Why Did Herbs Fall Out of Favor with Medical Professionals?
Until 50 to 70 years ago, plants have been our chief sources of medicine in many cultures for thousands of years. Following the development of human culture and continuing scientific conquests, people gradually evolved to herbal medicine. As a result, people began to read ancient herbal books that contained huge compilations of drugs derived from plants.
As the use of pharmaceutical drugs grew, the use of herbal remedies subsided. There are multiple possible explanations as to why this happened. First, when the science of chemistry was developing, plants were considered unpredictable – varying in composition from specimen to specimen. How were doctors supposed to come up with a standard dosage? Furthermore, the lack of a uniform naming system for plants made plant identification very difficult. Second, when physicians began receiving more formal education, they began to feel it was beneath their talents to prescribe treatments that common peasants had mastered; later this attitude was extended toward the treatments of Native Americans, whom colonists preferred to think of as ignorant savages. Third, the pharmaceutical industry realizes that unlike synthetic drugs, not only can the plants not be patented, but they are also inexpensive, regardless of their known benefits. Last but not the least, the herbal medicine has been practiced by countless “lay” herbalists, who often do not have any formal training, it might have ruined the reputation of the “real” herbalists, and tarnished the image of herbal medicine.
So, how do TCM herbs work? In order to understand how herbs work, let's compare them with both food plants and manufactured drugs to explain how they work in the human body. In both instances, the action is chemical. Like fruits and vegetables, herbs contain vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that help keep every cell in the body in good working order. When eaten, herbs enter the body’s various systems the same way food plants do. They are broken down chemically in the stomach and absorbed into the bloodstream, which carries food molecules to distant cells and organs. Like manufactured drugs, medical herbs contain powerful components not commonly found in everyday foods. Herbs have multiple active ingredients in smaller amounts, instead of purely one ingredient in a larger amount, so their action is typically slower and less dramatic. However, the compound ingredients in herbal combinations are easily accepted and less likely to produce fatal side effects especially compared to manufactured drugs. Chinese herbal formulas often contain multiple herbs. There is evidence that the additional herbs and components of herbs – nutrients and the like – help balance the more powerful ingredients, thus eliminating the side effects that often occur when purified drugs are taken. For example, aspirin irritates many people’s stomachs, but the herb meadowsweet, which works like aspirin, contains tannins and mucilage, which protect the stomach lining.
The Unique Feature of Chinese Herbs
Herbal Medicine is essential to the practice of Chinese Medicine. I discussed the Five Elements Theory and Yin-Yang theory on the Chinese medicine principle page of this website. When applying these theories to diagnose and treat individual health issues, the key is to find the imbalance then to revolve this imbalance. The main focus when constructing a treatment plan is the imbalance(s). When cured, this will ensure the healing of all associated disorders. Typically, the point prescription for herbal formulas will consist of at least four categories of points or herbs, called emperor, administer, deputy and envoy depending their responsibilities in the formula. When compounded, multiple herbs contain more powerful ingredients, eliminating the side effects that often occur when purified drugs are taken, while allowing the effective ingredients to work for a long time. Still, herbs are powerful enough that they should not be used carelessly, without consulting a well-trained professional.
The modern Chinese herbs are in capsules, tablets, or granules, so we don’t have to prescribe you packages of bulky herbs to boil at home. If we do need to individualize special herbal formulas, we can offer them in liquid form.