In our quest to be ever healthier yet drug-free, more and more Americans are turning to herbal supplements in unprecedented numbers. Ginko for memory, St. John’s Wort for depression, Milk Thistle for the liver, and Saw Palmetto for prostate health—all can be found on the shelf at your local grocery or drug store.
The idea of choosing your herbs while pushing a grocery cart seems a bit contrary to some of the principals behind the use of Chinese medicinal herbs. So here are a few items explaining their use and dispelling some myths behind Chinese Herbology.
Myth: Herbs are prescribed based on a specific symptom.
Fact: In Chinese medicine, herbal formulas are prescribed based on your specific pattern of imbalance. Your symptoms are just signposts pointing to the underlying cause of that imbalance. For example, there are several formulas that could be used if you have insomnia. But there are also several causes of insomnia in Chinese medicine. Do you fall asleep, but wake a few hours later? Are you waking up due to night sweats? Is your mind racing when you can’t sleep, or are you lying in bed quietly while sleep eludes you? Are you wide awake all night or just a restless sleeper? Your practitioner would prescribe an herbal formula based on your answers to these and other questions about your health.
Myth: Herbs are meant to be taken individually.
Fact: Chinese herbalists almost never prescribe single herbs. By combining herbs into a formula, your practitioner is able to fine-tune the herbs to your specific needs. Also, some herbs are strong and need to be tempered by the harmonizing effects of other herbs, some herbs may be added to strengthen the effects of a formula, and some herbs may be added to treat other symptoms that accompany your condition.
Myth: Herbs are natural, so they must not be very strong.
Fact: Many of the prescription drugs we take today have been developed from herbs. Herbs have very real effects and need to be taken with proper care and a little bit of knowledge. In 2001, Minnesota Viking, Korey Stringer died of heat stroke while practicing in the August humidity. Further investigation uncovered the fact that he had been taking a weight loss formula for many months that included the Chinese herb Ma Huang, or ephedra and may have been a factor in his death. In Chinese medicine, ephedra is rarely prescribed for more than a week or so, and is never used for weight loss. This story just underscores that these herbs are strong enough to impact your health, need to be used properly, and should be taken with some guidance.
Myth: If I’m taking a prescription drug, I can’t take Chinese herbs.
Fact: In some cases this is actually correct. For example, ginseng can further raise already high blood pressure, St. John’s Wort may interact with a number of meds, and if you’re taking the blood thinner Coumadin, herbs are completely out of the question. However, in most cases if you’re taking a prescription drug, it’s okay to take a Chinese herbal formula. Personally, I don’t prescribe herbs if a patient is taking several drugs, because the risk for adverse effects is already high. However, depending on the single medication and the herbal formula, most are safe to take together.
Myth: Chinese herbs are always plants.
Fact: Um…not always. Think animal, vegetable, mineral, and you’ll be on the right track. Most herbs do come from plants, but there are minerals, such as gypsum, ground seashells, calcium, and iron that are considered Chinese herbs. In addition, there are some animal based herbs, such as turtle shell, parts of some insects, and the fuzz from deer antlers that are very effective herbs. In the past, some herbs came from animals that are now endangered species (tiger bones, and the gallbladder of the Asiatic bear). Herbal manufacturers have successfully found suitable substitutions that are effective without using products from endangered species.