Chinese Herbal Medicine

Chinese Herbal Medicine as a system of medicine

Chinese herbal medicine, along with acupuncture, Chinese massage (Tui Na) and exercise therapy (Qi Gong), is one of the components of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a complete system of medicine with a recorded history of over 2000 years.
Traditional Chinese Medicine fundamentally differs from Western medicine in its understanding of the human body and its approach to diagnosing and treating illnesses.  Western medicine takes a mechanistic view of the body in which different organs are viewed as each performing an individual and self-contained function, much like the separate components within a machine, and consequently its treatments target individual symptoms largely in isolation.  By contrast, Traditional Chinese Medicine views the body as an integrated system, and diseases as manifestations of imbalances within that system.  Therefore Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments aim primarily at restoring and maintaining balance and harmony within the body.

Chinese Herbal Medicine origins

The origin of Chinese herbal medicine is sometimes attributed to the legendary Shen Nong, who is credited with introducing agriculture to the Chinese people around 3000 BC.  The first known text on Chinese herbal medicine is Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (The Divine Farmer's Materia Medica Classic), which is dated around 300 BC and lays the foundations for the study of Chinese herbs by recording, describing and classifying 365 medicines.  Successive generations built on and expanded that work, and today the Chinese pharmacopoeia includes over 6000 different medicinal substances along with their properties and effects.  Of these, about 600 different herbs are in common use today.
Throughout its recorded history Chinese herbal medicine has been the subject of extensive research into all aspects of its use, and this continues today.  In Chinese hospitals, Chinese herbal medicine is regularly used alongside Western medicine.

What are herbs?

Traditionally Chinese herbal medicine uses substances derived from plant, mineral, and animal products.  The vast majority of herbs is plant-derived and can include leaves, stems and roots.  Examples of "herbs" of mineral or animal origin include oyster shells and deer antlers.
The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (RCHM) enforces a strict policy requiring all prescriptions to use exclusively plant ingredients, and prohibiting the use of any type of endangered species.

What can Chinese Herbal Medicine treat?

Chinese herbal medicine is primarily aimed at redressing internal imbalances and encouraging the body's self-healing abilities, rather than treating the symptoms alone.  It can be used to treat a wide range of conditions, including:
  • Skin diseases
  • Hypertension
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Digestive disorders
  • High blood pressure
  • Menstrual and gynaecological problems
  • Asthma
  • Infertility
  • Depression and other emotional problems
  • Chronic fatigue
As part of the same system of medicine, Chinese herbal medicine is a natural complement to acupuncture treatment.  It can be used either as an alternative to Western medicine or to support Western treatment.


Since the basic principle of Chinese herbal medicine is to restore and maintain the balance of the entire organism, diagnosis has to account for the condition of the whole person rather than just rely on information about specific individual symptoms.
The first step in assessing your overall condition involves taking your "case".  This is generally done by means of an extensive interview, and for this reason the first consultation may take longer than subsequent sessions.
Pulse taking
The Chinese herbal medicine practitioner will ask you questions relating not only to your present symptoms and any previous or current treatment, but also about your medical history, your diet, appetite, sleep patterns, stress and emotional state.  Both what is said and how it is said are important in developing a proper understanding of the whole person.
The herbalist will then examine your tongue and take your pulse.  Pulse taking is very different from the taking of the arterial pulse by a Western doctor.  Pulses are felt in both wrists, and their quality, rhythm and strength are all significant as they help assess the flow of energy within your body.  Tongue examination is visual and is also an important diagnostic tool.  The structure, colour and coating of different areas of your tongue provide an in-depth insight into your physical health.

Different types of prescriptions

In contrast with other forms of herbal medicine that use either individual herbs, or combinations of very small numbers of herbs performing similar functions, Chinese herbal medicine makes extensive use of complex formulae.  These may contain between four and twenty different herbs, selected so their individual properties balance each other to maximise the overall efficacy of the prescription.
A number of pre-prepared formulae are available in pill form.  These products are very convenient, as they are ready to use, but limit the practitioner's ability to adjust the formulae to the needs of individual patients.
Individually prescribed formulae may come in one of three forms.  The traditional method of preparing herbal formulae is by decoction.  The prescription is provided to you as a mixture of the required herbs in dried form, which are then boiled in water at home to prepare the decoction.
Another way of providing tailored prescriptions is as highly concentrated powdered extracts prepared to the herbalist's specifications.  You place the powder in hot water to recreate the decoction.
The third alternative is to package the powdered extracts in capsule form.

Safety and regulation

Chinese herbal medicine is very safe when administered by a trained and qualified practitioner.  Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine members are bound by strict regulations and comply with relevant UK legislation.  They are required to use only approved suppliers, which are vetted for continued commitment to standards in the provision of high quality authenticated herbs produced according to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP).
Because of their complexity, the natural compounds used in Chinese herbal medicine are inherently more balanced than medications based on single active ingredients, and therefore far less likely to cause side effects.  In addition, the fact that prescriptions consist of complex formulae where groups of herbs work in synergy further increases their safety.


Michele Marsland
Chinese Herbal Medicine