by Macey Wolfer
What is Chinese herbal medicine?
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM for short) is not all ancient history. Practices like tai chi, acupuncture and superfood herbs have been used for centuries in China to restore balance in the body, and the rest of the world is finally waking up to the benefits of these ancient practices that can help alleviate all of the stress of modern life. Phone-induced headaches, stress, and sleeplessness included.
As the benefits of Traditional Chinese medicine are vast, it can be overwhelming — not to mention time consuming — to sift through all the information available and contextualize it for modern life. So to break it down in its simplest terms: Traditional Chinese medicine is all about normalizing imbalanced energy to heal the body.
Read on to discover more on Chinese traditional medicine, and how this philosophy can be applied to your modern routine — no degree in history necessary.
Basics of Chinese herbal medicine
TCM is rooted in balancing Yin and Yang — two opposing forces of energy — and all of its practices and remedies are designed with this in mind. In TCM, there are five elements that make up the human body: fire, earth, metal, water, and wood.
Fire is for the heart and small intestine, the earth is for the stomach and spleen, metal is for the lung and large intestine, water is for the kidney and urinary tract, and wood is for the liver and gallbladder. Each of these organs is also governed by either Yin or Yang, and all are constantly in flux to work to keep your body in a state of harmony.
If something is off-balance, acupuncture and herbs are used to restore well-being. Herbs are also classified into five tastes that correspond with the elements — salty, sweet, bitter, pungent, and sour — and are chosen based on the corresponding element in the body needing repair.
So, let’s dive into a few of the ingredients that are best suited to solving 21st-century problems.
Modern Traditional Chinese medicine
Many of the conditions TCM is designed to treat have hung around in the modern world and these ancient herbs can still be used to alleviate them:
Dampness is a concept in TCM where the body is sluggish and clammy. This can sometimes manifest as bloating and low energy — basically that general blah feeling you might get after a week or two of over-indulging and not getting enough sleep.
It is not recommended to be damp or dry (dehydrated), it’s ideal to achieve a balance. This balance is key for healthy hydration and getting rid of that uncomfortable bloating.
Hops flower is one of the Chinese herbal medicines used to clear dampness from the body. Hops flowers are bitter and pungent, two tastes suggested for promoting blood circulation and removing blood stasis. Hops are considered useful for stress, anxiety, eczema, cramps, and other conditions.
Traditionally, Hops flowers were ingested in tinctures, teas, or through fermentation (we’re looking at you, beer). Today, they’ve been formulated into supplements and wellness stacks, where they are paired with other ingredients chosen to help target the body’s imbalances.
What is Qi in traditional Chinese medicine? Qi deficiency is a lack of the body’s vital energy — something that not getting enough sleep or feeling constantly stressed out at work can easily zap.
Low qi levels can look a lot like burnout, think low energy, fatigue and even getting sick. Tai chi, acupuncture, and herbs may all help with Qi deficiency.
Lion’s Mane mushrooms are one of the most popular herbs used in Chinese herbal medicine to treat qi deficiency. In TCM, Lion’s Mane is suggested to help the liver, lung, spleen, heart, and kidneys.
Lion’s Mane is also believed to restore balance to the body. It’s been suggested to promote healthy digestion, improve vigor, and increase overall strength and energy. These mushrooms can be eaten raw or cooked or drank in tea. Many health supplements also include Lion’s Mane to combat a variety of afflictions.
For a full look at the impressive list of benefits associated with the king of mushrooms, check out our guide to Lion’s Mane.
Unbalanced Inner Temperature
Balancing “cool” (Yin) and “hot” (Yang) foods is a crucial aspect of TCM. Our bodies respond to everything we consume, so to achieve balance in your mind, body, and qi, we need a variety of foods that contrast one another in their effects to keep the body in balance on a daily basis.
Yin foods include soy products, meats like crab and duck, cold drinks, green tea, and watermelon, among others. Some Yang foods include chicken, pork, eggs, alcoholic drinks, ginger, and cinnamon.
