How Chinese Herbal Medicine Appears in Your Everyday Life

This post is copied from our older, original blog. Original post date 02/02/2012. 

By Marcie Bower, Lic.Ac.

Chinese Herbal Medicine is an integral part of our therapeutic practice here at Stepping Stone Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine (CHM). In China, CHM is actually the main form of treatment within Traditional Chinese Medicine, and acupuncture is mainly an adjunctive technique. In the US, however, most patients are more familiar with acupuncture and so come in for acupuncture treatments and later agree to add CHM to their treatment regimen. In CHM, herbs are taken in a formula of about 10-15 herbs working synergistically together. There are, of course, many many Chinese herbs that you have probably never heard of – plant, mineral, and animal products that exert a therapeutic action in the body. However, there are many herbs that appear in your everyday life, whether you know it or not! Read on for some information about the therapeutic actions of these common herbs, and perhaps then CHM won’t seem quite so distant from what you already know and understand.

Ginger Root, Sheng Jiang, Gan Jiang

Ginger, in its many different forms (fresh root, dried root, ginger juice, ginger oil) has been used for centuries in China for both culinary and medicinal purposes.  We will discuss the two most commonly used forms in our clinic – fresh ginger root and dried ginger root.

Fresh ginger root (sheng jiang) is said to be warm and acrid (spicy) and enters the Lung, Spleen and Stomach meridians.

Fresh ginger root is very commonly used to treat the early stages of the common cold and may even prevent catching a cold during cold or rainy weather.  For this purpose, several slices of fresh ginger are boiled in water for about 10 minutes. The tea is typically taken in the evening just before going to bed so that the patient can “sweat the cold out”.

Additionally, fresh ginger warms the Lung to help stop coughing and warms the Stomach to relieve nausea and vomiting.  It eliminates toxins from the body and is useful in minimizing harsh effects of other medicinal substances in herbal formulas.  Fresh ginger is often added when cooking stews and beans and is especially helpful for reducing gas associated with eating beans.

Dried ginger root (gan jiang) has similar functions to fresh ginger but is much warmer and is said to be a major restorer of the body’s Yang (hot, fiery, active, expansive) energy.  It enters the Heart, Lung, Spleen and Stomach meridians.

Whereas fresh ginger root treats exterior cold symptoms (like the common cold and the flu), dried ginger root treats interior cold symptoms like feeling cold, cold hands and feet, watery diarrhea, and some forms of abdominal and menstrual pain.

Cinnamon Twig, Gui Zhi

Cinnamon twig, or Gui Zhi, is a common herb you may have in your kitchen right now – and also a powerhouse of a medicinal herb in Chinese Herbal Medicine. Gui Zhi warms the meridians and disperses cold, so is excellent for achy joint pain that responds well to heat. Because of its warming function, it can be very useful for treating cold-type menstrual cramps (sharp and stabbing cramps that are better with the application of a heating pad).  Gui Zhi also has a function of unblocking qi in the chest, so can be used for mild chest pain or a feeling of your heart fluttering in your chest.

Gui Zhi also harmonizes the interior and exterior levels of the body. This means that we use it clinically to treat cold symptoms in someone who has an underlying weakness…for example, an elderly person, a postpartum woman, or someone who suffers from a chronic illness.

 Field Mint, Bo He

Field Mint (or Bo He in Chinese Pinyin) is one of the most familiar herbs in the Chinese Herbal Materia Medica.  It can be found in the local grocery store – either as a fresh herb or dried, as in teabags. Although it’s easy to enjoy its soothing, refreshing taste, many people don’t realize the medicinal properties of this herb.

Helps alleviate symptoms caused by stress, over-work and anxiety (like pressure in the chest, irritability, anger, insomnia)In Chinese herbal theory, Field Mint is a pungent, aromatic, and cooling herb that enters the Lung and Liver energetic channels/organs.  When incorporated into a Chinese herbal formula, Field Mint can have the following uses:

  • Relieves the head, eyes and throat for seasonal allergy symptoms, cough, headache, red eyes, and sore throat
  • In the early stages of rashes such as measles, Field Mint assists in bringing the rash to the surface of the skin in order to hasten recovery
  • Helps soothe digestive issues caused by too much hot, spicy, greasy foods which can bring about stomachache, vomiting, and diarrhea

Although Field Mint will have the strongest therapeutic effects when taken as part of a Chinese Herbal Medicine formula, it can also exert these healing effects when eaten as a fresh herb, included in cooking dishes, or taken as an herbal tea.

Goji Berries (Gou Qi Zi)

Goji berries (or wolfberries), know as “gou qi zi” in the Chinese Materia Medica, may not be quite as common as some of the other herbs listed above, but they are becoming more and more seen in health food stores, herbal teas, and even granola. Goji berries are categorized as an herb that tonifies Blood energy in the body.

Goji berries have been used as a superfood for thousands of years in Asian cultures and are revered as a food eaten for longevity.

