When it comes to herbs, they are judged in the same way that pharmaceuticals are judged. The two important factors are safety and efficacy. Is it safe? If it is safe, is it effective? These are two very important questions. Most Chinese herbs are leaves, twigs and bark, and, when compared to chemicals, they tend to be much safer. Chinese herbs have been used for so long that, for most of them, even if they do have some side effects, these effects have already been recorded. Therefore, we can avoid unpleasant effects by following these time-tested guidelines. When you compare Chinese herbs to chemicals, the safety definitely favors herbs.
Well, how about efficacy? There are some herbs we use for detox, but they aren’t going to be as strong as antibiotics. However, it all depends on what you need. If you have a chronic infection, often times, antibiotics won't work and herbs are a great choice. For people with cancer, because of the weakness of the immune system, even if you have just a mild infection, it may drag on for a long period of time. Herbs actually have a better chance at getting rid of these infections, especially if you've already gone through a few rounds of antibiotics.
There are times when antibiotics are called for but there are also times when herbs make more sense, especially when it comes to cancer care. The bottom line is, we need to know what herbs are the right herbs for you. As I mentioned earlier, people often think that if they have low energy then ginseng will always be the right herb to choose. However, ginseng is not always the answer. Sometimes, if you take ginseng, it could actually make matters worse. You can’t sleep, your blood pressure goes up. Your heart may beat faster and if these symptoms arise, you know then that ginseng is not the herb for you. For this type, we might choose rhubarb, a different Chinese herb which is used to purge. Purging herbs allow for the release of Qi through the bowels. You will go to the bathroom a few times, and your energy will increase. Different disease patterns need different herbs.
When it comes to Chinese Herbal Medicine, why do we pick the herbs we pick? What type of principles do we use?
Well, there is the most basic principle of Yin and Yang which helps us get a general sense of what herbs to choose. According to Chinese Medicine, the definition of a healthy life is a balance of Jing, Qi and Shen. If you’ve had an acupuncture treatment before, you have probably already heard these terms. Maybe you have heard your practitioner say "Qi stagnation", "essence deficiency" or "blood deficiency." Jing translates to essence and you can think of these as similar to hormones (the chemical messengers that create most bodily functions). When you have a hormone imbalance, a lot of times, we might say you have "essence deficiency." Essence deficiency relates to the aging process. As we get older, we lose hair; we lose bone density. This is essence deficiency.
Qi refers to the body's ability to function. First, you might feel like you tire easily. You feel like you don’t have enough energy. This refers to Qi deficiency. When you have these symptoms, you need more Qi.
Shen translates to your "spirit". This refers to the mental state. Specifically, in cancer care, a very important factor in the treatment process is positivity. There have been studies done in Conventional Medicine where the group with a more positive attitude ended up having a higher cure rate and an easier time tolerating chemotherapy and radiation. In Chinese Medicine, that is what we are talking about when we say "Shen" or "spirit". The spirit needs to be balanced and improved upon, to maintain optimal health. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the definition of disease is an imbalance one or all Jing, Qi and Shen. This can be just a physical problem, it can be a mix of physical, psychological and mental, or it can be just mental.
When asked to compare Conventional Medicine and Chinese Medicine, there is an analogy I like to use. Conventional medicine looks at the person from the front. You know how big the nose is, the distance between the eyes, the shape of the cheeks. It is very detailed and measurable. If you go to get a blood test, the doctors can tell you how many of each type of cell you have. They can discover any abnormalities and let you know if there is some problem there. That is Conventional Medicine.
Traditional Chinese Medicine, however, looks at the person from the back. You don’t see the details, but, just by looking carefully, you can tell if the person is strong or weak. You can tell if the left shoulder has trouble or if the right side is a little bit imbalanced. You can see the changes in color, and changes in gait, the way a person walks. Through this point of view, we can also tell a lot about a person’s health. Ideally, if we can combine these two approaches, Conventional Medicine and Chinese Medicine, which is what Integrative Medicine is all about, we could then look from both angles and have a much better understanding of what’s going on.