Chinese Herbs

by Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM

Chinese Herbs, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA
Although most people come to see me for acupuncture, it was my interest in herbal medicine that initially drew me to study Chinese medicine. I was recently asked to share more about Chinese herbs, how I use them in my practice, and what kinds of things they treat.

While studying Chinese medicine in school, I had 4-5 semesters each of classes on different topics: Chinese medical theory, acupuncture, and herbs (individual herbs and formulas.) Herbal medicine is the oldest form of medicine in every culture around the world. Medicinal substances fall on a spectrum from those that are mild and used as food, to those that are stronger and used more as medicine. Some examples of therapeutic foods include herbs that we use in cooking, such as garlic, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, mint, turmeric, and fennel. Not only do they make food more flavorful, they have additional benefits, such as killing parasites, improving circulation, and aiding digestion. In traditional Chinese dietetics, foods are considered one of the most basic types of medicine and are categorized by their effect on the body. For example, pears have the effect of clearing heat, moistening, and clearing phlegm from the Lungs.

When I was in school, we would write and mix up individual bulk herb formulas for patients based on our diagnosis. We would often choose a basic formula (like a recipe) as our starting point, then add, subtract, or change amounts of herbs based on that patient at that moment. As their symptoms would change or disappear, our formulas would also change. In Chinese medicine, the goal is not to put a patient on a formula and keep them on it to “manage” their symptoms or condition, but to elicit a change by treating the root of the problem.

Bulk Chinese herb formulas are usually given as a tea or “soup”. Most of these are cooked as a decoction in water for about 45 minutes and are strong-smelling and tasting. Patient compliance is not always very good with those! For that reason, I primarily use herb pills and tinctures. They are easy to use and in a form that is more familiar to most of us. The downside is that the proportions of herbs in the formula cannot be changed and the formula cannot be customized.

We are used to thinking in a relatively simple way, that this herb is good for this particular problem, but the way herbs work is far more complex than that. A formula will affect the entire body, not just one part.

In western medicine, we tend to think of a particular drug being good for a particular problem. Chinese medicine thinks about it differently: a Chinese medical practitioner makes a diagnosis for each person and treatment is chosen accordingly. Not everyone with the same problem (back pain, for example) will have the same diagnosis in Chinese medicine, and so are unlikely to have the same herbs. Just because an herb is “good” for a particular condition does not mean that it is a good match for each person with that condition. Just because herbs are natural, not all are necessarily safe to use indiscriminately. Treating yourself with herbs is not easy, which is why it’s usually best to consult with an herbalist.

Herbs can be used short-term, like antibiotics, or they can be used long-term for more chronic problems. Chinese herbs are categorized based on their function. Those that are in the “Tonifying” (strengthening) category are like taking vitamins or using a drip irrigation system. A little bit taken over a longer time is able to be absorbed more easily and benefit your body more than a massive dose taken once.

What kinds of conditions can be treated with herbs?
Just about anything: Insomnia, PMS, hormonal imbalances, digestive problems, joint pain, low energy, mood disorders, menstrual problems, infertility, blood pressure, urination problems, fibromyalgia, colds, allergies, immune system issues.

Can I use herbs if I’m taking medication?
It depends. Acupuncture is always safe to use if taking medications, but herbs may not always be appropriate.

Why do I have to take so many pills?
Chinese herb teapills are not as strong as most pharmaceuticals. This makes it much easier to vary the dosage, especially for children or more sensitive people.

I would be happy to have a conversation with you if you’ve ever wondered if herbs might be of help.