Healing Without Side Effects?
Brian Benjamin Carter
How can you say that an herbal
formula will alleviate multiple symptoms, and yet have little
or no side effects? How can there be a good effect without
- William P.H., M.D., Great
I understand your question, Dr. H, and the reason
for it. Most doctors expect herbs to act just like pharmaceuticals.
If there is a beneficial healing effect, they reason, there must
also be side-effects. Conversely, if there are no side-effects,
then there can be no healing effect. This expectation makes sense
in pharmaceutical medicine where you treat with just one active
at a time. But, chinese herbal formulas make use of more than
one herb 99.99% of the time. Oriental medicine has been prescribing
multiple-agent compounds for thousands of years. This practice
is similar to the recent drug 'cocktails' developed for HIV and
Each herb in and of itself is composed of more than
one ingredient, plus other 'buffers.' I suppose you could think
of a pharmaceutical as a lone-gunman; he is effective in what
he does, but abrasive and dangerous. An herb, on the other hand,
is a more balanced and complex person. The herbs in a formula
work together as a team. Each herb has strengths and weaknesses,
but the whole team can do amazing things! (I could say something
really tacky now like, "There's no I in TEAM, but there is an
I in SIDE EFFECTS and PHARMACEUTICALS," but I won't subject you
to that kind of writing. Not directly, at least.)
An Example of Pharmaceutical Treatment
To see the difference between biomedical and chinese herbal prescription,
let's look at an example: You go to see your MD or DO for sinus
problems and they prescribe you guaifenesin. You come back a year
later with anxiety, and they prescribe you Paxil (you know it's
working if you're not anxious about its side effects.). Then,
you develop serious heart palpitations, but they tell you it's
just in your head. After demanding more tests, you get back a
normal EKG or cardiac stress test. Then they really think it's
in your head. I know, this is oversimplified, but bear with me
- I do have a point; the end result is that you end up on several
drugs, some of which try to fix the side-effects of your primary
Often Biomedicine Knows But Cannot Do
You didn't know that biomedicine is incomplete? Consider how
many diseases in biomedicine have names but not treatments. In
oriental medicine, we can see your constitutional tendencies ahead
of time and balance the herbal formula so that it doesn't worsen
any pre-existing conditions. We can see more subtle imbalances
than biomedicine can or will detect with its tests (there may
be appropriate lab tests or visual studies, but if the disease
has not progressed very far just try to get the insurance company
to approve them!). We have ways of seeing the gray areas of imbalance
that precede serious disease. To be fair, in the long run, the
micro-approach of biomedicine will sharpen oriental medicine,
and the broad effectiveness and insights of oriental medicine
will guide and inform biomedical discovery.
Oriental medicine is not a one-size-fits-all medicine.
It's not a one-herbal-formula-fits-all medicine. It's not even
a one-acupuncture-point-fits-all medicine. Oriental Medicine is
a get-to-know-you medicine.
In oriental medicine, we can predict and prevent
- We understand of the causes and nature of diseases, and
- Our understanding of diseases and herbs is integrated and
In your oriental medical visit, we start with a
whole-body, multi-system diagnosis. Then we design you a comprehensive
herb formula. The formula is often based on one or more classical
formulas, some of which are thousands of years old. Some of the
herbs in your formula (there are at least 400 chinese herbs) may
be added to or removed, and their dosages may be changed based
on your diagnosis. Some herbs or groups of herbs have a specific
healing goal, some balance other herbs, and some protect your
An Example of Herb Formula Treatment
For example, say you come in for sinus problems. First, we differentially
diagnose you. Is it heat, cold, dryness, and/or dampness? What
organs are involved? What specifically is going on? Successful
treatment starts with accurate diagnosis. If we see that you have
a tendency toward 'blood vacuity' (if you have symptoms like tendon
problems, muscle spasms, visual floaters, poor memory, dryness,
and objective signs like a pale tongue, pale lusterless face,
etc.), then we tailor the herbal formula to make sure isn't going
to worsen that condition.
Then we give you a formula that isn't going to make
the dryness or heat worse, or increase the mucus. The guaifenesin
in the first example works by drying the mucus, and so the side
effect is that it can dry you too much or increase pre-existing
heat in your body. Anxiety can happen when the Heart Blood is
vacuous. The palpitations can be a symptom of a Heart-system problem.
Chinese Medicine Treats People as Unique Individuals.
It's not a radical concept. When you get a denture or a crown
from the dentist, they first take an impression and then have
a lab custom-manufacture one that will fit your unique mouth.
Optometrists don't make just one prescription of contacts or glasses;
they measure your sight from a number of perspectives, and then
order a custom-prescription for you. They have you come back regularly
and change your prescription if your vision changes. Even hats
come in various sizes or are, at least, adjustable! Oriental medicine
is the same way. It is an internal medicine which assesses your
specific physical, mental, and emotional landscape, and then elegantly,
personally balances your extremes.
"If all you have is a hammer, everything looks
like a nail."
If all you have is a hammer, a screwdriver, and a wrench, then
everything looks like a nail, a screw, or a bolt. Practicing medicine
that way is like giving a speech (monologue) when you're in a
one-on-one conversation (dialogue). Some doctor's visits are that
way. But what if you could look at your patient first, and then
custom-design your treatment for them? This is what oriental medicine
does. That's how we end up with a custom herbal formula or selection
of acupuncture points that might change every week. If you are
changing as a result of the treatment, then the treatment needs
to change, too.
If you have asthma, your MD will probably want give
you a bronchiodilator and/or corticosteroid, and isn't likely
to think about how the disease or the treatment affects your emotions
(although, vice versa, it's become harder and harder to deny that
emotions have an effect on or cause illnesses). One of the main
differences between oriental medicine and biomedicine is that
the disease categories in biomedicine are sometimes too large.
Contrast that to the oriental medical disease 'shan kong' which
means 'dread,' or 'waiting for the other shoe to drop.' To be
sure, there are disease and treatment subsets in biomedicine,
but not as many, and they are not as well integrated with every
other aspect of your life as they are in oriental medicine.
in pharmaceutical medicine, do they use just one active ingredient
at a time?
A single synthetic chemical can be patented, and so it is
a safer investment for the pharmaceutical company than an herb
which anyone can grow in their backyard. It's also easier to study
a single chemical, and already costs around $250 million just
to get one passed by FDA.