How does TCM's use of plants differ from other plant-medicine traditions?

The main differences are due to the fact that TCM herbs are used based on traditional Chinese medical theory. The theory, again, is to balance the body in a way the body needs and to enhance the body's own healing power. The herbs promote health by strengthening the body's vital energy, which is essential to our health and our ability to resist disease. In TCM this energy is called Qi [chi]. TCM herbs can also eliminate toxic products and cleanse the body. So to restore balance, we use herbs to promote the body's vital energy, promote health, and prevent disease while eliminating toxins, waste, and pathogenic factors from the body.

TCM talks about Yin and Yang, which can be simply described as water and fire. Think of Yin as water, cool, nourishing, and moistening, and think of Yang as fire, hot, bright, and exciting. Yin is considered the substance of the body, and Yang represents its functional activities. Yin and Yang are opposite to each other, but they also depend on each other, so in the body they have to be balanced. If the balance is broken, we get sick. Now, it may not be immediately obvious that we are sick and, in that case, Chinese medicine can restore balance to prevent further imbalance from developing - in other words, it can prevent disease. In an actual disease situation, the imbalance is more obvious and more severe and Chinese medicine can treat it, again, by restoring balance.

For example, sometimes we may feel hot everywhere. We have high fever, a sore throat, burning sensations. Our pulse is rapid and our tongue is red. Everything shows evidence of excess Yang: there is too much fire in the body. In this case we're going to use cold-natured herbs to purge the fire, to restore balance. On the other hand, sometimes a patient may feel cold, tired, and have diarrhea. The pulse is low and the tongue is pale. In this case, we say there is too much Yin in the body. The body is too cold, so we use herbs that are hot in nature to balance the body.

There are times when our body's energy is weak. When we just don't have enough energy, we use herbs that can tonify the energy, such as ginseng (Panax species), a very well known Qi tonic. There are times the energy may be stuck, or obstructed. When the Qi energy is obstructed we may feel depressed, have pains and aches here and there, or feel oppression or pressure in the chest. Our pulse may be uneven. In that situation, there are herbs that could improve energy circulation.

So we use the natural properties of the herbs to balance the body's energy to promote health and to prevent and treat disease.

In Chinese medicine, herbs are very rarely used individually. They're always combined together, so the combination of the herbs - the prescription - is a sophisticated art. For a TCM doctor to be able to prescribe herbs precisely, safely, and effectively, he or she requires years and years of education and practice. A patient has to have an accurate diagnosis because if the diagnosis is incorrect, Chinese herbs can be used wrongly and may become harmful. If someone has fire burning in the body and you give the patient herbs that are hot in nature, what will happen? The patient will burn, be on fire. And if the patient is cold and you use cold herbs, you're going to freeze the patient.

Chinese herbal medicine has been benefiting over a quarter of the world's population for thousands of years. It is effective and safe because it is natural and it works with the body. It is much less invasive than the use of Western drugs.

Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

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