Chinese medicine has been around for thousands of years, but only recently has it started to become popular in the West. Incorporating some specific Chinese herbs into a regular health practice can be very beneficial to help balance one’s body, maintain steady energy throughout the day and build strong immunity.
Chinese herbs may be used alone or in combination. Relatively few herbs are used alone for medicinal purposes. Plants are often combined into formulas which address various aspects of a condition to offer a well-rounded approach. Combining herbs based on the different characteristics of the herbs and the specific needs of the patient result in a more personalized approach to healthcare.
Each herb in the Chinese system has four basic healing properties: nature, taste, affinity, and effect. In TCM (traditional Chinese medicine), an herb’s nature is described according to its yin or yang characteristics. Yang herbs are warming and are used to treat cold deficiencies. They may be used to support treatment of the upper respiratory tract, skin, or extremities. Yin herbs are cooling, and are used for conditions of excessive heat. They are most often used for internal conditions and problems with organs. Herbs may also be neutral in nature.
You may have heard of herbs described in terms of the five flavors: bitter, sweet, salty, sour or spicy. An herb’s taste does not refer to its flavor, but rather to its effect on qi, blood, fluids, and phlegm. Sour herbs have a concentrating action. They are prescribed to treat excess conditions such as diarrhea, and to concentrate qi. Bitter herbs have an eliminating or downward moving action. They are used to treat the heart, coughs and constipation. Sweet or bland herbs are harmonizing. They are used as restoratives and to treat pain. Spicy herbs are stimulating. They are prescribed to improve blood and circulation of energy. Salty herbs have a softening action. They are used to treat constipation and other digestive issues.
A plants affinity describes its action on a particular body organ. Bitter herbs have an affinity for the Heart and Small Intestine. Sour herbs act on the Liver and Gallbladder. Sweet/bland herbs act on the Stomach and Spleen. Spicy herbs affect the Lungs and Large Intestine, and lastly, salty herbs relate to the Bladder and Kidneys.
Chinese plants have specific classifications according to their actions, which are divided into four effects. Herbs that dispel are used to treat sluggishness, or accumulation, by relaxing or redistributing. Herbs with astringent action are used to restrain or consolidate a condition characterized by excessive elimination or discharge. Purging Herbs are used to treat an obstruction or a toxin by encouraging detoxification and elimination. Herbs which tonify will support, nourish, and calm where there is a deficiency.
The subset of the larger class of Chinese herbs which are considered “tonic” herbs are often adaptogenic, meaning you don’t have to take them for particular conditions; they will help your body adapt to conditions wherever your body presently is. They are safe for long-term use and also safe for anyone to take with few, if any, contraindications. Tonic herbs are helpful for building overall immunity, and balancing many other conditions.
A popular trend today is to incorporate tonic herbs into daily smoothies and teas or elixirs. It’s easy to do when you can find the herbs in loose powders, or you can also open up capsules of your favorites directly into a blender with your other ingredients.