Herbology is the art of combining medicinal herbs to make a positive healthy effect in ones body.
Herbology is traditionally one of the more important modalities utilized in Traditional world Medicine, such as 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 he adds many other complementary ingredients to adjust the formula to the patient’s “yin/yang” conditions. Sometimes other 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 is 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 considered 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, the leaf, stem, flower, root, and also ingredients from animals and minerals. The use of parts of endangered species has created controversy and resulted in many herbal manufacturers have discontinued the use of any parts from endangered animals.
History of Chinese herbology
Herbal medicine is the oldest form of healthcare known to mankind and has been used by all cultures throughout history. In the written record, the study of herbs dates back over 5,000 years to the Sumerians, who described well-established medicinal uses for such plants as laurel, caraway, and thyme. The first known Chinese manual on pharmacology, the Shennong Bencao Jing (Shennong Emperor’s Classic of Materia Medica), dating from about 2700 B.C., lists 365 medicinal plants and their uses.
The tradition continued with the work Yaoxing Lun, a 7th century Tang Dynasty Chinese treatise on herbal medicine and, the most important publication, which is still used today for consultation and reference, Bencao Gangmu (Compendium of Materia Medica) compiled during the Ming dynasty by Li Shizhen.
With over 52 volumes, and 30 years over research, Bencao Gangmu includes 1892 substances and 10,000 prescriptions. Today this body of work is being further refined by clinical and scientific data, most of which is being done in China. Each herb is listed with the properties, acupuncture meridian entered, functions, clinical use, major combinations, dosage,and pharmacological research-such as antimicrobial effect, antiviral effect, antifungal effect, effect on blood pressure, effect on smooth muscle, endocrine effect, central nervous system effect, use in gynecology, etc.
Categorizing Chinese herbs
The earlier Materia Medicae began with a three-level categorization:
Low level – drastic acting, toxic substances
Middle level – medicinal physiological effects
High level – health and spirit enhancement
Today, Chinese physicians use several different methods to classify traditional Chinese herbs:
The Four Natures
The Five Tastes
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 has 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 drain dampness through diuresis. Sour taste most often is astringent or consolidates, while bitter taste dispels heat, purges the bowels and gets rid of dampness by drying them out. Salty taste softens hard masses as well as purges and opens the bowels.
The Meridians refer to the organs that the herbs act upon. For example, menthol is pungent, cool and is linked with the lungs and the liver. Since the lungs are the organs which protect the body from invasion from cold and influenza, menthol can help purge coldness in the lungs and invading heat toxins caused by hot “wind”.