Herbal Q&A Part 1. Why So Many Herbs?
A question that often comes up when talking about Chinese herbal medicine is this. "With many herbs in a formula, and so many constituents in each herb, how can you predict the effect?" It's a great question, and there are a few parts to the answer.
First, every person is unique and there will indeed be some variation in how a formula effects them. This is why a Chinese herbalist pays such close attention to the constitution of the individual and selects herbs accordingly. It is also why your herbal formula will change over time to suit your changing needs.
Chinese herbalism has chosen an approach to predictability and safety that is different than laboratory pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceuticals are designed by extracting individual compounds and delivering them in a pure form. This is usually a single compound extracted from a plant or created synthetically. On the other hand, herbal formulas use whole herbs in combination with other whole herbs. The herbs are than processed via a cooking method such as boiling. In some cases, more specific preparations are done to an herb to change its properties.
Each method has it's own advantages. To illustrate this, we can use the analogy of farming. Pharmaceuticals can be compared to mono-cropping or a simple crop rotation. The benefits are extraordinary. If you need a lot of one thing and it needs to be precise, it is the way to go. You might benefit from a medicine like this if you take insulin or warfarin, where dosage of a single, identifiable substance is essential. This also comes with disadvantages. Just like a field that is mono-cropped, putting a lot of a single thing in your body will have side effects. A field can become depleted by a single crop, just as your body can be depleted by the effect of a single pharmaceutical. One popular example is the depletion of Co-enzyme Q10 when someone takes a statin medication.
Chinese herbal formula's can be compared to permaculture. Again, the benefits are extraordinary. A field that is planted with a variety of well chosen plants, encourages resilience and improves the health of the soil. An herb formula that is well chosen for your internal environment acts in a similar way. By nature, many plants used as herbal medicines provide nutrition, strong medicinal effect, and support for your body to handle the strong medicinal effects. When used in combination, herbs can balance and support each other. The idea is to make the medicinal effect strong and not to sacrifice the rest of your health along the way. There are disadvantages to this method also. Under varied conditions, plants can be of different potency. A practitioner must take care in their choice of suppliers and consider the factors which change the quality of the herbs. Chinese herbal medicine may also be less suitable for the management of unstable, life threatening, medical conditions. In these instances, the exacting nature of pharmaceutical medicine is often superior.
The final point for now, has to do with the science of Chinese Medicine. This medicine is based on thousands of years of diligent study and observation. Most of these herbal formulas have been used for hundreds of years. Many of them have been used for thousands of years. Over that time, their effects and nuances, have been observed and recorded. This comes to many millions of patients who have taken these formulas. This level of research (though not the double blind standard of today) allows us not only to see the immediate effect of the medicines, but the long term effect as well.