Chinese Herbs

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As always, seek professional advice before using any of the methods listed.


Also known as Chinese Herbology or - Traditional Chinese Medicine, is the theory that traditional Chinese herbs can be used as therapy, which accounts for the majority of treatments in traditional Chinese medicine, (TCM).


It has been stated that TCM is largely pseudoscience, with no valid "mechanism of action" for the majority of its treatments.


The term "herbology" could be misleading in the sense that, while plant elements are by far the most commonly used substances, animal, human, and mineral products can also be used, therefore, the term "medicinal" receives mixed opinions, as always, we recommend that you do your own independent research.

The effectiveness of this as a therapy remains poorly documented.

Some Theories and History

These herbs have been used for centuries, some of the earliest literature are lists of prescriptions for specific ailments, one example being the manuscript "Recipes for 52 Ailments", found in the Mawangdui tombs which were sealed in 168 BC.

It is thought that, the first traditionally recognised herbalist was someone called "Shénnóng" (神农, lit. "Divine Farmer"), a mythical god-like figure, who is said to have lived around 2800 BC. He allegedly tasted hundreds of herbs and imparted his knowledge of medicinal and poisonous plants to farmers. His Shénnóng Běn Cǎo Jīng (神农本草经, Shennong's Materia Medica) is considered as the oldest book on Chinese herbal medicine.

The "superior" category of Chinese Herbs, include herbs that are effective against a multitude of diseases and are mostly responsible for maintaining and restoring the body balance. These herbs are believed by many to have almost no unfavorable side-effects.

Another category comprising tonics and boosters, the consumption of which is thought best not to prolong.

A further category, made up of substances which is thought best to be taken in small doses, and for the treatment of specific diseases only.

The original text of Shennong's Materia Medica has been lost; however, there are extant translations. The true date of origin is believed to fall into the late Western Han dynasty, (the first century BC).

Succeeding generations augmented these works, as in the Yaoxing Lun, a 7th-century Tang Dynasty Chinese treatise on herbal medicine.

Arguably the most important of these later works is the Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao Gangmu:本草綱目) compiled during the Ming dynasty by Li Shizhen, which is still used today for consultation and reference.

Raw Materials

There are roughly 13,000 medicinal substances used in China and over 100,000 recipes recorded in their ancient literature.

Plant elements and extracts are by far the most common elements used.

In the classic Handbook of Traditional Drugs from 1941, 517 drugs were listed – out of these, 45 were animal parts, and 30 were minerals.

For many plants used as medicinals, detailed instructions have been handed down not only regarding the locations and areas where they grow best, but also regarding the best timing for their planting and harvesting.

Some animal parts used as medicinals can be considered rather strange such as cows' gallstones.

The classic materia medica Bencao Gangmu mentions the use of 35 traditional Chinese medicines derived from the human body, including bones, fingernail, hairs, dandruff, earwax, impurities on the teeth, feces, urine, sweat, and organs, but most are no longer in use.

Categories and Classifications

There are a number of different methods to classify traditional Chinese medicinals;-

  • The Four Natures (simplified Chinese: 四气; traditional Chinese: 四氣; pinyin: sìqì)
  • The Five Flavors (Chinese: 五味; pinyin: wǔwèi)
  • The meridians (simplified Chinese: 经络; traditional Chinese: 經絡; pinyin: jīngluò)

Four Natures

The Four Natures are: hot(热), warm(温), cool(凉), cold(寒) or neutral(平), in terms of temperature. Hot and warm herbs are used to treat cold diseases, while cool and cold herbs are used to treat heat diseases.

The Five Flavors

Sometimes this is translated to "Five Tastes", these are;-

  • acrid/pungent(辛)
  • sweet(甘)
  • bitter(苦)
  • sour(酸)
  • salty(咸).

Some substances may have more than one flavor, or possibly none (i.e., a bland(淡) flavor).

Each of these Five Flavors corresponds to one of the zàng organs, which in turn corresponds to one of the "Five Phases".

A flavor implies certain properties and certain therapeutic actions of a substance;-

  • saltiness "drains downward and softens hard masses"
  • sweetness is "supplementing, harmonising, and moistening"
  • pungent substances are thought to induce sweat and act on Qi and blood
  • sourness tends to be astringent(涩) in nature
  • bitterness "drains heat, purges the bowels, and eliminates dampness".


This refers not just to the meridian, but also to the meridian-associated zàng-organ, which can be expected to be primarily affected by a given medicinal (there are 12 standard meridians in the body a medicinal can act upon). For example, traditional beliefs hold that menthol is pungent and cool and goes to the Lung and the Liver channels. The Traditional Chinese concept of the Lungs includes the function of protecting the body from colds, and menthol is thought to cool the Lungs and purge heat toxins caused by wind-heat invasion (one of the patterns of common cold).

Specific Function

These categories mainly include;-

  • exterior-releasing or exterior-resolving
  • heat-clearing
  • downward-draining or precipitating
  • wind-damp-dispelling
  • dampness-transforming promoting the movement of water and percolating dampness or dampness-percolating
  • interior-warming
  • Qi-regulating or Qi-rectifying
  • dispersing food accumulation or food-dispersing
  • worm-expelling
  • stopping bleeding or blood-stanching quickening the Blood and dispelling stasis or blood-quickening or Blood-moving.
  • transforming phlegm, stopping coughing and calming wheezing or phlegm-transforming and cough- and panting-suppressing
  • Spirit-quieting or Shen-calming.
  • calming the Liver and expelling wind or Liver-calming and wind-extinguishing
  • orifice-opening
  • supplementing or tonifying, this includes Qi-supplementing, blood-nourishing, yin-enriching, and yang-fortifying.
  • astriction-promoting or securing and astringing
  • vomiting-inducing
  • substances for external application.

