When I first started learning about American herbal medicine in the 1980s, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. There didn’t seem to be much philosophy behind it, no reason why we used one herb instead of another. It seemed an herb was chosen based on what symptom someone had as if it was a “dial-an-herb.” But I thought there must be a way of using herbs that isn’t just substituting herbs for drugs; there must be some underlying concept of when to use an herb.

I ended up finding Chinese medicine as a way to go beyond treating symptoms and to figure out the underlying problems, to treat the root cause. That has always been my goal and strongest desire. This is what guides all my treatments, all my teaching. And though American herbalism has come a long way since then, I still find the depth of Chinese medical philosophy ultimately fulfilling

But many people, maybe most of us, get intimidated at first –  “Chinese medicine is so big!” But here’s the thing – there is so much we can learn from Chinese medicine without needing to become Chinese herbalists or acupuncturists. I am clear with my students – I do not train them to be Chinese herbalists; instead we borrow from the lessons of Chinese medicine to better use our local herbs.

Many Chinese medicine practitioners would say it is all or nothing – if you are not a licensed acupuncturist then you shouldn’t say you are using Chinese medicine. Though I agree it is a complex system worthy of years of study, I also think that there are many lessons we can learn from Chinese medicine as a way of deepening our herbal practice.

My goal is to make it easy for you, break it down into bite sized chunks so it’s not so overwhelming. Even if you can pick up just one of the concepts below, it will deepen your use of herbal medicine.

Here are four things we can learn from Chinese practitioners, and I will go into more depth on some of these afterwards to help explain.
–       Look for patterns of imbalance. This will make our treatment plan more accurate than just treating symptoms as they arise because we are looking for the connections between different systems of the body.
–       Differentiate between Excess and Deficiency symptoms. “Deficiency” doesn’t refer to nutrient deficiencies necessarily, but to someone’s overall condition. When someone is deficient and lacking, they need to be built up and we use tonics. When someone is excessive we clear away.
–       Thinking about whether conditions are Hot or Cold, and Damp or Dry. And then thinking about herbs that way too. This is the heart of every traditional medicine whether Ayurveda, Mayan, or traditional European (Greek system)
–       There is no real difference between physical symptoms and mental or emotional manifestations of disease.

Because Chinese medicine is pre-scientific, the diagnostic tests used are observation, palpation (touch) and asking questions instead of  relying on reading lab values and using complicated and expensive electronic machinery. Which gives those of us who don’t have access to such tests a big advantage as well as saving our clients a lot of money.

Let me go into more depth about these principles.

1) Pattern Imbalances. To think about patterns, start to notice similarities throughout the body. For example, if someone is constipated and has dry skin, dry mouth, and chapped lips, maybe their instestines are also dry and that’s what’s causing the constipation. So that person needs herbs that help hydrate.

Whereas someone else experiencing constipation who also has tight shoulders, tight neck and a lot of stress, might be constipated because their colon is physically tight and they need relaxants. So, same symptom but two different patterns.

2) Excess and deficiency. This can be a little harder to get at first. To give you a feeling of what each feels like, imagine drinking too much coffee and getting anxious and jittery. This would be an excess type of anxiety. Now imagine getting anxious because your blood sugar is low and you need to eat – voila, deficiency anxiety!

Though it’s not always that simple, this does give you a visceral feeling for what to look for. I find it very useful when treating the nervous system for insomnia. Is the nervous system under-nourished and therefore more jumpy? Or is the nervous system over-stimulated?  I find that most people experiencing chronic insomnia don’t need sedatives as much as herbs to nourish their nervous system. Instead of using Valerian or Hops for them, what they need is Oat seed, Skullcap, and maybe some Magnesium.

3) Hot and Cold, Damp and Dry. Basically, herbs that stimulate circulation in some way are heating – think of ginger, cinnamon, or cayenne. Herbs that cool our body off are cooling – think of peppermint, lemons, and feverfew. But these are more obvious (maybe feverfew is less so, but remember it has a traditional use of lowering fevers) but how do we tell a new herb?

There is always the option of looking it up. More and more herbal books these days include the energetic information about an herb, including Sharol Tilgner’s books, Michael Tierra, and Matthew Wood. Or if it is traditionally used in Ayurveda (which includes most cooking herbs) or Chinese medicine, then we can look it up there. But we can also taste the herb and see how it makes us feel – more warm or more cool? 

Taste is an interesting measure too – Herbs that are more aromatic and spicey are more warming, whereas bitter and sour herbs tend to be cooling to the body (but sour is warming to digestion). And this could be the topic of our next blog.

4) Physical and Emotional. All traditions of medicine that I have looked at do not differentiate between physical and emotional symptoms. Or to be more specific, emotional manifestations of imbalance are treated with the same attention as physical symptoms. A liver imbalance, for example, can cause anger and anger can also reflect a liver imbalance. Someone who experiences anxiety with palpitations might take an herb for the heart even if the problem was not their physical heart.

And this gives us a physical way to treat non-physical manifestations of disease. The caution with treating spiritual and emotional issues in others is the tendency towards projecting our own issues onto others. By coming back to where someone’s physical symptoms manifest, we can treat someone’s emotional imbalance by treating their physical body.

These are four ways to get you started thinking about the connections, about how much we can learn and grow by studying Chinese medicine. There is much more out there and slowly each of us learn more. Chinese medicine is by no means the only way to treat disease but it has its strengths and we can all learn a lot from this ancient tradition.