Introduction to Herbal Medicine – TCM, Western, Japanese

If you are interested in general information about herbal medicine, styles of treatment and reasons for seeing an herbalist, the following information may be helpful.

Why should I see an Herbalist?

Herbal Medicine has been used for centuries by people all over the world to treat disease and promote health. Both the west and the east have spent considerable time, research and energy developing the theories and applications within the field of herbal medicine. Herbs are generally easy to administer and cost-effective and when properly prescribed and used, have the advantage of being relatively free of side effects when compared to western pharmaceutical medicines.

What styles of Herbal Medicine are practiced?

  • Western Herbal Medicine:
    Herbal Medicine is a general term for the use of plant material, minerals and possibly even animal substances administered individually or in combinations to improve ones health and heal disease. The practice of western herbal medicine is distinguished primarily by the use of herbs commonly found in the west. St. John's Wort, Black Cohosh, Chamomile and Feverfew are some examples of herbs commonly used in western herbal medicine. In general, western herbal practitioners treat your condition as it is defined by western medicine, using St. John's Wort to treat depression, for example. This is in contrast to many other systems of herbal medicine which diagnose and treat a particular condition according to the theories unique to that medicine. The herbs administered within Western herbal medicine may be raw and cooked into a tea, taken in pill form, extracted into a tincture, or applied externally.
  • Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine:
    Chinese Herbal medicine is a component of Traditional Chinese Medicine which also includes the practice of acupuncture and Tuina (massage). Herbal medicine has been used in China for centuries and is backed by a long and rich history of development, use and research. Chinese herbal medicine is unique in that the diagnosis and treatments are based on the theories of traditional Chinese medicine. Besides discussing your health issues with you, a practitioner of herbal medicine uses other signs and symptoms such as those found in your tongue and pulse to form a TCM diagnosis. The common cold, for example, may be diagnosed as "wind-cold invasion" and herbs which dispel wind and warm cold may be prescribed. Herbs administered within Chinese herbal medicine are usually raw and cooked into a tea, in a powder form and taken with hot water or in a pill form. For herbal descriptions see our TCM Herbal Database.
  • Kampo Herbal Medicine:
    Kampo herbal medicine is a system of using herbs based on the theories behind Traditional Chinese Medicine as they have been developed in Japan. As with Japanese acupuncture, the Japanese system of herbal medicine is a refined version of Chinese Herbal Medicine in that they have taken the time to look at a variety of theories and applications of Chinese medicine and determined what works best clinically. Kampo practitioners use well defined formulas of herbs for conditions based on a persons chinese medicine-based diagnosis. This is in contrast to a practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine which may choose from a much wider range of herbs when developing a prescription. Kampo herbs are generally administered in a pill form.
  • Homeopathy:
    Homeopathy is a unique form of western medicine that is in use around the world. The theories behind homeopathy are based on the "law of similars" and a homeopathic practitioner uses theory unique to homeopathy to form a diagnosis and decide a course of treatment. Homeopathy attempts to stimulate the body to heal itself by using small amounts of medicines (from plants, minerals, animals or chemicals) which in large amounts might cause the condition for which you are being treated. The idea is loosely related to that behind vaccines. Homeopathic remedies are generally administered in a tiny pill form which come in a variety of strengths.
  • Ayurvedic Medicine:
    Ayurvedic medicine is a complete system of medicine from India which has been used for thousands of years. As with Traditional Chinese Medicine, an Ayurvedic practitioner uses their own unique theories of diagnosis and treatment to heal disease and promote health and wellbeing. Many of the herbs used within Ayurvedic medicine, such as Neem and Arjuna, are commonly found in India and are relatively unique to this system, whereas more common herbs such as Ginger may be used which are also used in other herbal systems. The herbs may be incorporated into meals, prepared as teas or taken in a pill form.

What conditions can Herbal Medicine treat?

Herbal medicine has been used for centuries to treat nearly every type of illness. While not limited to internal conditions, herbs are valuable for the treatment of conditions with strong internal components as opposed to physical or structural complaints which may be better treated with acupuncture and/or bodywork. Conditions related to the immune system, gynecological conditions, digestive problems, allergies and respiratory problems are among the issues commonly treated with herbal medicine.

What will my first Herbal treatment be like?

Your first herbal medicine treatment will depend on the style of medicine your herbal practitioner is using. In some cases you may simply describe your condition and the practitioner may recommend an herbal formula or homeopathic remedy for you to take. In most cases, however, the practitioner will perform a comprehensive intake which will look at your health history and current issues in depth as well as a variety of signs and symptoms before forming a diagnosis and choosing an appropriate herbal treatment.

Where can I find an Herbalist?

Generally asking your friends and family whom they have seen is the best place to start. Outside of that google and your local phone book are often helpful.

Resources for further study

There are many resources which discuss herbal medicine at varying levels. Our TCM Herbal Database contains herbal information for the majority of the commonly used herbs and formulas.