The Power & Poise of Chinese Herbal Medicine

Travis Cunningham L.Ac.

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    Where I live in Portland, Oregon, many people share an interest in natural medicine. There are two Chinese medicine schools in town, a Chiropractic school, a Massage school, the oldest Naturopathic school in the country, and a medical school which specializes in Integrative Medicine. With such an abundance of natural medicine to choose from, why would someone pick a medicine that does not draw its roots from local soil? Wouldn’t it be better to choose medicine that is grown, stored and processed here? Why should people give Chinese herbal medicine a shot?

    All of these questions are valid. And as a Chinese medicine practitioner, I have been asked them many times. The answer lies within the uniqueness of assessment, diagnosis, and treatment that Chinese herbal medicine can offer. This begins with the medicine’s focus on relationship.

Understanding the Relationship

The focus of a Chinese medical assessment is not based on the physics of what is happening in your body. This assessment is actually more concerned with understanding the relationship between your component parts (e.g. your organs, tissues, or bones). Our understanding is expressed using a kind of symbolic language. These symbols are taken from activities and movements that ancient people observed within nature and then observed that those natural processes had an apparent likeness to activities within the human body.

Knowing the History

The Chinese Medicine understanding of combining herbal remedies is backed up by thousands of years of writing and experimentation. The older writings that exist on the various topics of herbal medicine also have hundreds of years of commentary and discussion by physicians of past and present. In a very real sense,  Chinese herbal medicine has close to two thousand years of peer review. This fact alone may suffice to make it worthy of consideration for modern people.

Defining the Symbol

Natural experiences like heat, cold, dampness, dryness, and wind, are described as they appear in a person’s body presentation. Shaking, for example, with its sudden appearance and disappearance, tremor and vibration are caused by wind. The ancients observed the air suddenly moving and gusting, shaking the leaves of the trees and blowing debris along the ground, and they carried this experience to their understanding of human physiology.

Symbols such as Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water, were also chosen to emphasize patterns of functional movement within the body. The Lungs and the Large Intestine both descend and consolidate, as is the movement of Metal in nature. The Lungs breathe in air (descent), and consolidate the essence of air into nourishment for the body. The Large Intestine descends the stool and consolidates moisture for optimal elimination. Every major organ is looked at by a similar likeness with a corresponding movement in nature.

The ancient Chinese found that when these movement patterns were happening harmoniously and in just the right amount, a person was happy and healthy. While, a disharmony or mismanagement of these movement patterns led to disease. When these nature-based symbols are used together in an evaluation, a Chinese medicine practitioner can form a type of diagnosis called a pattern. A pattern reflects the relationship of harmony and disharmony within a person’s body.

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Finding the Pattern

All Chinese medical treatment, whether acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, gua sha, or herbal medicine is done to address a person’s pattern. This is different than targeting the person’s disease (as is done in biomedicine). If we seek the destruction of an illness we require a force to eliminate it. If, however, we seek to restore a pattern of functional movement, all that we require is a guide. This guide can be less forceful, but it must be precise. The cultivation of precision is the skillset of the Chinese medical practitioner. This skillset is practiced through a careful differentiation of the pattern. 

Lets look at an example:
Two people catch a cold. Person A, has chills and fever, a slightly irritated sore throat, a headache on the sides of their head, and itchiness in the ears. Person B, has chills and fever, an intensely swollen and painful throat, and is sweating profusely.

Biomedically, these people may have the same virus attacking their systems. But in Chinese medicine, what is important is the pattern that such an illness presents within the individual. And in the example above, the pattern is different.

In person B, the intensely swollen, painful throat and profuse sweating indicate a heat pattern. In person A, the sore throat is less severe. The itchiness in the ears and location of the headache indicate that the illness has reached a different pathway (the Gallbladder or Shao Yang layer). The Chinese medical treatment will be different for each case, as it will tailor to the individual’s pattern.

As you can see, the pattern not only tells us about the disease, but also the relationship between the disease and the person’s constitution. This relationship is given a symbolic name with the terms discussed above (Example pattern: wind-heat invading the exterior). Treatment is given to principally address this relationship, and help assist the person restore their health (Example treatment principles: clear heat, vent wind, secure the exterior).

Choosing the Formula

To execute the above principles in the form of a treatment, a formula is chosen. A formula is a set of procedures that follow the direction of a treatment principle. In acupuncture, a formula is a list or set of acupuncture points, and the needling techniques of each point. In Chinese herbal medicine, a formula is a set of herbs given at a particular dosage and frequency of administration.

Chinese herbal medicine studies not only the effects of an individual herb, but pays particular attention to how that effect changes when herb A is combined with herb B. Herbs in combination can emphasize certain functional principles, or unlock new actions entirely.

The hot herb Fu Zi (Aconite) can be used to treat invasive cold patterns like neuropathy of the limb, by warming and dispersing the cold influence. But Fu Zi can only become a tonic for the heart, when it is combined with other sweet herbs like Gan Jiang (Dried Ginger) and Zhi Gan Cao (Prepared Licorice Root). In this case, Gan Jiang and Zhi Gan Cao also act to nullify the toxicity and harshness of Fu Zi, making the decoction or tea, safe to drink. While if you were to take Fu Zi by itself, the remedy might actually be dangerous.

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Treating the Person

The strength of using Chinese medicine ultimately stems from the medicine's focus on treating the person. The perspective that Chinese medicine comes from is a view that believes in health as a natural phenomena. Health doesn't need to be forced, it can simply be encouraged. And with the right encouragement, a natural state of health and happiness can resume. Ease is, after all, easier than disease