Herbal medicine, one of the five branches of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) - Acupuncture, Qi Gong, Tui Na and Nutrition being the other four - is considered by many TCM practitioners a key component of every treatment. Sometimes supplementing an acupuncture treatment, and other times prescribed instead of acupuncture, herbal medicine has been part of TCM for thousands of years.
Several written records on Chinese herbal medicine have been found through the years. In 1977 the Jiangsu College of New Medicine completed a twenty-five year project entitled Encyclopedia of Traditional Chinese Medicinal Substances. This book contains 5,767 entries and is the definite compilation of China's herbal tradition to date.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine every medicinal substance is seen as having at least a taste, a temperature and a direction. Other properties such as the channels or meridians of the human body in where the energy of that particular substance flows are also discussed. The taste of a medicinal substance partly determines its therapeutic function. Five tastes are recognized in Chinese medicine: acrid, sweet, bitter, sour and salty. Substances that have none of these tastes are said to be bland. Acrid substances disperse and move (pathogens), sweet substances tonify, harmonize and are sometimes also thought to moisten. Bitter substances drain and dry. Sour substances are astringent and prevent or reverse the abnormal leakage of fluids and energy. Salty substances purge and soften, and bland substances leech out dampness and promote urination.
Every medicinal substance also has a temperature; a heating or cooling energy which is a natural component of that particular substance. Since various degrees of hot and cold exist amongst the different substances, Chinese medicine categorizes them into five groups: hot, cold, warm, cool, and neutral. Understanding the temperature of the different medicinal substances becomes critical when trying to balance a disharmony. It is said that Hot diseases must be cooled down and Cold diseases must be warmed up.
Although a single medicinal substance is sometimes prescribed to treat a disorder, the combination of medicinal substances is a much more common practice of using Chinese herbal medicine. Formulas, the combination of several medicinal substances, are not just a collection of medicinal substances in which the actions of one herb are simply added to those of another in a cumulative fashion. They are complex recipes of interrelated substances, each of which affects the actions of the others in the formula.
There are a number of ways of administering Chinese herbal medicine:
Decoctions: are by far the most common form in which traditional Chinese medicine is taken in China. It involves the boiling in water of the raw medicinal substances in a nonmetallic pot for about 30 minutes. It is one of the most effective ways of administering Chinese herbal medicine, and the most popular method in Eastern cultures.
Tinctures: are concentrated herbal extracts that are made using alcohol and chopped herbs. The tincture is especially effective in drawing out the essential compounds of plants. Due to their ability to be absorbed rapidly, to keep nutrients from the plants in a stable and soluble form, their capacity to retain the volatile and semi-volatile ingredients that are otherwise lost in heat-treatment, and their easy way to carry and consume, tinctures are gaining popularity fast in the West.
Powders: are yet another method of administering Chinese herbal medicine. Powders are a readily absorbable, convenient, and easily stored form of medicinal preparation whose rate of medicinal action is between that of decoctions and pills.
Pills: are produced by combining the fine powder of pulverized medicinal substances with a viscous medium. From a functional perspective, pills are usually mild and slow in action.