Health & Wellness

The Top 5 Traditional Chinese Medicine Herbs: What They Do and How They Work

You may be surprised to learn that more than one-third of all Americans regularly use complementary and alternative medicine as their preferred method of treatment. And it’s with good reason—even though it’s now called “complementary” and “alternative” treatment, the truth is that natural therapies have been used for thousands of years. This is especially true of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which has been practiced for over 2,000 years. [1]

Traditional Chinese Medicine is the holistic therapeutic practice based on ancient Chinese philosophy. It includes three different approaches: Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs, acupuncture, and tai chi. But, aside from its philosophical roots, how does Traditional Chinese Medicine differ from other natural therapies? Let’s take a look at what makes it unique and discuss the top Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs and the health benefits they offer.

What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

At its core, Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on the ancient Chinese philosophy that all humans are simply one part of the universe and, as a result, we are irrefutably connected to nature and subject to and/or affected by all its forces. Therefore, finding a balance with nature and the universe is seen to be key to obtaining optimal health. Accordingly, the goal of Traditional Chinese Medicine is to either maintain or restore optimal balance in each individual person. [2]

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, to achieve optimal balance with nature and the universe, your Qi (also known as the vital life force or source of energy that circulates within your body) must be in balance. This means that all of your body’s internal organs must exist in harmony and support one another. Any imbalance to your Qi may result in illness.

Another element of Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on the belief that the body contains 12 meridians, or energy pathways. The main job of each meridian is to facilitate the flow of Qi, fluid, and even your blood throughout your body.

These meridians differ slightly from how we view organs in Western medicine. For example, the meridian for the lung is actually on your arm, not over your lungs. If you visit an acupuncturist for asthma, this is why he or she will likely use many points in your arm to move energy through the meridian.

Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners also rely on the concept and yin and yang. Yin and yang are known as energies within your body that are completely opposite yet complement each other to result in balance. Examples include wet and dry or cold and heat. Think about it like this: You don’t want to be too hot or too cold, right? You want it “just right.” Like Qi, any imbalance between your yin and yang are believed to result in disease. [3]

When any imbalance occurs, the goal with Traditional Chinese Medicine is to regain that balance. And, according to the philosophy, this balance is obtained based on five elements, and everything in the universe can be attributed to one of these elements. They are: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water—each of which represent the stages of life and also explain how your body functions as one cohesive being. Think of each human as a unique blend of these elements.

Sound confusing? It can be! Luckily, there are many doctors and Traditional Chinese Medicine experts out there to assist you. For me, it took four years of study before I even started to grasp the subject. It’s not only a science, but an art, and it has been used successfully for thousands of years.

In general terms, in Western medicine, we diagnose a symptom or disease—much like an invader in the system that needs to be suppressed. In Traditional Chinese Medicine philosophy, practitioners diagnose the imbalance of energy, with the goal of rebalancing the natural flow of energy throughout your body.

Treatment is supportive, not suppressive. For example, a doctor who practices Traditional Chinese Medicine may tell you that you have “external wind-cold” or “internal wind-heat” and never diagnose the actual virus impacting your system! Why? Because it’s not needed to treat you. The philosophy is simple: Find the imbalance, find the solution! So, in this example, the treatment would require herbs and acupuncture points that balance the wind and cool the heat.

So, let’s take a closer look at how someone would diagnose using this philosophy.

The Traditional Chinese Medicine Diagnostic Process

While conventional practices and standard treatments take a reactive standpoint based on a diagnosis, Traditional Chinese Medicine is more proactive when it comes to health by determining the underlying imbalance. This is done by looking at your tongue, feeling your pulse, and considering your history and symptoms. The goal is to determine:

  1. Which meridians are affected.
  2. What elements are impacted and if they’re excess or deficient in the meridian.
  3. What the best treatment is, based on the imbalance (i.e., clearing wind or adding heat).

So, for example, let’s say you visit your typical doctor. After explaining your symptoms of heavy menstrual cycles, lack of sleep, and generalized worry, she diagnoses you with insomnia and anxiety and refer you to the gynecologist. She offers you an anti-depressant and a sleeping medication, and possibly refers you for a sleep study.

If you were to visit a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor with the same symptoms, she may diagnose you with “Heart Fire” due to a bright red tip on your tongue and a strong pulse. “Heart Fire” is a diagnosis of excess, resulting in heat that causes inflammation, which impacts more than just one area of the body.

