Western and Chinese Herbal Medicine
At BodaHealth we feel strongly about offering our patients a variety of the best and most effective natural therapies available, and that includes herbal medicine. We provide both Chinese herbs through our acupuncture and Chinese medicine practitioners and Western herbology through our naturopathic physicians and holistic nutritionists. To most people, the use of herbs may seem fairly straightforward regardless of their underlying origins and theories. However, there are actually some differences and nuances between Chinese and Western herbal medicine.
Differences between Chinese and Western Herbology
Both Chinese and Western herbal medicine come from ancient medical traditions, and those practices inform how herbs are used today. However, the similarities between the two systems of herbal healing are minimal.
Chinese herbal medicine consists of hundreds of different herbs, roots, grains, fruits, minerals and occasionally animal and insect parts that are primarily found throughout Asia. Ancient classical texts on Chinese medicine mention both herbs and dietary measures as methods of healing. Throughout centuries of use, the use of these herbs has been refined, and in modern times their actions have been studied and the chemical components of each herb has been scrutinized for their properties and actions which has given rise to their increased use in Western herbal medicine.
Western herbalism has ancient foundations too, but what we today call Western herbalism is derived from several different healing systems. It combines ancient traditions from the Middle East, a healing system from India called Ayurveda, Chinese herbal medicine and the herbal traditions from Indigenous People of North America. Common Middle Eastern herbs include coriander, cumin and willow bark. Ayurvedic herbs include turmeric and ashwagandha. And North American herbs include elder flower and berry, Echinacea, thyme and garlic. Interestingly, there are some herbs that are used in both Chinese and Western herbal medicine, including reishi (a kind of mushroom), ginger, licorice, turmeric, angelica and astragalus, to name a few.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), herbal therapy may be used in conjunction with other TCM modalities, such as acupuncture, cupping or dietary therapy, or as a stand-alone treatment. Chinese medical treatments are based on patterns of imbalance that ultimately cause symptoms. However similar symptoms may be caused by different imbalances, which makes proper diagnosis crucial. For example if you were having heartburn, depending on your diagnosis you may be prescribed a formula to cool off heat in your stomach or one that helps soothe and strengthens your digestion.
Using Western herbal medicine, the goal of your naturopathic doctor or other trained practitioner is to heal your whole body, including mind and spirit. They choose herbs based on your health history and current symptoms. While naturopathic doctors are licensed to prescribe conventional medication, their emphasis tends to be on more natural substances first because herbs promote healing with fewer side-effects. In addition to botanicals, their treatments may also include vitamin and mineral supplements, clinical nutrition and lifestyle medicine. At BodaHealth we also have holistic nutritionists on staff who are trained and experienced in prescribing Western herbs and supplements.
Another difference between the two herbal models is that in Chinese medicine, herbs are almost always prescribed in a formula—a combination of herbs. This is done for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s important to know that in Chinese herbology, each herb has an inherent temperature, flavour and specific action(s). The temperature and flavour of an herb is related to the effect it has on your body. For example, ginger and cinnamon are considered to be warming and spicy herbs, and mint and certain melons are cooling herbs. In addition, each herb has one or more actions. This means that herbs can be used to boost your energy, reduce edema (water buildup), cool a hot sore throat, relieve sinus congestion, treat digestive issues and relieve all kinds of pain. In most cases, however, no single herb has all of the actions needed to treat an imbalance or pattern, so several herbs are combined into a formula to make it more complete and effective. In addition when herbs are combined it means that each formula can be created based on your individual needs, so as your condition changes, your formula can be changed or fine-tuned.
In addition, sometimes herbs are included in a Chinese formula to potentiate the effects of the main herb. This simply means that by adding a second herb, the main herb becomes more potent. And the opposite is also true; herbs may be added to a formula to offset or minimize the impact of the main herb. For example, if the main herb in a formula was very hot or toxic, another herb may be added that’s cooler to offset the heat or neutralize the toxicity. Herbs may also be combined in a formula to treat more than one pattern, and herbs may be included to treat a specific symptom. For example, in a formula to treat a cold or flu, magnolia flower may be added specifically to treat sinus congestion.
In Western or naturopathic herbal medicine, it’s more common to use one single herb to treat a health condition, such as Echinacea to boost your immunity or ginkgo for memory and other brain-related issues. However, in some cases herbs are combined in Western herbology, too. For example turmeric is usually compounded with pepper to help patients absorb it better.
Why Take Herbs?
A great deal of research on the clinical effectiveness of herbs has confirmed what the ancients knew—that herbs can be very effective for a wide variety of health conditions. In fact, a number of Western prescription and over-the-counter medications originated from herbs. For example, aspirin is derived from willow bark, digitalis comes from the foxglove plant, codeine is made from poppies, and some anti-malaria drugs are made from the artemesia plant.
Needless to say, the healing power of plants is well-known. However when these plants are made into drugs, sometimes their main active ingredient is extracted, ignoring the synergistic actions of the entire plant. Many of these drugs are strong, but they often come with side effects. By contrast, in Chinese or Western herbal medicine, the whole herb is used, which means that all the ingredients in the plant work together to achieve a synergistic effect. Essentially, herbs often have the same effect, but it’s slower, gentler and with minimal side effects.
Where Can I Get Herbs?
At BodaHealth, our priorities are your health, safety and convenience. Our acupuncturists and naturopathic doctors have been trained and are experienced in herbal medicine. Their education includes years of study and clinical experience. For your convenience, we have an herbal apothecary at BodaHealth that’s well-stocked with both Chinese herbs and those used by our naturopathic physicians. This means that you can leave the clinic with your herbs on the same day as your visit. On the rare occasions that we need to special order herbs, we have access to several companies in Vancouver, which means we have quick access to literally hundreds of different herbs.
The bottom line is that herbs, whether Chinese or Western, can be an effective healing tool and a great way to augment any other treatments that you may be undergoing. Because of the wide variety of herbs available, as well as the flexibility in combining herbs and treatments to target your specific needs, herbal medicine can be a safe and effective option for a number of health conditions. If you’d like to know more about how herbal medicine can help you, contact BodaHealth today.