Whether you’ve taken Chinese herbs before or not, chances are you haven’t given much thought to what happens to those herbs after they’re harvested to make them available to you medicinally. That’s right, those twigs, flowers, roots and minerals aren’t just harvested or collected and sent off to become medicine. There are a number of steps in the processing of these substances before they can be used in your formula; and it’s often different for each herb.
The process of preparing herbal substances for consumption is called Pao Zhi. Pao is a term meaning done or finished. And Zhi means to cook. Pao Zhi is a profession in its own right and is very different from being an acupuncturist or herbalist. The processing of Chinese herbs is nuanced and takes a great deal of knowledge and skill.
There are a number of good reasons why the correct preparation of herbs is important. Proper finishing can:
- Increase the potency and effects of an herb.
- Reduce or minimize side effects or toxicity of certain herbs, rendering them safe for consumption. Cooking can reduce the irritating effects of some herbs and leach out the toxic properties of other herbs that shouldn’t be consumed until they’re processed correctly.
- Expand the range of use of an herb. For example, the herb rehmannia, called Chinese foxglove root has different properties depending on how it’s processed. The fresh root, Sheng Di Huang, is very cooling and is used to clear heat and treat fevers. However, when the same root is dried and cooked in wine, it becomes Shu Di Huang, a warm tonic that restores and rebuilds the nutrients in your blood.
- Make storage of herbs easier. Clearly, herbs that have been dried or processed have a much longer shelf life than those that are fresh.
- Extract or purify ingredients in an herb to ensure the best quality.
- To enhance the taste or smell of an herb, making it easier to take. For example, Gan Cao is licorice root, which is a sweet herb with a neutral temperature that augments your body’s energy. However, when it’s cooked in honey, it becomes warm and sweeter and is called Zhi Gan Cao, or cooked Gan Cao, and is added to cool or bitter formulas to harmonize and sweeten them.
- Prepare an herb to target specific channels or organ systems.
Processing herbs for consumption involves a number of steps, some of which are basic and mechanical. The herbs are first sorted to remove parts of the plant or substance that are non-medicinal. Herbs, nuts, fruits, twigs and branches may be peeled or scraped to access the part of the plant being used. Herbs that come from minerals, shells or hard plant matter are ground, pulverized or filed to break down the substance into a powder. This increases the surface area of the herb and makes the active ingredients easier to digest. Some herbs are sliced, either by hand or machine to create a standard size or weight. And some herbs may be soaked in water for cleaning, softening or in some instances, as a way to help reduce toxicity.
Pao Zhi means to finish or process herbs by cooking them. While some herbs may be used fresh, most are cooked or prepared in some way. There is a huge variety of ways that an herb may be cooked, including:
- Cooking with another substance. Depending on the desired result, an herb may be cooked with salt, wine, vinegar, ginger, or honey
- Stir frying, on its own or with wheat bran
- Heating to a high temperature in flames, a process called calcinating. This is often done with minerals or shells to make them more brittle and easier to pulverize.
- Deep frying
- Dry curing, which is using a slow, mild heat to dry out the herb without damaging it.
Once an herb has been processed, it’s ready for use in a formula or as an individual herb. Some herbal pharmacies deal in whole, raw or bulk herbs. While called raw or bulk, it’s important to know that they have been processed according to strict standards to render them safe and effective, but usually have not been ground into powders. Most people taking herbs prefer them to be in a powder that can be made into a tea, capsules or pills.
Once the herbs have been processed, they’re ready for your practitioner to dispense. They choose herbs based on your specific diagnosis and needs, as well as the actions of the herbs. The people who perform Pao Zhi are the ones that make your herbs safe, effective and standardized. In fact, many herbal companies provide information on how their herbs are processed, including how they choose, sort, prepare and assay their herbs for purity.
Most of the herbs I prescribe in my practice are bulk herbs ground into powders for you to prepare into Chinese medicinal tea. If you’d like to know more about treating a condition with herbal medicine or if herbs are right for you, please contact me. I’d be happy to tell you more!
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.