What Chinese Herbal Medicine Theory Teaches Us about Everyday Life

This post is copied from our older, original blog. Original post date 07/09/2012. 

By Marcie Bower, Lic.Ac.

When I was a student in acupuncture school, I remember one of my teachers telling me that “you have to get to know herbs as if they are people. They have their own personalities, preferences, likes and dislikes. They get along with certain other herbs and not others. They have their own strengths and weaknesses, and their own ways of acting. They can change their behavior based on who else is around them. They have their own issues and ways of being in the world. Like people. You need to get to know them in that way.”

Chinese Herbs, unlike Western herbs, are prescribed in a formula of about 4-20 herbs. This means, as an herbalist, I need to think about how each herb in the formula interacts with the other herbs – as well as with any medications that a particular patient is on. I might take certain herbs out of a formula, or adjust dosages, based on how I know that herb will react with the other herbs that I am prescribing. Chinese herbal formulas are tiny ecosystems – much like our bodies and the many communities we move through everyday.

And I was having a conversation the other day with a friend about what makes a healthy romantic relationship. And I realized that the kinds of things that we were saying – “the two people can be open and honest with each other”, “they bring out the best in each other”, “they are stronger as a partnership than as individuals, while leaving space for each to be their own person” – are concepts that are, in a way, mirrored in Chinese Herbal Medicine theory and the way we understand herbal interactions in the body. And it got me thinking about how Chinese Herbal Medicine theory can be applied to so many other aspects of our lives – relationships with other people, relationships with ourselves, healthy versus unhealthy communities, our patterns of existing in relation to others.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is all about relationships. There are 7 kinds of relationships in Chinese Herbology – these describe ways that 2 herbs can interact with each other in a formula.

The first is the Single Effect (Dan Xing). The Single Effect is how a single herb acts on its own within the body, in no combination with others. It is the action of the herb unadulterated by other herbs, other factors. The Single Effect is how you would act in the world if no one would know what you did. What decisions would you make if there was no recognition for your positive actions, no ramifications for your negative actions. What kind of person would you be, if all external motivation and judgment was removed?

The next kind of relationship is that of Mutual Accentuation (Xiang Xu). Mutual Accentuation refers to when two herbs that have similar therapeutic actions individually are combined to achieve a greater effect. For example, two herbs that strengthen the body’s Qi (energy) can be used together to more strongly tonify, nourish, and strengthen that energy in the body. Mutual Accentuation is the herbal equivalent of the idea of the whole being more than the sum of its parts. When I first opened my acupuncture practice, I opened it with a dear friend a fellow acupuncturist. We had a similar skill set (our “therapeutic action”) and with the two of us working together, our practice grew much more quickly than we expected. We often talked about how we felt that the way that we worked synergistically with each other allowed our partnership to be stronger than the sum of each of our efforts as individuals. We mutually accentuated each other’s skills and strengths. You can apply this idea to any relationship in your life – in family (are you able to bring out the best in each other while working together to create a common life?), or romance (with whom is your partnership better than the individuals who make it up?), or business (what co-workers make you better at your job, and vice versa?)

Another kind of relationship in Chinese herbology is that of Mutual Enhancement. This is when two herbs that have different therapeutic actions in the body combine to achieve a common goal. For example, if someone had severe constipation that I diagnosed to be from heat, I would combine an herb that clears heat to relieve constipation with an herb that strongly pushes energy downward to relieve constipation. Their therapeutic mechanisms as individuals are different, but they work together to achieve the desired outcome.

Mutual Enhancement reminds us to surround ourselves with people who are different from us. It speaks to the power of collaboration, to the idea that there are indeed many paths to any outcome, and often the best solution is one that incorporates many different paths. In work or in social situations, our lives are the most fulfilling when we work with people with diverse backgrounds and opinions who allow us to be who we are, and who value that in each of us.

The fourth relationship in Chinese herbal theory is Mutual Counteraction. This sounds like a negative interaction, but actually it is quite positive. Mutual Counteraction refers to when one herb counteracts, or modifies the harsh/negative/or toxic effects of another. For example, the herb Shan Ban Xia is a really good herb for eliminating phlegm in the body, but it can sometimes cause the stomach to be upset. Therefore, we prescribe it with Sheng Jiang (fresh ginger), which moderates that effect in the body so that the patient does not experience any digestive discomfort, and also gets the benefit of phlegm reduction. The emphasis in Mutual Counteraction is on the “toxic” or harsh substance.

I see so many parallels here in human relationships – thinking about how we interact with different parts of ourselves. First off, what parts of you are “toxic” or harsh or produce unwanted effects in the world? Do you get overwhelmed easily? Do you get angry and fly off the handle and yell at your loved ones, even though you don’t mean it? Are you passive aggressive? Are you a bad listener? What are the parts of yourself that you wish you could change?

