Chinese herbal medicine, along with acupuncture and tui na massage, is based on the concepts of Yin and Yang. It aims treat the ways in which a person's Qi or life force energy may be depleted or blocked. Practitioners prescribe herbs based upon symptoms that reflect an imbalance. However, the tradition as a whole places great emphasis on lifestyle management (diet, exercise etc) in order to prevent disease before it occurs. Chinese medicine recognises that health is more than just the absence of disease.
In the same way that people have unique Qi, so do herbs. Successful treatment comes from matching the herbal Qi with the needs of the body.
There are three main ways to describe the qualities of herbs.
Specific temperatures correspond to specific types of illness. Cold herbs treat hot conditions such as fevers or infections, whereas hot herbs are used to treat cold conditions such as some types of bladder problems or constipation.
There are six groups into which all tastes fit; they are, sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and bland. The first five tastes relate to the five elements (Earth, Wood, Water, Fire, Metal respectively) and the five yin organs (Spleen, Liver Kidney Heart Lung respectively). Bland tasting herbs would have neutral qualities: ie, neither warm or cool and not relating to any specific organ.
Herbs are prescribed specifically to act on certain organs, with certain temperatures and tastes. So, for example, Xin Yi Hua (Magnolia flower), which is a pungent herb, affects the lungs and is used to treat cold conditions such as a blocked nose due to a cold.
Chinese Herbal Medicine courses in the UK
In the UK, it is possible to study in Chinese Herbal Medicine from scratch (4 years) and also as a qualified TCM practitioner (2 years). It is advisable to study accredited courses which will give you automatic membership of the RCHM, the Register for Chinese Herbal Medicine. There are also courses in patent herbal medicine – where a particular blend of herbs is made into a patent herbal pill to treat a specific condition.
What is a typical treatment like?
A session may last anything from half and hour to an hour and a half for a first treatment. Practitioners will usually take a detailed case history, take your pulses and ask to look at your tongue. They give the practitioner a very detailed picture of your state of health. On the basis of these things, and your discussion, you will then be prescribed herbs in one of several ways. You may get raw herbs, which you will need to boil up into a tea and drink (or apply to the skin for some skin conditions). Alternatively you may get herbal tablets or capsules (patent herbs) which are based on a standard formula. Finally, you might be given concentrated powders, which are either stirred into water for drinking or put into capsules. Your herbalist may recommend that you return for treatment once a month or as regularly as once a week, depending on the nature of your condition.
By Susanna Dowie MA, LicAc, MBAcC, HonMRCHM,
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