Pulse of Oriental Medicine: Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks
Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks






Chinese Herbs:
Synergy and the Dangers of Self Medication

Brian is the founder of the Pulse of Oriental Medicine, medical professor at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, and author of Powerful Body, Peaceful Mind: How to Heal Yourself with Foods, Herbs, and Acupressure.


Herbs have acheived high levels of popularity and visibility. Most people have heard of echinacea, ginseng, gingko biloba, and st. john's wort. Others, such as dong quai, and kava kava have also reached the mainstream. Consumers can find these herbs in their local drug stores, probably not too far from the vitamin section.

What the herb consumer should be aware of:

  • The Dangers of Self-Medication, Further disease could be the result of a lack of adequate information about over-the-counter herbs' proper and improper use.
  • Greater Than the Sum of the Parts, The use of herbs individually instead of as a part of cohesive herbal formulas is commonplace. But thousands of years of Chinese Medicine suggest a better way.

  The Dangers of Self-Medication:
Further disease could be the result of a lack of adequate information about over-the-counter herbs' proper and improper use.


All herbs are not for everyone and every disease. Just because it is an herb, and therefore natural, does not mean that it is always safe for everyone. For example, just because you have a memory problem, and you know gingko is supposed to improve memory, does not mean that gingko is the appropriate herb for you. In oriental medicine, most herbs have 'contraindications': people for whom or diseases in which the particular herb would actually be harmful.

There are general rules to follow, such as not to use a hot herb in a hot condition. For example, dang gui, which is a warm herb, might not be used in a menopausal pattern where there are hot flashes. We do not need to warm someone who already has heat symptoms. However, if cooling herbs are included in the herbal formula dang gui might be perfectly appropriate; its warmth is balanced by the other herbs' coolness.

Herbs are not less powerful than drugs. An herb is defined in Oriental Medicine as any substance that has a marked effect on human beings. This is why shells, bones, and minerals, for example, can fit under the 'herbs' rubric. If an herb can help you, it must be because it changes you in a certain direction. If so, then it could push you too far in that direction (if you took too much), or it could be the wrong direction for you entirely.

Because of this, it is important to have:

  1. a full understanding of the condition being treated, and
  2. a full understanding of the effect of herbs and herbal formulas.

Without a full knowledge of your condition, how can you know what is needed to treat it? Without a full understanding of herbs and formulas, how can you be sure your they will cure you? Indeed, how do you know you won't actually be doing further harm to yourself? This is why medical practitioners go to school for years and years (...and years). It is actually quite dangerous for the average person to practice medicine on themself.

When the consumer hears a few general pieces of information, and then decides to put themself on a specific herb, this is self-medication. Even licensed practitioners trust their treatment to a peer; others can see us more clearly than we see ourselves.

Did you know, for instance,

  • that Panax Ginseng should not be taken by people with hypertension (systolic blood pressure above 180Hg)?
  • that Echinacea is effective only at the very beginning of a cold, and should not be taken regularly for more than 2 weeks because it is toxic?
  • that Dong Quai should not be taken by people with diarrhea, abdominal bloating, or other digestive complaints?

ALSO, studies show that drugs are more likely to cause harmful interactions with single herbs than with herbal formulas. It's safer to see a professional Chinese Medicine physician than to do it yourself.

This information is not given to help you continue to self-medicate more safely. This information is given to illustrate that there is more to know about herbs than you have time to learn, unless you make it your profession. Diagnosis and treatment should be left up to a trained medical professional. There are a lot of friendly practitioners who can help you. Do yourself a favor, and avoid further problems: Call your doctor, acupuncturist, herbalist, or naturopath.

  Greater than the Sum of the Parts: The use of herbs individually instead of as a part of cohesive herbal formulas is commonplace. But thousands of years of Chinese Medicine suggest a better way.

Traditionally, chinese herbs like ginseng and dong quai are hardly ever prescribed alone. However, many american consumers are taking these herbs alone. They may have put themselves on other herbs like gingko, or st. john's wort. But do they know if there might be harmful interactions between these herbs, or between their herbs and other medications they might be taking?

Chinese herbal medicine relies on classic formulas that range from several hundred to several thousand years old. Diagnosis moves nimbly to treatment principles and then directly to a classic herbal formula that the practitioner can modify to fit the patient's present condition exactly, and without side-effects. Each time the patient changes, the formula is modified accordingly.

In diagnosis, every symptom is taken into account. Forget about western drugs with side-effects like indigestion, insomnia, or anxiety. If there is a propensity toward these things in the patient already, they are addressed in the herbal formula. Usually, random side-effects do not show up as the result of an herbal formula. If they do, then the practitioner has made an inaccurate diagnosis, and as they modify their diagnosis, they modify the formula to better fit the patient.

The trade-off may be in the taste (which is part of the therapeutic action of the herbs). Decocted (boiled down) raw herbal formulas do not always the fit the American palate. Most people tend to enjoy sweet, salty and spicy, but not sour or bitter. My experience has been that the reason I am in opposition to the taste is that I am stuck in disease. As the formula moves me closer to balance, I begin to enjoy the taste, because I am moving away from the disease energetic and closer to the herbal formula's opposite shore of health. I look forward to it because a part of me senses that these strange-tasting herbs are healing me. So what's worse, a different taste, or unpredictable and uncomfortable side-effects? Some formulas, however, like those that include cinnamon, are pleasurable and not at all 'acquired' tastes.

If you really cannot stand the taste, there are alternatives; patent medicines are pills made of the ground up herbs. There are more than 200 patent versions of classic chinese herbal formulas. These are not going to be as beneficial as an individually-tailored raw formula, but they will be better than nothing. Patents are also good when you are traveling, and it's impractical to lug around a gallon of decocted tea. :)


All information herein provided is for educational use only and not meant to substitute for the advice of appropriate local experts and authorities.
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