Due to a certain “life change” (yes I got married) I found myself having insurance coverage like never before. I absolutely adore acupuncture so I thought, well, need it or not, I can have this service and it is COVERED!!! So lately, I have been receiving wonderful relaxing treatments by a woman down the street here in West Hollywood. So wonderful and relaxing I think she should have me sign a waiver before driving home. During one of my sessions while I was looking at all of her herbs, it dawned on me that during my training and now in practice, I use a ton of western botanicals but not a lot of eastern ones, so, what better topic to review and share!
Chinese herbs have been around for a long, long time – five thousand years, give or take a few – and they are highly effective for treating all sorts of health problems. I believe that they work best when used within the paradigm of Oriental medicine. In other words, Chinese herbs are much more likely to work well when a patient receives the herbal prescription from a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, and receives the practitioner’s guidance and support around using those herbs.
Some 500 to 600 herbs, animal byproducts, and minerals comprise the traditional Chinese materia medica. These herbs are used by TCM practitioners in all kinds of combinations, based on a complex diagnostic system. Naturopathic and TCM doctors use the same general approach – we base diagnosis and treatment on evaluation of imbalances, deficiencies, and excesses, and the ability of various treatments to counteract them. TCM is based on ancient theories involving the flow of energy (qi), made up of a balance of yin and yang energies, along energy pathways (meridians) that run throughout the body. Qi is manipulated by supporting either yin or yang with specific herbal combinations, or by directing its movement with acupuncture, acupressure, cupping (where glass vials are applied to the skin with a gentle vacuum) or moxibustion (burning of herbs at acupuncture points).
Many Chinese herbs are beginning to enter the mainstream of herbal medicine, and these herbs are widely available in health food and supplement stores and increasingly popular with consumers for maintaining optimal health or to correct an imbalance that is making them feel unwell. Here are a few of the herbs customers might be looking for, and why they are believed to be beneficial for their health.
One of the best-known Chinese herbs, panax is what’s known as an adaptogen – it enhances cellular metabolism, increases endurance and energy, and is believed to enhance brain function and boost alertness. Any adaptogen (which may also be referred to as a tonic) earns its title by improving the body’s ability to tolerate and recover from stress, whether that stress is physical (intense exercise), chemical (exposure to toxins), or biological (contracting an illness).
Panax ginseng. This tonic, adaptogenic herb increases the amount of oxygen that passes from the bloodstream into cells to be burned for energy, improving exercise performance and breakdown of carbohydrate and fat stores. These effects explain why ginseng is so popular as an energy and endurance booster. It’s also thought to increase fuel availability in the brain, enhancing alertness and thinking ability. Panax ginseng contains chemicals called ginsenosides, which mimic the adrenal hormones made in the body when stressful situations arise. Those hormones enhance energy, strength, and alertness, helping us to rise to the occasion. In other words, ginsenosides specifically support the function of the body’s natural stress-resistance system.
This form of ginseng (one of several) also acts as a powerful antioxidant and has documented anti-cancer activity. It increases immunity against colds and flu and has long been used as an aphrodisiac.
Contraindications to this herb include hypertension or diabetes that is controlled with insulin or oral hypoglycemic drugs. The best-quality extracts are standardized to 1.5 to 7 percent ginsenoside. It appears to have greatest benefit when taken for two to three weeks at a time, with a two-week break in between periods of use.
This fungus is a rare find in the wild, harvested in remote areas of China and Tibet at altitudes above 3,500 feet. It is costly – up to $1,000 for 100 grams – and the best varieties are said to come from Tibet. Its adaptogenic and tonic properties make it a mainstay of traditional Chinese herbal medicine.
A 1998 review by Stanford University researchers describes its “oxygen-free radical scavenging, antisenescence, endocrine, hypolipidemic, antiatherosclerotic, and sexual function-restorative activities” in detail. It enhances immune function, stimulating white blood cell production and natural killer (NK) cell activity. Like many other fungi used in Asian medicine, including shiitake and reishi mushrooms, Cordyceps has strong potential as both cancer preventative and cancer treatment. Studies performed at Beijing University in China and in Japan found that it is a highly effective treatment for male impotence (64 percent success rate in the treatment group versus 24 percent in the placebo group).
Extracts should be made from the whole fruiting body of the fungus, standardized to seven percent cordycepin per 500 mg dose. (http://www.chinese-herbs.org/cordyceps/)
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)
This fungus was written of in the oldest known Chinese pharmacopoeia, dating back to the first century B.C. Chinese medicine rates it very highly as an overall tonic, a superior medicine that promotes long life and youthful vibrancy. Current research suggests that Reishi is a powerful natural cancer preventative and may be useful for the treatment of some cancers; both cancer and HIV patients seek it out for its immunity-boosting effects, which are thought to derive from its content of beta-glucans and triterpenes. Reishi has also been found to improve blood lipid profiles, aid in controlling both high and low blood pressure, and soothe nervous tension. It has been said to help heal bronchitis, hepatitis, and diminished blood flow to the heart muscle.
Quality supplements are standardized to 10 to 12.5 percent polysaccharides and four percent triterpenes per dose.
Dong Quai (Angelica sinensis)
This herbal medicine, derived from the root of a perennial plant, is widely used in Asia as a female tonic. It has been called “the female ginseng.” It is rich in coumarins, plant chemicals that open up blood vessels, improving circulation; coumarins also have relaxant effects on the central nervous system. Some studies suggest that its usefulness for menstrual cramps can be traced back to relaxant effects on the smooth muscles that line the uterus.
In the West, dong quai is most popular as a remedy for hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms. Usually, it is used for this purpose along with other herbs such as black cohosh. It is also used to regulate menstrual cycles, particularly in women who are stopping oral contraceptive use or women who have very heavy periods. In conjunction with chasteberry, it has been found to aid in easing pain from endometriosis.
Dong quai should not be used while pregnant, but it may be helpful for “after-pains” that commonly affect women as their uteruses shrink back down to normal size. According to TCM, dong quai is an excellent liver cleanser that opposes liver stagnation. It is commonly prescribed in TCM treatment programs for cardiovascular disease. Blood pressure-lowering, anti-asthmatic, anti-viral, anti-fungal, and anti-arthritic properties have also been demonstrated in research studies.
Dong quai extracts in pill or liquid form should be standardized to 0.8 to 1.1 percent liguistilide.