Chinese Herbal Medicine

Many foreigners visiting China never try Chinese herbal medicine (zhongyao) because they either know nothing about it or simply don’t believe in it. But zhongyao is very popular in Chinese families, especially among old people.

Prominent medical authorities in the west often dismiss herbalists as no better than witch doctors. The ingredients, which may include such marvelous things as snake gall bladder or powdered deer antlers, will further discourage potential non-Chinese customers. Many of the herbs are bitter powders (you may want to load these into empty gelatin capsules if you can’t stand the taste). And finally, even true believers are baffled by the wide assortment of herbs available on the shelves of any Chinese pharmacy – it’s hard to know where to begin.

Having experimented with Chinese herbs ourselves, we’ve found several of them to be remarkably effective. Chinese herbalists have all sorts of treatments for stomach-aches,headaches, colds, flu and sore throats. They also have herbs to treat long-term problems like asthma. Many of these herbs do work well for the patients.

Chinese medicine seems to work best for the relief of unpleasant symptoms (pain, sore throat, etc. ) and for some long-term conditions which resist western medicines, such as migraine headaches, asthma and chronic backache.

When reading about the theory behind Chinese medicine, the word ‘holistic’ appears often. Basically, this means that Chinese medicine seeks to treat the whole body rather than focusing on a particular organ or disease.

Using appendicitis as an example, a Chinese doctor may try to fight the infection using all the body’s defenses, whereas a western doctor would simply cut out the appendix. In this instance the western technique works better, since removing the appendix surgically is 100% effective, though there is always some risk from the surgical procedure itself. In the case of migraine headaches, on the other hand, Chinese herbs may actually prove more effective than western medical treatments.

Another point to be wary of when taking herbal medicine is the tendency of some manufacturers to falsely claim that their product contains numerous potent and expensive ingredients. For example, some herbal formulas may list rhinoceros horn as an ingredient. Rhinoceros horn, widely acclaimed by herbalists as a cure for fever, is practically impossible to buy. Any formula listing rhinoceros horn may, at best, contain water buffalo horn. In any case, the rhino is a rare and endangered species, and you would not wish to hasten its extinction by demanding rhino-horn products.

Another benefit of Chinese medicine is that there are relatively few side effects.

Before shopping for herbs, keep in mind that although a broad-spectrum remedy such as snake gall bladder may be good for treating colds, there are many different types of colds. The best way to treat a cold with herbal medicine is to see a Chinese doctor and get a specific prescription. Otherwise, the herbs you take may not be the most appropriate for your condition. However, if you can’t get to a doctor, you can just try your luck at the pharmacy.

If you visit a Chinese doctor, you might be surprised by what he or she discovers about your body. For example, the doctor will almost certainly take your pulse and then may tell you that you have a slippery pulse or perhaps a thready pulse. Chinese doctors have identified more than 30 different kinds of pulses. The doctor may then examine your tongue to see if it is slippery, dry, pale or greasy, or has a thick coating or maybe no coating at all. The doctor, having discovered that you have wet heat, as evidenced by a slippery pulse and a red greasy tongue, will prescribe the herbs for your condition.

If you spend a good deal of time on buses and boats, you’ll get to see how the Chinese deal with motion sickness, nausea and headaches – usually by smearing liniments on their stomach or head. Look for White Flower Oil (bai hua you) , probably the most popular brand. A variation on the theme are salves, the most famous being Tiger Balm, which originated in Hong Kong. And should you strain yourself carrying that heavy backpack around, try applying sticky dog skin plaster’ (goupi gaoyao) to your sore muscles. You might be relieved to know that these days it’s no longer made from rel dog skin.