The art and science of Chinese Medicine includes the practice of acupuncture, tuina (meridian-based massage), qigong (life-force cultivation), dietary therapy, and herbal medicine. This essay will introduce the basic principles used in Chinese herbal medicine, and provide a listing of the categories of herbs.
Tastes, Temperatures & Channels Entered
The way that an herb acts within the body – and hence its therapeutic effect – is determined by its temperature, its taste and the channels/meridians that it enters. An herb’s temperature is classified as hot, warm, neutral, cool or cold. In line with common sense, cool and cold herbs are used to treat hot conditions, while warm and hot herbs are used to treat cold conditions. The tastes ascribed to herbs include sweet, sour, bitter, acrid and salty. Sweet herbs are used to tonify qi. Sour herbs have an astringent effect in the body. Bitter herbs are used to dry damp and clear heat. Acrid herbs have the power to disperse cold and move stagnation. Salty herbs are used to soften and purge.
Occasionally just a single herb is prescribed for a patient’s condition. Far more common, however, is for several herbs to be combined into an herbal formula. In the context of an herbal formula, a single herb acts not only according to its own taste and temperature and channels entered, but also in concert with the other herbs in the formula. The overall effect of a formula is the result of the synergy or alchemy created by the combination of the single herbs.
Chinese Herbal Categories
The herbs included in the Chinese Materia Medica are organized into categories. The categories are based upon Chinese medical diagnostic patterns. The herbs in the “dispel wind dampness” category, for instance, are those most commonly used with diagnoses of “Wind-Damp”(e.g. in various skin conditions). The herbs in the “supplement” category are those called upon to remedy “vacuity” conditions (when the body’s yin, yang, qi or blood needs support). Following is a complete listing of the herbal categories currently in use. For a listing of the individual herbs in a specific category, click on the category title. (Please note: This is a work in progress!)
Release Exterior. Herbs in this category – through their outward, dispersing action - repel external pathogenic influences (e.g. when we’re on the verge of getting a “cold”).
Clear Internal Heat. Herbs in this category clear internal heat of all kinds: vacuity, repletion, toxic-heat, heat in the blood, damp heat.
Precipitate. Herbs in this category are used primarily to treat constipation, and include cathartics, purgatives and laxatives.
Drain Dampness. Herbs in this category promote urination, so are useful for treatment of edema and urinary disorders.
Dispel Wind Dampness. Herbs in this category increase circulation and decrease swelling/inflammation, and are used largely to treat arthritis and skin conditions.
Transform Phlegm and Stop Cough. Herbs in this category clear phlegm and relax the cough reflex.
Aromatic Transform Dampness. Herbs in this category revive a Spleen overwhelmed by dampness.
Disperse Food Accumulation. Herbs in this category move stagnation.
Rectify Qi. Herbs in this category move Liver qi and remove stagnation from the digestive system.
Rectify Blood. Herbs in this category either stop bleeding or increase circulation to remove blood stagnation.
Warm Interior. Herbs in this category support metabolic functions (associated with the Spleen) by dispelling cold and reviving the digestive fire.
Tonify/Supplement. Herbs in this category are used to nourish and strengthen the body by supplementing yin, yang, qi and blood. The “tonics” in this category are considered superior to all other herbs, because they can be used for prevention of disease as well as treatment (e.g. in formulas supportive of Taoist Inner Alchemy longevity practices).
Astringe. The herbs in this category dry excessive secretions (diarrhea, urination, sweating).
Calm Spirit. The herbs in this category have a calming effect, and are useful in treating anxiety, insomnia, irritability, etc.
Aromatic Open Orifices. The herbs in this category are used to revive consciousness.
Extinguish Wind, Stop Spasm. The herbs in this category are useful in treating muscle spasms or any kind of involuntary movements, as well as hypertension.
Expel Parasites. The herbs in this category are used to destroy or expel parasites.
External Use. The herbs in this category are applied topically for sprains, spasms, bruises or skin problems (e.g. in Shaolin/Taoist herbal training formulas used to treat martial arts injuries).
How To Read the Chinese Materia Medica
Here’s a sample entry from the Chinese Materia Medica, for an herb you’re likely already to have in your kitchen: Cinnamon Bark. As you’ll see, the entry begins with Pin Yin as well as Latin names for the herb, then moves on to list its qualities and actions, and ends with a dosage recommendation. In terms of the herb categories outlined above, Cinnamon Bark belongs primarily to the “Warm Interior” category, and secondarily to the “Supplement (Yang)” category.
Pin Yin Rou Gui
Common Name Cinnamon Tree Bark
Botanical Family Lauraceae
Botanical Name Cinnamomun cassia Presl.
Primary Action Warm Interior
Secondary Actions Supplement Yang
Taste Acrid, Sweet
Entering Channel KD, SP, LV, UB
Actions Warms Kidneys & Supplement Yang; Warms Middle & Disperses Cold; Warms the Channels; Guides the true Fire back to the Kidneys
Dosage 0.3 – 1.0 qian
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