For a proper introduction to Chinese herbs, you would have to go back to ancient times, when people began using them for their health benefits—to increase energy, give the immune system a boost, ease symptoms of disease and more. Even though the body of science to back up claims about the health benefits of Chinese herbs may not be as large as what exists for prescription drugs and other treatments, today many people are embracing the wisdom of the ages and seeking herbs as complements or alternatives to their current care. In the United States, an estimated 10,000 Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners aid more than one million patients each year using a variety of tools, from acupuncture to herbs. And the World Health Organization estimates that 80 percent of people worldwide rely on herbal medicine as part of their personal health care regimen.
The best option for what ails you is the one that’s safe and works. If you are interested in exploring the health benefits of Chinese herbs when weighing your treatment options, it’s important to consult with a TCM practitioner. Though you may hear about the health benefits of different herbs, they are rarely given out as single herbs. Instead, a qualified herbalist—after a consultation and examination—can recommend a personalized combination of herbs, called a formula, that can help you address your specific needs.
“Prescribing herbs is my favorite part about being a Chinese Medicine practitioner,” says Kelly Clady-Girrama, Dipl.O.M., L.Ac., a Chinese medicine practitioner in Lenox, Mass. “Putting together a customized formula is a little like writing a symphony of plants, tastes and temperatures. I rarely use the exact same combination of herbs twice, even for the same patient.”
Leaves, roots, stems, flowers and/or seeds of plants are combined and given as tangs (consumed as teas), capsules, tinctures or powders. Any number of herbs could become part of a formulation. The herbs that follow are some common Chinese herbs, their uses, purported benefits and caveats. Keep in mind that they are intended to be part of a formula created and prescribed by your TCM practitioner not used in isolation or without guidance.
Be sure to tell your physician that you are consulting with a TCM practitioner and discuss any herbs that are prescribed. Never take herbs in lieu of a prescription from your doctor without discussing it with her first.
The root of the astragalus plant is typically used in soups, teas, extracts or in capsule form. Astragalus is said to prevent and treat common colds and upper respiratory infections, and it’s usually combined with other herbs that also help support and strengthen the immune system, such as ginseng, angelica and licorice. Your practitioner may also recommend it to help treat heart disease. Preliminary research suggests that the herb may improve the way the immune system, heart and liver function, and that it might be useful as an adjunctive therapy for cancer; in fact, astragalus is widely used in China for chronic hepatitis and as an add-on cancer treatment.
Caveats: Astragalus may interact with medications that suppress the immune system, such as cyclophosphamide, which is taken by cancer patients, and similar drugs taken by organ transplant recipients.
The dried fruit and peel are used in extracts, tablets and capsules. Bitter orange oil, called neroli, is applied to the skin to treat fungal infections such as ringworm and athlete’s foot. The herb has been used for centuries to tame stomach troubles like nausea, indigestion and constipation. Your practitioner may recommend it to help with heartburn, loss of appetite, nasal congestion and weight loss.
Caveats: Many herbal weight loss products use concentrated extracts of bitter orange peel instead of ephedra, the herb the FDA banned because it raises blood pressure and is linked to heart attacks and stroke. Bitter orange contains synephrine, which is similar to the main chemical in ephedra. It is not known if bitter orange has a similar effect or is safer than ephedra.
The root of the dong quai plant is used in herbal tinctures and sometimes as an ingredient in creams. Most often, it is used to balance female hormones. For example, it may be part of a treatment plan devised to ease discomfort related to menopause or PMS, such as cramps, joint pain, hot flashes and constipation.
Caveats: Dong quai may increase skin sensitivity, so be sure to apply sunscreen if you are taking this herb. In addition, dong quai may slow blood clotting in some people, so don’t take it in the two weeks before or after a surgery.
The roots of ginger, a tropical plant that has green-purple flowers, are used in cooking and for medicinal purposes. Common forms include fresh or dried root, tablets, capsules, liquid extracts and teas. Ginger is used to treat stomachaches, nausea and diarrhea. It’s also used to ease symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, and joint and muscle pain, though research has been inconclusive in how much ginger helps with these conditions. Studies show that ginger safely helps reduce the severity of pregnancy-related nausea and vomiting.
Caveats: Gas, bloating, heartburn and nausea are rare side effects associated with powdered ginger.
Extracts from the ginkgo leaf are used to make pills or teas, and it also can be found in some skincare products. Your practitioner may consider gingko leaf extract to treat asthma, bronchitis, fatigue and tinnitus (ringing or roaring sounds in the ears). Ginkgo is also used to improve memory, treat or help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, and to treat sexual dysfunction and multiple sclerosis. Some smaller studies of ginkgo for memory enhancement have had promising results, but the verdict is still out on whether ginko aids memory.
Caveats: Ginko can increase bleeding risk, so if you take anticoagulant drugs, have bleeding disorders or have scheduled a surgery or dental procedures, be sure to talk to your doctor first.
This root, which is dried and used in pills, extracts, teas and creams, contains components called ginsenosides (or panaxosides), which may be behind the herb’s medicinal properties. Gingeng’s purported health benefits include improved immunity, increased stamina, sharpened mental and physical performance and improved blood pressure. It is also used to treat erectile dysfunction, hepatitis C and symptoms related to menopause. Results are inconclusive, but some studies have shown that ginseng may lower blood glucose. Other studies suggest the root can lead to improvement in immune function.
Caveats: The most common side effects are headaches, sleep disturbances and gastrointestinal distress. Ginseng may lower blood sugar levels. If you have diabetes, make sure to ask your doctor about taking ginseng, especially if you are taking medicines to lower your blood sugar or are taking other herbs, such as bitter melon and fenugreek that are also thought to lower blood sugar.
This herb, a cross between spearmint and water mint, is often used in either fresh or dried in teas. Essential oil of peppermint is sometimes taken as a liquid or a capsule. In addition, it may be applied to the skin. In its various forms, your practitioner may use peppermint as part of a formula to treat an array of health issues, including a sore throat, rashes, nausea, indigestion, headaches, stomach and bowel conditions and even cold symptoms.
Caveats: In some people peppermint may cause, or aggravate, heartburn.