Pros and cons of Chinese herbs

by Nathan Wei, MD, FACP, FACR

Nathan Wei is a nationally known board-certified rheumatologist and author of the Second Opinion Arthritis Treatment Kit. It's available exclusively at this website... not available in stores.

Click here: Second Opinion Arthritis Treatment Kit

Chinese herbs are an important part of Traditional Chinese medicine.

Chinese Herbs - The Pros:

First, there is a wide variety of herbs available to treat a large number of disorders. Next, the philosophy of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) views each patient as an individual unit. For example, a patient with the flu is not necessarily given the same remedy as another person with the flu. The herbs are "made to order" for each person.

Each disease has sub-categories and each subcategory has a recommended herbal combination and dietary suggestions.

Also, there is never just one herb used to treat an ailment. There are more than 350 herbs with an average formula containing between six to twenty herbs.

Each herb has a specific role in the formula and has a specific interaction with the other herbs.

Other “pros” include no chemicals.

Chinese Herbs- The Cons

Since Chinese herbs are "in", it's importasnt to know whether the practitioner is licensed and also know what their credentials are. As in every field, there are poorly trained practitioners and quacks.

Another con is that Chinese herbs are not appealing to the senses. The good news is that over time, most people get acclimated to the smell and taste.

Another con is the time required in preparation. A person can get around this some by using prepared formulas and powders.

Some Chinese herbs are made with animal products and this presents a problem for vegans. Most herbs are plant-based.

Certified organic Chinese herbs are not widely available.

The time factor is another con. Most traditional herbalists will say it takes three months to a year to get the desired results for a chronic problem.

To find a licensed herbalist, a person may contact the state acupuncture board or the NCCAOM(National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine).

There is a problem with standardization to meet FDA approval.

And the rest....

The following is excerpted from a wonderful article entitled “Traditional Chinese medicine: A Natural and Holistic Approach” by Dr. C. Kwong-Robbins.

…Traditional Chinese Medicine is …a different way of looking at health and illness and provides an alternative form of therapy to conventional or Western medicine. …Traditional Chinese Medicine is not "better" or "worse" than conventional medicine, not more scientific or less scientific than conventional medicine. Practitioners of Chinese medicine use a different language and view medical treatment differently than do conventional physicians.

…TCM is the oldest, professional, continually practiced, literate medicine in the world. It includes acupuncture, herbal medicine, nutrition/food therapy, acupressure, tui-na massage, moxa, cupping, and medical exercises such as tai-chi and qi-gong… TCM is one of the earliest forms of holistic medicine, which addresses body, mind, and spirit. Diagnosis and treatment in TCM are focused on the patient as a whole person, and less on the symptoms…

…The Chinese view the body as a landscape. The body is a holistic being and is viewed according to the Taoist belief that man is one with nature. Each organ or each physiological part is interrelated, and all are connected to a bigger pattern. Physiological events or organs by themselves have little meaning; rather the concentration is on how the body works together as a whole, and is treated as a whole. So the TCM view of the body is not just linear, but also circular because everything is interconnected.

For example, the body, mind, and spirit are separate entities in conventional medicine. Sometimes the body may interact with the mind, but they are viewed separately. The spirit or the soul has little to do with the physical health of the patient. Because body, mind and spirit are separate, they usually require separate practitioners for treatment.

…TCM is different in the sense that signs and symptoms are put together and are looked at as part of a larger pattern. TCM pays less attention to individual symptoms and less emphasis on the correct understanding of the body's structure and how it changes during the course of the disease. Rather, the focus is on the pattern that a set of symptoms reveals and places a greater emphasis on the function and little emphasis on what something has come to look like. Therefore disease or illness in TCM is treated by harmonizing, balancing, regulating, adjusting, and strengthening the body.

…Western medicine has operated from the premise that good health exists when there is no detectable disease. The concept of disease is caused by germs and outside forces, whereas TCM is less fixated with whether or not the disease is detectable. Because TCM looks deeply into the reasons why disease develops, there is far more to good health than simply not having symptoms or disease manifestations. The underlying cause is focused on by treating the underlying imbalance. Disease/illness takes place in TCM due to germs and outside forces, but also due to imbalances within the body. Imbalances in the body can lead to weak resistance causing the patient to be prone to certain types of illness or diseases.

…Conventional medicine is focused on curing the disease or illness.. .The TCM diagnosis is based equally on subjective and objective data obtained from the patient. Patients are expected to make decisions, and they are expected to be in partnership with the TCM practitioner. Once symptoms are gone, the TCM doctor helps the patient to heal himself. The patient is an active participant and is expected to undergo lifestyle modification in the maintenance of his/her health. TCM is both an art and a science. In summary, in TCM, the body, mind and spirit are interconnected and are addressed together when the patient's condition is diagnosed.