Naming the Herbs


A number of herbs have earned their names from their individual physical appearance, for example;-

  • Niu Xi (Radix Cyathulae seu Achyranthis), "cow's knees," which has big joints that might look like cow knees
  • Bai Mu Er (Fructificatio Tremellae Fuciformis), white wood ear,' which is white and resembles an ear
  • Gou Ji (Rhizoma Cibotii), 'dog spine,' which resembles the spine of a dog.


Colour is not only a means of identifying herbs, but in many cases also provides information about the therapeutic attributes of the herb.

For example;-

  • yellow herbs are referred to as 'huang' (yellow) or 'jin' (gold). Huang Bai (Cortex Phellodendri) means 'yellow fir," and Jin Yin Hua (Flos Lonicerae) has the label 'golden silver flower."

Smell and taste

Unique flavors define specific names for some substances. "Gan" means 'sweet,' so Gan Cao (Radix Glycyrrhizae) is 'sweet herb," an adequate description for the licorice root. "Ku" means bitter, thus Ku Shen (Sophorae Flavescentis) translates as 'bitter herb.'

Geographic Location

The locations or provinces in which herbs are grown often figure into herb names.

For example;-

  • Bei Sha Shen (Radix Glehniae) is grown and harvested in northern China, whereas Nan Sha Shen (Radix Adenophorae) originated in southern China. And, the Chinese words for north and south are respectively "bei" and "nan."

Chuan Bei Mu (Bulbus Fritillariae Cirrhosae) and Chuan Niu Xi (Radix Cyathulae) are both found in Sichuan province, as the character "chuan" indicates in their names.


Some herbs, like;-

  • Fang Feng (Radix Saposhnikoviae), literally 'prevent wind," prevents or treats wind-related illnesses.
  • Xu Duan (Radix Dipsaci), literally 'restore the broken,' effectively treats torn soft tissues and broken bones.

Country of Origin

Many herbs indigenous to other countries have been incorporated into the Chinese materia medica.

Xi Yang Shen (Radix Panacis Quinquefolii), imported from North American crops, translates as 'western ginseng," while Dong Yang Shen (Radix Ginseng Japonica), grown in and imported from North Asian countries, is 'eastern ginseng.'

Similar examples are noted in the text whenever geography matters in herb selection.

Toxic Effects

Right back to the earliest records regarding the use of medicinals, to the reports from recent years, the toxicity of certain substances has been described in all Chinese materiae medicae.

Since TCM has become more popular in the Western world, there are increasing concerns about the potential toxicity of many traditional Chinese medicinals including plants, animal parts and minerals. For the most part, medicinals, efficacy and toxicity testing are based on traditional knowledge rather than laboratory analysis.

The toxicity in some cases could be confirmed by modern research (i.e., in scorpion); in some cases it couldn't.

Further, ingredients may have different names in different locales or in historical texts, and different preparations may have similar names for the same reason, which can create inconsistencies and confusion in the creation of medicinals, with the possible danger of poisoning.

Edzard Ernst "concluded that adverse effects of herbal medicines are an important albeit neglected subject in dermatology, which deserves further systematic investigation."

Research suggests that the toxic heavy metals and undeclared drugs found in Chinese herbal medicines might be a serious health issue.

Substances believed to be potentially dangerous include;-

  • aconite, (secretions from the Asiatic toad)
  • powdered centipede, (the Chinese beetle Mylabris phalerata, Ban mao)
  • certain fungi

Toxic effects are also frequent with Aconitum. To avoid its toxic adverse effects Xanthium sibiricum must be processed.

Hepatotoxicity has been reported with products containing Polygonum multiflorum, glycyrrhizin, Senecio and Symphytum. The evidence suggests that hepatotoxic herbs also include Dictamnus dasycarpus, Astragalus membranaceous, and Paeonia lactiflora; although there is no evidence that they cause liver damage. Contrary to popular belief, Ganoderma lucidum mushroom extract, as an adjuvant for cancer immunotherapy, appears to have the potential for toxicity.

A 2013 review suggested that although the antimalarial herb Artemisia annua may not cause hepatotoxicity, haematotoxicity, or hyperlipidemia, it should be used cautiously during pregnancy due to a potential risk of embryotoxicity at a high dose.

However, most adverse reactions are due to misuse or abuse of Chinese medicine. For example;- the misuse of the dietary supplement Ephedra (containing ephedrine) can lead to adverse events including gastrointestinal problems as well as sudden death from cardiomyopathy.

Products adulterated with pharmaceuticals for weight loss or erectile dysfunction are one of the main concerns. Chinese herbal medicine has been a major cause of acute liver failure in China.

But, it should be noted that, all medicine has some form of precautionary warning, and in the incorrect context, harm and good can come from most things.

Internal Links

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Alternative Medicine

External Links

We thought this was a fairly well put together list of the herbs.