And then, what relationships help you moderate those things? Whose presence in your life allows you to be less angry, or less overwhelmed, or a better listener? Seek those people out. Find them. Let them moderate the parts of yourself that you want to change.

And more than that, what behaviors in your life moderate those “harsh effects” of yourself? Relationships are not just between two people – you have relationships with everything you do. Does yoga moderate your anger? Does going for a long run help you feel less stressed? Does doing art make you less closed off? What behaviors counteract the less than ideal parts of yourself? Find those things. Hold tight to those things.

The fifth relationship outlined in the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jin (one of the earliest Chinese herbal texts) is that of Mutual Suppression. Mutual Suppression is the same as Mutual Counteraction, but in the reverse. For example, in the above example of Shan Ban Xia and Ginger, Shan Ban Xia is counteracted by Ginger. Ginger suppresses Shan Ban Xia. Like Mutual Counteraction, Mutual Suppression is a positive relationship.

And what can we learn from this? To me, Mutual Suppression reminds us that we do not exist in this world alone, and it is our responsibility to help each other find our best selves. Just as you should seek out people who help you to moderate your negative tendencies, so should you help others to be the best that they can be. In romance, find that person who means it when they say “you make me want to be a better person.” Give your children the skills they need to overcome their own weaknesses. Inspire the people you work with. Show compassion to all. Help your friends to forgive themselves. Love them despite their faults. Be someone’s rock.

And do this for your community, for your environment, too. Again, relationships do not just exist between people. Mutual Suppression is about using your own strengths to stop that which is troublesome. Get involved in your community. Help find solutions to issues. Be passionate about causes. Take care of the planet. Stand up for equal rights.

There are two negative relationships outlined in Chinese Herbology – Mutual Antagonism and Mutual Incompatibility. Mutual Antagonism is when two herbal substances minimize or reduce each other’s therapeutic effects. They don’t cause a bad reaction, they just kind of cancel each other out so that the therapy is not effective.

Mutual Antagonism is a dead-end relationship. The relationship might not be filled with anger, or malice, or pain. But it isn’t filled with anything life-sustaining either. When a relationship is in a state of Mutual Antagonism, neither person is being nourished by it the way they should. You don’t deserve Mutual Antagonism. You don’t deserve to be with someone to cancels our your strengths and passions and desires.

Mutual Incompatibility is worse. Mutual Incompatibility, in herbal theory, is when two herbs used together produce a negative side effect in the body that neither herb produces alone. Mutually Incompatible herbs are never used in a formula together.

Mutual Incompatibility is a “toxic” relationship – again, it could be a romantic partner, or a friend, or a workplace colleague. Have you ever found yourself doing things or saying things to someone that you didn’t think yourself capable of? Have you ever had a relationship that made you be a worse person? We all have, in one way or another.

You don’t need to surround yourself with people with whom you are Mutually Incompatible. If you don’t have control of the situation (ie, a coworker), you can work so that you no longer fall into the category of Mutual Incompatibility. This means examining YOUR role in that dysfunction and being honest with yourself about what YOU need to change.

Likewise, what behaviors in your life are mutually incompatible with you, or mutually incompatible with each other? Do you feel awful after a night of drinking, but you do it anyway? Do you get really cranky when you are hungry, yet constantly under-eat to try to lose weight? Do certain foods make you feel fatigued or bloated or uncomfortable?

It should be noted here that Mutual Incompatibility is about a relationship between two herbs – it does not say that Herb A is bad or Herb B is bad. It says that Herb A and Herb B are BAD TOGETHER. Herb A might get along fine with Herb C. The lesson here is that what works for one of us may not work for another. I can run 12 miles and feel great – but maybe that is way too much for you and that will actually make you feel worse. Maybe you like the cold weather and your body is healthiest in a colder climate – that doesn’t work for me. I can eat gluten without any adverse effects – that doesn’t mean it is the right thing for you.

Working through the Mutually Incompatible relationships in our lives – with people, with foods, with behaviors – takes time. And it takes courage to examine how we truly feel.

When I write an herbal formula for a patient, I am thinking of all these things. What herbs strengthen each other, what herbs moderate negative effects of other herbs, what herbs work well together in all these different ways to a common goal. What if we approached life with the same intention? What if we actively sought out the people, places, and behaviors that brought out our best and healthiest selves, that helped us be better people, that inspired us to help others? What if we found the courage to examine the parts of ourselves that need help, the parts of ourselves that lead us down difficult, challenging, or destructive roads again and again. And what if we found the people, places, food, behaviors, and parts of ourselves that allowed us to change those?

That, my friends, is holistic health.