misconceptions about herbal medicine

Recently, someone wrote me in response to an article I wrote on the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) principle of dui yao, a principle of formulation where one might use two or more herbs as one brought up not one. His letter brought up a couple of common misconceptions about herbal medicine which I thought were worth discussing here.

Following is an excerpt from the note I received:

Hi, Michael,

Just been reading your blog about herb combinations and Dui Yao therapy. How refreshing to find such common sense. I consider myself a total amateur in herbal practice, I did try to see western herbs in terms of Chinese Medicine but as I trained in Acupuncture my knowledge of Chinese herbology was very limited. I have always felt that the herbs that grow more locally to where we live are intrinsically more suitable than herbs from the other side of the world… I rarely use a simple herb and instinctively avoid too many in a single formula… (A well-respected herbalist and teacher) in London used to run a wonderful class where he had his students drink a tea of unknown identity and then have each student write down how the herb affected them, was it hot or cold, calming or energizing, wherein the body was the action felt. The astonishing thing was that the consensus from those students, who often knew very little about herbs and were there at the very beginning of their herbal journey, was remarkable.

These are the two misconceptions that jumped out at me:

  1. Herbs that grow closest to us are superior to herbs from distant parts of the world.
  2. Large herbal formulas are inferior to single herbs or formulas with only a few herbs.

While each of these contains a kernel of truth, they are largely fallacious if taken too literally.

Will herbs that grow where we live work better on us on herbs from other countries?

Few of us can say that we are indigenous to the place where we happen to live. Pathogens from different regions circle the globe so we can’t expect that the limited number of plants used for healing in any one region is sufficient to deal with all the diseases that may occur in that region. Even if we ourselves remained in one place our whole lives, we are susceptible to the influences and diseases that are brought to us by others. The Native Americans were more decimated by European diseases like smallpox and other contagious diseases than the takeover of their lands by European invaders. While a single herb may have many properties, this hardly means that it will be the best herb to use for any given condition.

Do formulas containing fewer herbs work better than formulas with a long list of ingredients?

The efficacy of an herbal preparation is not dependent on the number of herbs that are given but whether it is the best herb or formula, given in therapeutic dosage for any condition. Many people think that 10 to 30 drops of tincture or a teaspoon of dried herbs used to make tea is sufficient to get the job done. It was a revelation to many when I described in my first book, The Way of Herbs, that medicinal tea is usually prepared using a whole ounce of dried herb (more if fresh) infused or boiled in a pint (two cups) of water.  The commonly used Chinese herb therapeutic dose ranges from 6 to 30 grams of herbs per day. Experienced Ayurvedic practitioners usually prescribe comparably higher doses of the powdered herb than many Ayurvedic practitioners and books recommend.

Furthermore, herbs each have unique properties that work together in different ways that professional herbalists are trained to understand so that a balanced formula of as much as 20 or more herbs carefully formulated and compounded can prove to be the safest and most effective herbal treatment based on the entire presentation of the patient and their condition.

A word about heating and cooling energies of herbs

The heating or cooling properties of herbs represents a universal way that most people around the world assign and describe their herbs. However, these energetic descriptions are based on the system or herbal practice that evolved in differing cultures so that even in terms of heating and cooling properties we must be careful to not take these out of the total context of their use. What is heating or cooling in Chinese, Western or Ayurvedic herbalism may not always correspond to the others. For example, salt is cooling in Ayurveda while in TCM it is heating. Honey is drying in Ayurveda and lubricating in TCM. Peppermint is spicy-tasting for instance but its therapeutic effect can be either warm or cool depending on its intended use. Many other examples can be found with herbs, so having a number of students blindly ingest them and name their heating or cooling properties based on their personal experience may correspond to one system but contradict another; still, both would be valid depending on the lens through which they are viewed.

 

 

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