TCM can provide an important collaborative resource to link with conventional treatments. TCM can help in both acute and chronic illness/conditions. The following are only a few examples of the use of TCM….

• To prevent or decrease the severity of the side effects of drugs, especially for those patients on steroids, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormones. These drugs have a high degree of side effects ranging from anemia, diarrhea, skin rash, and nausea to general weakness. Chinese herbal medicine can control and minimize the side effects of chemotherapy or radiation, allowing cancer patients to be more compliant with their therapy. An herbal prescription will protect the immune system from chemical damage and increase survival rates, sometimes dramatically when used in conjunction with modern cancer therapies. In addition, some herbal prescriptions have antitoxin properties, which can inhibit tumor growth by a variety of mechanisms. Acupuncture is sometimes used to help alleviate pain and functional disorders associated with cancer. For example, in patients with esophageal cancer, acupuncture can improve the ability to swallow. Acupuncture is also helpful in stress reduction following surgery.

• To enhance the therapeutic effects of drugs by increasing circulation; drugs thus reach target receptor sites much easier and readily. TCM can increase the function of cells to absorb drugs and thus improve patient drug compliance, for example in elderly and/or fragile patients, and in those patients with infections resistant to many antibiotics. Other examples are hypertension, patients with seasonal allergies, and asthma patients who have already used multiple drugs only to discover that the newest drug does not seem to work well. The first thing many of these patients will do is to blame the medication. In many cases, there is nothing wrong with the drug; these patients have blockages (according to TCM) and imbalances in their bodies that do not allow the medication to work as efficiently. TCM is also helpful in those who cannot take many medications.

Patients who are taking prescription drugs can be helped by the following TCM therapies:

• A herbal prescription will strengthen the immune system, increase anti-allergic effects, and increase lung functions.

• A prescription for Chinese healing exercises such as qi-gong or tai-chi, can increase the absorption and utilization of oxygen. It has positive effects on certain enzymes that play key roles in the body's maintenance.

• Food therapy or nutritional prescriptions, which involve a diet aligned with herbal prescriptions and conventional drugs. Food therapy is individualized to prevent dehydration, maintain optimal weight or to increase energy.

• Acupuncture is helpful to open up the meridian channels. Physiological and biochemical processes work better, thus enhancing drug effects.

• To speed up recovery or use in convalescing after surgery, childbirth, stroke, coma, stressful work week or after studying for final exams. After such illnesses, it takes time for the body to get back into shape. TCM can bring the body back into homeostasis and considerably increase the healing capacity. Drugs have little to offer to boost the recovery process and vitamins are not specific to these illness.

Patients who have multiple drug allergies can use TCM modalities as an alternative to drugs. Examples:

• Patients who are on antidepressants or anti-psychotics may require some length of time before they fully respond to therapy. Meantime, these people can use a combination of massage, acupuncture, and herbal medicine.

• Terminally ill or hospice patients can benefit from less invasive types of treatment. Many of these patients do not want another IV tubing/invasive procedure done to them. Rather TCM can offer less sedation or other side effects from drugs, allowing terminally ill patients to spend quality time with their loved ones.

• Patients who feel that conventional medicine has done all it can are usually looking for more effective ways to maintain their physical and mental health. These are patients who shuffle around to different doctors and medical facilities. TCM has been shown to effectively treat these patients. Conditions like chronic fatigue, Raynard's syndrome, multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, etc., have responded to TCM. These conditions have ill-defined origins and they do not fall into the standard disease state categories.

• Patients who prefer a more natural and holistic way of treatment are candidates for TCM. A good example is treatment of persons with addictions (drugs, tobacco, alcohol, eating disorders, etc.). These conditions have a psychological as well as a physical component. TCM is useful because it simultaneously involves the body, mind, and spirit. Patients with depression, anxiety, obesity, insomnia, incontinence, chronic pain, tension headache, sexual dysfunction, etc., fall into this category. TCM views healing of the mind as an integral part of healing the body. Through TCM, many patients can be taught to regulate their ordinarily involuntary body functions, such as heart rate, temperature and muscle tension. TCM offers mind-body biofeedback, and is a type of treatment that does not require hooking one up to a machine.

• Another group of patients who prefer an alternative approach are those with menopause, infertility, fibroid cysts and other female disorders, GI disorders such as gastritis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, and skin disorders such as eczema and psoriasis. For these conditions TCM helps to reduce stress, control stomach and acid secretions, and regulate hormones. Studies have shown that TCM therapies, such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, tai-chi and relaxation techniques, are helpful in treating all types of menopausal symptoms, like hot flashes, night sweats, fatigue, and mood swings.

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