Many studies published in recent years, mainly in China, have reported significant medicinal effects of these berries. Goji berries have antioxidant properties that can benefit cardiovascular health, counteract inflammatory conditions, improve vision problems, and improve the neurological and immune systems.  One of the most recent discoveries regarding the benefits of goji berries is their ability to improve insulin levels in diabetics.

We frequently recommend goji berries to our patients who show signs of Blood energy deficiency – these signs include difficulty falling asleep, dry/dull skin and hair, scanty or no menstruation in women, pale complexion, low energy, floaters in the eyes, among others.

The individual goji berry is the same size as a raisin, but not as moist or sweet. They are mildly sweet and chewy.  They can be eaten alone or with cereal, oatmeal, or yogurt.  You may even want to put them in salads for a little additional sweet, tangy flavor.

Fortunately, in the Boston area, goji berries are easy to find in health food stores, grocery stores, and Chinatown. So, grab a bag the next time you’re in Whole Foods and start incorporating these little gems into your diet!

Fennel Seed, Xiao Hui Xiang

Fennel Seeds are another common herb used in China and India, both for its many culinary used and for its therapeutic actions! We largely think of fennel as being an herb that is good at regulating digestion. It regulates and harmonizes the qi (energy) of the stomach to treat symptoms such as indigestion, cramping, and bloating. As you may know, the digestive system in TCM responds much better to warmth than to cold. Eating lots of cold foods can make the digestive energy work overtime in order to assimilate the nutrients into the body’s functions. Fennel has a warming nature, which makes it ideal for treating any digestive issues relating to the intake of cold foods.

It also exerts a mild effect on moving qi throughout the whole body, so it useful for alleviating pain (again, particularly related digestion or menstruation.)

In India, it is typical to eat fennel seeds at the end of every meal. This has the dual effect of “cleansing the palate” – raw seeds taste kind of like licorice – and also stimulating the digestive energy of the body, to hold off any problems and ensure a happy and healthy stomach!

Chinese Angelica Root, Dang Gui

This is another one that is not quite as common to see in the kitchen of Boston, MA as mint or ginger, but it is also a very easily accessible herb! Angelica root is commonly referred to as “woman’s herb” in Chinese herbal medical circles because of its ability to treat myriad women’s health symptoms.  It is said to help balance hormone levels; it is used to treat menstrual and menopausal symptoms, including migraine, cramps, mood fluctuations, and hot flashes; and it is also said to help speed a woman’s recovery from childbirth.

Angelica root has been well studied in the Western medical world, so it’s mechanism of action is known.  Angelica root works by relaxing smooth muscles throughout the body, which makes it a potential treatment for a variety of illnesses. Not only does it relax the smooth muscles of the uterus (for women’s health issues), but it also keeps the smooth muscles in the arteries dilated, helping to maintain regular blood flow and heartbeat. As such, it has been used to treat angina, high blood pressure, and irregular heartbeat. Some studies have shown that the dilating effects of angelica root may also help treat chronic pulmonary hypertension in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

In addition to it’s relaxing effects on smooth muscles, angelica root contains phytochemicals that help boost white blood cell production and fight inflammation, and may improve liver and kidney function. It is traditionally used to treat inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, and is currently being studied for its ability to prevent or treat cancer, liver and kidney disease.

Dang Gui appears in numerous Women’s Health supplements for painful periods, infertility, and menopause. Check your nearest health food store for details. If ingredients are listed in English, be sure it is Chinese Angelica Root, and if in Latin, be sure it is Radix Angelicae Sinensis.

Yogi Teas (which we LOVE) have a tea called “Women’s Energy” which is predominantly a Dang Gui tea, along with some other healing spices. Yogi Teas are available at health food stores and in the natural section of most supermarkets.

Cong Bai, Scallion

Cong Bai, or scallions, are another great herb that we use in Chinese Medicine Formulas, and that are found right in your neighborhood supermarket or garden! In CHM, scallions have a dispersive quality, which makes them ideal for pushing external pathogens out of the body. We mainly use them for treating the early stages of the common cold. They enter the Lung meridian (which controls things like the common cold) and induce sweating to alleviate symptoms like fever, stuffy and runny nose, and acute headache. They also have a tendency to “reduce clumps”, which is particularly good for stubborn nasal congestion.

If you are coming down with a cold, try this SUPER EASY remedy:

  1. Saute a large amount (as many as you can handle) of diced scallions and onions in a large pot.
  2. Dump in a can of organic chicken noodle soup or vegetable soup.
  3. Let simmer for 10 minutes.
  4. Eat as hot as possible.

The scallions (and onions) will help push that cold pathogen right out of your body!

There are many more super common Chinese herbs found in your kitchen. And there are even more that are being derived to create pharmaceutical drugs. (Did you know that malaria medication Artemisinin and cardiovascular drug Digitalis are both derived from the active ingredients in Chinese herbs?)

So CHM may not be so distant from your current health care regimen as you think. Chinese herbs are of course most effective when taken in a formula prescribed by a licensed acupuncturist and practitioner of Chinese Herbal Medicine. So if the above-mentioned herbs just aren’t cutting it, and you need a deeper level of treatment, ask us what CHM can do for you!