Herbs have been an important part of healing and maintaining health throughout the world, and ancient China was no exception. In fact, Chinese Medicine has what is probably the most extensive and nuanced system of herbalism ever developed, having compiled and documented the therapeutic effects of several thousand substances.

Dang Shen - Chinese Herbal Tonic Herb
By ProjectManhattan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

While herbalism is a complex and comprehensive practice, the role of herbalism in the treatment of illness and preservation of health can be explained in a rather simple way. If we picture a spectrum of substances that can affect the body’s internal environment, we would place nutrition on one extreme end and pharmaceuticals on the other end. Nutrition provides the basic building blocks and vital nutrients to fuel the basic biochemical functions of the body’s daily activities. Food is complex and provides a wide array of these substances in a single fruit, vegetable, meat, or legume. Pharmaceuticals, on the other hand are typically chemically pure substances that usually do not exist in isolation in nature. Because of this, they typically can have very pronounced and targeted effects on the body’s chemistry in a short time. Very specific targets can be isolated, such as enzymes, cell receptor sites, glandular activities, or pathogens to accomplish very specific goals. These substances can alter the body’s activities in often miraculous ways, but because they can shift physiologic functions so dramatically, there are often unintended consequences that we usually refer to as side effects.

Herbs and herbal formulations fall in the middle of these two extremes. Because they are natural substances, they are usually complex and often provide many of the same vital nutrients that we get from the food we eat, and thus nourish the body’s activities. However, they also many contain many phytonutrients that can have very specific and targeted effects on the body. Herbal treatment can therefore be a fantastic way to both address very specific needs and nourish the body’s functions to accomplish a comprehensive approach to a health issue.

Chinese Herbal formulations are typically designed to address the physiology in very comprehensive ways. Several targets or functions of the body may often be addressed in a single herbal formula in order to achieve better results and help the body recover more quickly. Chinese Herbal formulations work in conjunction with acupuncture treatment.