Chinese Medicinal Herbs and Nutrition

There is no denying that I have a love relationship with medicinal herbs.  For very good reasons, I might add.  In my ten years of practice and 20 years working with herbs, I’ve realized that my relationship with herbs is often different from new patients.  It’s not uncommon for patients to ask, “How long do I have to take these?”, and over the years, I’ve learned I have some explaining to do.

Thousands of years ago, Chinese Medicine practitioners started with the idea that we are part of the environment, and that our bodies need to be tended, like a flower in a garden.  We need to be in sync with nature to achieve optimum health.

My own journey down this path started back in my 20’s.  I had begun to be interested in what was called back then, “Natural cooking” — we hadn’t quite gotten to organic yet.  But I’d only just begun, and I entered a turbulent phase of my life where I ended up getting one infection after another, sinus, urinary tract, bronchitis.  One weekend, a urinary tract infection I didn’t even realize I had landed me in the hospital with a fever and the shakes.  It took three days of IV antibiotics for my fever to come down, two more before they let me out of the hospital.  The infection had started toward my kidneys, and they said if I’d waited much longer, it might have gone to my blood.  Yikes!

I was both literally and figuratively sick of this pattern, so I started to look into how to keep from getting infections.  Besides the specific things for avoiding urinary tract infections, like avoiding sugar and alcohol, wearing cotton pants, etc., I read that taking vitamins might help.  I started taking a multivitamin for women every day.  Lo and behold, it worked!  I stopped getting infections all the time!  I read more, and realized that I might have been deficient in a specific vitamin.  Like many others, I saw that a lot of the vitamins I was taking were passing out in my urine, so I wondered if there wasn’t a way to figure out precisely which vitamins I needed, and not take a lot of stuff I didn’t need.

More research turned up that it is in fact very difficult to determine exactly what vitamins a particular person might need.  It would be extremely expensive to test, so that is why people mostly just take a multi in hope of covering the bases.

Well, I went on my way, kept taking multivitamins, got into organic food when it came out (one taste of an organic carrot sold me!) and finally stumbled upon Chinese Medicine, a story I’ve told in other blog posts.  When I first started digesting the detailed diagnosis methods of this sophisticated system (which took years to learn), I gradually started thinking, hey, THIS is the way to figure out exactly what nutrition I need, in the form of herbs!  The diagnosis methods in Chinese Medicine use detailed questioning, in addition to observing the persons face, body type, tongue and feeling pulses, in order to ascertain an exact pattern of imbalance for a particular person.  The patterns of imbalance can be quite complex, involving excesses and deficiencies of Qi, Blood, Yin, and Yang, in addition to excesses of Wind, Damp, Cold, Heat, and Phlegm, and involve assessing 10 major organs, and relating it all to the Five Element Theory.

Such a system can get extremely specific with the details for each person.  Depending on these specific details, we prescribe an herbal formula tailor-made for that person, generally containing anywhere from 8-16 herbs, occasionally more.  This formula gives that person the exact nutrition they need to balance them. Each herb has been studied in detail for thousands of years, so it is known which nourishes Qi or Blood, which cools heat or warms you up.   In modern times, most of the herbs have been studied in the lab to a greater or lesser degree, and we now know that many of the herbs contain high levels of certain nutrients or compounds.

With this in mind, I do generally still take a multivitamin and some Omega Fatty Acids, but I don’t feel I have to take mega doses. Instead, I eat a healthy diet, and take herbs most days, knowing that these herbs are giving me the exact nutrition I need.  This especially since the modern diet is often bereft of nutrients, since foods are grown in depleted soils, shipped, stored, and over processed.  And the types of foods we’ve come to eat are not always the healthiest.  During millions of years of human development, people gathered and ate what they could, and this included all these roots, twigs, leaves, and berries that are Chinese herbs and that are left out of our diets.  I feel these herbs are essential to optimum health.  So, why take Chinese herbs, and for how long?  If you ask me, if you want to be really healthy, you take them as a regular part of your diet, for the rest of your life, just like food.  It’s the same as asking, why should I eat green leafy vegetables, and for how long?  Because they’re extremely good for you, and why would you stop that?

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