When you hear the term Chinese herbal medicine, chances are that you’re thinking about plants. Herbs are plants, right? That’s mostly true, as the vast majority of Chinese herbs are derived from plants. However there are also herbs that come from animal and mineral sources. Some of the most common mineral-based medicinals used include:
Gypsum (Shi Gao). If you’ve ever walked on pure white sand, such as the dunes at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, you’d be surprised to find that the sand is cold even on the hottest days of the year. This white sand is made of gypsum or Shi Gao, and its cool temperature tells us what it’s used for. Gypsum is known as calcium sulfate, and is one of the most common herbs added to formulas to clear internal heat. In classical Chinese medicine we call this Yang Ming stage heat.
Your body can develop internal or external heat. External heat is superficial, such as running a temperature when you have a cold or mild flu or a red skin rash. Internal heat is deeper and more systemic. The symptoms of internal heat include redness; of your face, eyes and tongue. Heat also dries you out, so it may cause a dry throat, thirst, constipation or dry stools, and sparse urine. That dryness may also cause the coating on your tongue to turn yellow. Heat speeds things up, too, so it can cause your pulse to race or for you to feel impatient or irritable. In Chinese medicine we often use Shi Gao when there are four big: big thirst, big sweat, big fever and big pulse.
Gypsum is used to clear internal heat and is indicated with any of the above symptoms. In addition, gypsum clears heat, inflammation and infection in the lungs and is used to treat heat along the upper stomach pathway. Symptoms of stomach fire include headaches, toothache, and gum inflammation or infection.
Calcitum (Han Shui Shi). This is essentially comprised of calcium and magnesium. Like gypsum, it’s used to clear heat; for a high fever, irritability, thirst and a red tongue with a yellow coating. However calcitum is also included in formulas to treat a pathogen called Summerheat, a term to describe heat exhaustion or the blah, nauseous feeling you get when you’ve spent too much time in the heat.
Dragon Bone (Long Gu). Clearly this herb isn’t really made from dragon’s bones. However it does come from the fossilized bones of ancient mammals. Because the bones come from long extinct prehistoric animals, such as the wooly mammoth, mastodon and hairy rhino, ancient collectors didn’t know their exact animal source, so they labeled them dragon’s bones.
Dragon Bone contains calcium, iron, potassium and trace elements. It’s used to calm and settle, with symptoms such as restlessness, irritability, heart palpitations, and anxiety. In classical Chinese medicine we say that Long Gu has an anchoring effect on floating yang, which means it can treat vertigo, dizziness, blurred vision, insomnia and mental / emotional issues caused by rising yang.
Chinese herbal formulas contain herbs, and some also contain minerals. The calcium-based herbs are an important part of the Chinese pharmacopeia. If you’d like to know more about Chinese herbs, or are wondering if an herbal formula could be helpful to you, please don’t hesitate to contact BodaHealth.
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.