Often, someone with this diagnosis experiences insomnia, hot flashes, anxiety, racing heart rate, dry mouth, and generalized tension. To treat this condition, the doctor may use acupuncture points and herbs designed to clear heat from the heart meridian, therefore balancing all of your reported symptoms with the same treatment. Pretty neat, huh?

Below is a general diagram of the basic meridians of the body on the tongue. It is quite a bit more involved with this, but perhaps it will be fun to take a quick peek at your tongue.

 

Traditional Chinese medicine - Dr. Pingel

 

Now let’s take a look at some of the top Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs that practitioners use to aid healing.

5 Top Traditional Chinese Medicine Herbs

Here are the top five Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs and their uses.

1. Astragalus

One of the most widely used of all Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs, astragalus is known to support kidney health, heart health, and even the immune system.

A 2014 review revealed that astragalus use significantly decreased not only the amount of protein in subjects’ urine (often associated with kidney disease), but also decreased both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. [4]

Interestingly, a 2016 study also revealed that astragalus increased the efficacy of platinum-based chemotherapy while also decreasing toxins derived from platinum in patients with non-small-cell lung cancer. [5]

2. Cinnamon

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine philosophy, pungent herbs and spices such as cinnamon promote the circulation of Qi and body fluids. Conversely, the sweetness of cinnamon can aid in detoxification. [6] But cinnamon is known to do even more.

One of cinnamon’s most beneficial health effects is its inflammation-fighting power. In a 2014 study, researchers tested the anti-inflammatory activities of 115 foods and found that cinnamon was one the most potent anti-inflammatory foods of all that were tested. [7]

Additionally, in a 2015 study, researchers surmised that cinnamon could be used as a potential treatment of age-related inflammatory conditions. [8]

3. Ginger

Ginger is considered to be one of the warming Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs, commonly used to treat colds. [9] But this powerful herb is also incredible versatile and has been shown to aid in the treatment of a variety of conditions.

For example, numerous studies have shown that ginger can help to prevent and relieve nausea and vomiting. [1011] And a 2013 study confirmed that ginger oil is effective in fighting nausea and even reduced the need for anti-nausea medications post-surgery. [12] In fact, sipping on ginger tea is a great way to aid in nausea relief.

In addition, ginger is often used for other ailments, including arthritis, migraines, and even hypertension. [13] And a 2015 study even found that ginger helped reduce fasting blood sugar in people with diabetes. [14]

Interestingly, ginger also shows promise as a therapeutic agent for asthma. A study showed that ginger has the ability to relax the smooth muscle in the airway, which may help provide quick relief to those experiencing asthma attacks. [15]

4. Licorice root

This Traditional Chinese Medicine herb has cooling properties and is believed to strengthen your Qi as well as aid in detoxification. It’s also believed to support your spleen and heart. [16] It’s commonly used internally for conditions such as Addison’s disease, asthma, bronchitis, coughs, peptic ulcer, and arthritis. [17]

Licorice root is also known to aid digestion. In fact, in a 2011 study, researchers found that taking licorice root daily significantly improved indigestion in participants after 15 days and 30 days. [18]

In addition, a 2010 study revealed that, due to its anti-microbial properties, licorice root was effective in treating both fungal and bacterial infections. [19]

5. Schisandra berry

Finally, the schisandra berry has been an important Traditional Chinese Medicine herb for centuries. It’s known as the “fruit of five tastes” in Traditional Chinese Medicine because it contains all five basic flavors: salty, bitter, sweet, sour, and spicy. [20]

Schisandra berry is one of several adaptogenic herbs, which are non-toxic plants that are commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine because of their ability to help the body manage mental and physical stress. Plus they help support the immune system.

According to a 2014 study, schisandra berry can actually benefit those with osteoporosis. Researchers found that the herb was able to significantly increase bone mineral density. [21] Moreover, studies have shown that this Traditional Chinese Medicine herb can benefit many areas of health—from aiding cognitive function to supporting adrenal health to even suppressing tumor growth, making it an incredible versatile natural treatment option. [22]

 

Key Takeaways

  • For over 2,000 years, Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs have been used as natural therapies.
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine is takes a proactive standpoint to health by determining any underlying imbalances.
  • Some of the top Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs are astragalus, cinnamon, ginger, licorice root, and schisandra berry.

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