The history of herbology in China
Herbology is traditionally one of the more important modalities utilized in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Each herbal medicine prescription is a cocktail of many herbs tailored to the individual patient. One batch of herbs is typically decocted twice over the course of one hour. The practitioner usually designs a remedy using one or two main ingredients that target the illness. Then the practitioner adds many other ingredients to adjust the formula to the patient's Yin Yang conditions. Sometimes, ingredients are needed to cancel out toxicity or side-effects of the main ingredients. Some herbs require the use of other ingredients as catalyst or else the brew will be ineffective. The latter steps require great experience and knowledge, and make the difference between a good Chinese herbal doctor and an amateur. Unlike western medications, the balance and interaction of all the ingredients are more important than the effect of individual ingredients. A key to success in TCM is the treatment of each patient as an individual.
Chinese herbology often incorporates ingredients from all parts of plants (leaf, stem, flower, root) but also ingredients from animals and minerals. The use of parts of endangered animals has created controversy and resulted in a black market of poachers who hunt restricted animals. Most herbal manufacturers have discontinued the use of any animal parts from endangered animals.
History of Chinese herbology
Chinese herbs have been used for centuries. The first herbalist in Chinese tradition is Shennong , who is said to have tasted hundreds of herbs and imparted his knowledge of medicinal and poisonous plants to the agricultural people. The first Chinese manual on pharmacology, the Shennong Bencao Jing (Shennong Emperor's Classic of Materia Medica), lists some 365 medicines of which 252 of them are herbs, and dates back somewhere during the early Han dynasty. Succeeding generations augmented on this work, but arguably the most important of these was the Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao Gangmu) compiled during the Ming dynasty by Li Shizhen, which is still used today for consultation and reference.
Categorizing Chinese herbs
Chinese physicians used several different methods to classify traditional Chinese herbs:
The Four Natures
This pertains to the degree of yin and yang , ranging from cold (extreme yin), cool, neutral to warm and hot (extreme yang). The patient's internal balance of yin and yang is taken into account when the herbs are selected. For example, medicinal herbs of "hot", yang nature are used when the person is suffering from internal cold that requires to be purged, or when the patient has a general cold constituency. Sometimes an ingredient is added to offset the extreme effect of one herb.
The Five Tastes
The five tastes are pungent, sweet, sour, bitter and salty, each of which their functions and characteristics. For example, pungent herbs are used to generate sweat and to direct and vitalize qi and the blood. Sweet-tasting herbs often tonify or harmonizes bodily systems. Some sweet-tasting herbs also exhibit a bland taste, which helps drains dampness through diuresis . Sour taste most often is astringent or consolidates, while bitter taste dispels heat, purges the bowels and get rids of dampness by drying them out. Salty taste softens hard masses as well as purges and opens the bowels.
The Meridians refer to which organs the herb acts upon. For example, menthol is pungent, cool and is linked with the lungs and the liver. Since the lungs is the organ which protects the body from invasion from cold and influenza , menthol can help purge coldness in the lungs and invading heat toxins caused by hot "wind".
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