Green tea, for example, is a cooling Yin drink. Green tea contains a lot of the amino acid L-theanine, which may modulate some brain functions. With its restorative and cooling effects, L-theanine may support stress relief and have calming effects.
What is Chinese herbal medicine used for?
Chinese herbal medicine aims to restore the energy balance to the opposing forces of energy, and herbal medicine is believed to provide many benefits including:
- Brain fog
- Sleep Issues
There are several ways today we integrate Chinese Herbal Medicine to help compliment our existing health routines. Whether you are looking to utilize Chinese herbal medicine for sleep, or focus issues, there are products today benefits from this historic wellness practice.
Chinese herbal medicine for anxiety
In Traditional Chinese medicine, anxiety is seen as a disruption of our shen, which refers to our spirit.
The most common Chinese herbal remedies that could help with anxiety are ginkgo biloba and the popular Chinese remedy Benxia hopu, a decoction containing pinellia tuber, magnolia bark, hoelen, perilla herb, and ginger rhizome.
Combined with other TCM practices like meditation and acupuncture, these can help you ease your mind.
Despite the research being limited, a few clinical studies have pointed out that the therapeutic effects of TCM can be comparable to those of medication with the added benefit of having fewer side effects.
However, others argue that it might be due to the placebo effects as many people felt nothing.
Chinese herbal medicine for sleep
Herbal medicines have been used to treat insomnia in China for over 2,000 years.
The Suanzaoren decoction, which contains Suanzaoren, Fuling, and Gancao, is the most well-known herbal medicine used in Traditional Chinese medicine to help people sleep.
According to studies, the herbs used to combat insomnia by TCM bind with sedative neurotransmitters like GABA and 5-HT1A, thus helping the body wind down and sleep better.
Are Chinese herbal medicines safe?
Despite it being a millenary tradition, experts say Chinese herbal medicine has risks, especially when not done by a certified professional.
The fact that herbs come from the natural world leads people to believe that they are safe when, in reality, some can be toxic to humans.
Research has shown that Chinese herbal medicine can lead to intoxication and gastrointestinal disorders.
Poor quality control, misidentification, and mislabeling are some of the issues that lead to adverse effects with these herbs.
Given the rising popularity of TCM in Western countries, policy makers are moving towards having better regulatory systems and standards for Chinese medicinal herbs and those who can practice TCM.
If you plan on using Chinese herbal medicines, make sure you're buying them from a certified professional and always consult with a medical professional beforehand.
Does Chinese Herbal medicine really work?
Anecdotal evidence does point out that Chinese herbal medicine can work, and even the National Institute of Health has recognized Traditional Chinese medicine as a valid complementary therapy.
However, there is not enough scientific evidence that can point out its efficacy.
The challenge for researchers is that Traditional Chinese medicine uses many different components, mainly from nature, and offers more of a holistic approach to healing.
Western medicine, in contrast, relies on highly standardized pharmacy-formulated medications designed to treat specific conditions.
If you want to try Chinese herbal medicine, use it to complement your evidence-based treatment, especially if it's for a serious condition. Additionally, do your research and get it from a certified practitioner and with your doctor's approval.
As you’ve just learned, there are tons of ways you can incorporate TCM’s concept of balancing Yin and Yang in the body in your everyday life. But you don’t need to keep a medicine cabinet full of separate herbs you can tap into the benefits of Chinese herbal medicine for anxiety, sleep and more.
If you’re feeling a qi imbalance, damp or dry, as modern brands like us here at FOCL are combining the best of these ingredients into a single supplement stack that can be taken in no time at all.
Our FOCL Day supplement stack features each of the herbs we just walked you through, along with CBD (the benefits of which is also thought to have been enjoyed by the ancient Chinese). So you can say goodbye to sluggishness, brain fog, and fatigue for good.
Macey is a freelance writer from Seattle. She's passionate about cannabis, music and animals and is always trying to learn more about the world.
We hope you enjoyed this article. You might also enjoy guide on Plant Based Cognitive Enhancers.