overdo it. I remember, for example, putting way too much chili powder in a batch of homemade chili. I was sweating after 3 bites. Same thing with the excessive cinnamon in last week’s applesauce. Probably you can think of a similar situation from your experience. Garlic? Ginger? Salt?

Many people can accept that herbs can have certain physiological effects on the body; some of the most acknowledged are sweating, reflux, diarrhea, calming, and death.  So why is it hard to believe that when used intentionally and with knowledge, herbs can create great change in the body and can revolutionize a person’s sense of health? My theory is that people are skeptical because many are the rotating fads of supplementation and pill-popping, and few are the educated herbalists. But why are there so few well-educated herbalists? I’m not entirely sure, but I think it is intimately related to the fact that herbal medicine does not enjoy firm footing in mainstream American culture as a serious medicine. Here it is considered outdated, dangerous, or esoteric. If plant substances are considered in the US for medicinal purposes, it is most often in terms of specific components to extract for use in pharmaceuticals.

But in China, herbal medicine was one of the official medicines. Today there remain literally thousands of years worth of information regarding the use of natural substances for medicinal use – plants, fungi, animals, and minerals.

The Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica (Bensky, et al.) serves as one of the major texts in most Chinese herbal medicine programs in the US. It includes information, discussion, and comparisons of 480 “principal herbs” and “an additional 52 herbs” with brief information. Almost all of those herbs are in routine use today. Older herbal compilations have included thousands of substances. The substances are grouped into categories that are indicative of their functions: “Transform Phelgm and Stop Coughing,” “Drain Dampness,” “Calm the Spirit.” Their properties and varieties are noted along with preparations and cautions, as well as the channels they enter. All of this information is taken into account when the herbalist prepares a formula.

It’s a big book. And the print is little. There’s a lot to say on the subject.

Let’s start with internal herbal medicine, by which I mean herbs that one ingests. These herbs (or substances, as mentioned above) are used in combination with each other to make one custom formula for the patient. Each formula usually has between 9-15 different ingredients, although this can vary. It’s pretty unusual for a formula to contain fewer than 6 herbs, but it does happen.

Following are pictures of two types of cinnamon (stored in glass jars) that we very commonly use:

In this picture I’m holding cinnamon bark, an herb categorized as “Warm the Interior, Expel Cold.” It’s commonly used to help resolve symptoms such as wheezing, menstrual cramps, and diarrhea.
This is cinnamon twig and is categorized as a diaphoretic herb. Its common uses include combination with other substances in cases of fever and chills and other body pains, like muscle cramps.

The most traditional way of consuming such herbs is to boil and simmer one’s herbal formula in water as directed, and then to drink the resultant liquid (either warm or room temperature) at prescribed dosages. At VCA, we call these decoctions “teas,” although there is no actual tea leaf in them.

Here’s one morning’s dose of the “tea” I’m currently drinking. It’s beside the sippy cup for size comparison.

My tea happens to be very dark. Obviously color and taste are dependent upon the ingredients, which are in turn dependent upon each case at hand.

Many people love the concept and process of cooking and drinking their own herbal formulas. There’s something soothing and healing about that for lots of folks. Many, too, enjoy getting familiar with the different flavors and their effects in the body. They get a kick out of noticing how the tea makes them feel.

And some people find such a process to be achingly annoying. For them, we have “teapills.” These are herbs that have been decocted and dried into pills:IMG_0682

Teapills are also really handy when you’re traveling, or if you’re too sick to stand up and cook herbs. They can also be an entrypoint into herbal medicine. I remember in my own experience, I was skeptical and dismissive of teas. I (somewhat disbelievingly) took the teapills until I realized they made a great impact on my symptoms. Then I thought I’d much rather have a custom formula made just for me, so I switched over.

Tinctures – herbs soaked in alcohol or glycerin and taken in dropper form – are another quick and easy way to get herbal medicine into a body on the go. They can be taken directly or added to hot water and drunk as a warm beverage.

At VCA we also offer custom essential oil blends. This is herbal medicine, but of a different sort. Instead of ingesting the herbs, these oils are applied to certain acupuncture points. This can be a great way to continue treatment at home when multiple, consecutive treatments are indicated.

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